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Has Obama Got the Psychology and the Kinetics in Sync in His Syria Strategy?

Has Obama Got the Psychology and the Kinetics in Sync in His Syria Strategy?

The psychological impact of a major foreign-policy move is generally felt right away even if the kinetic impact takes much longer. The tyrannical trio of geography, bureaucracy, and logistics means that even the most powerful leader in the world (the U.S. president) must wait — sometimes many months — before the actions he has ordered physically take effect. The psychological effects start much sooner, however, and so some of the benefit of a policy change can be realized in advance of the kinetics.

In a well-designed strategy, the psychological and kinetic effects work in tandem with the former multiplying the latter, perhaps even operating during the delay between decision/announcement and full implementation. In a poorly designed strategy, the psychological and kinetic effects are in tension, perhaps even canceling each other out.

This is Strategy 101, but it is often ignored when an administration is severely cross-pressured. I fear that is happening to Barack Obama’s administration right now as it struggles to implement its recent change in policy regarding providing small arms to the Syrian rebels.

The president made his momentous decision last week, but even if the modest aid he has promised could be decisive in a kinetic sense, it will be some time before the arms actually arrive to change battle facts on the ground. Days after the White House announcement, Gen. Salim Idris, the military leader who will supposedly receive the help, was reported to be saying that he had not yet even been contacted about the aid. And nonlethal aid promised many months ago still has not been delivered, according to FP‘s The Cable.

These delays are not necessarily the product of bureaucratic foot-dragging. The delay in making the policy decision may well have been the result of foot-dragging from a bureaucracy and political administration reluctant to intervene, but implementation delays are just as often dictated by physics as by politics. It just takes time to get things done.

In the meantime, what is operating is any change in expectations that the decision engendered, perhaps resulting in a changed strategic calculus among the key actors. That is explicitly what the Obama administration is hoping for, since it has said that the new lethal aid is meant to send a signal of U.S. (and international) resolve to Bashar al-Assad’s regime that the regime and its allies should heed.

Is that the likely psychological effect of the president’s decision? Will Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran conclude from the decision to supply some small arms, which will arrive to influence tactical operations at some future date, that it marks a major commitment on the part of the United States? Judging from the way the administration made the announcement — leaving it to the National Security Council’s communications director to announce while the president was at a local photo-op — most observers, including those quite sympathetic to the administration or to the policy of greater involvement in Syria, have inferred a message of irresolution and uncertain commitment. 

In short, the immediate psychological effects may well be undercutting rather than magnifying the eventual kinetic effects.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has run afoul of good strategic principles. Obama’s Afghanistan surge was a textbook case of getting the psychology and the kinetics out of sync. The announcement of the artificial timeline for withdrawing the surge at the same time as announcing the surge itself meant that for the first several months the chief effect of the new policy was confusion about American resolve. The kinetic benefits of the additional troops were delayed many months as the military logistics chain slowly swung into action. I gather that the Obama White House was frustrated by the slow pace of delivering the surge troops — doubly so since the delay came on the heels of months of delay during the strategic review itself — but it was no more of a kinetic delay than that which beset the Iraq surge. The difference was that the psychological benefits of the Iraq surge kicked in right away because the Iraq surge strategy was well-designed and the two elements were synchronized. (One wonders whether Obama would have opted for the self-defeating arbitrary timeline in Afghanistan if he had fully understood how long it would take for the kinetic results to take effect.)

I fear the administration is making the same mistake again. And whereas the Afghanistan surge was at least in kinetic terms so substantial that it had a decent hope of overcoming the damage done by the imposition of the arbitrary timeline, the kinetic effect of the change in Syria policy is far less substantial. It will take a lot of hope for this change to produce a better outcome — and there is very little time for it to do so.