Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

What’s the problem with Obama’s ‘kinetic military action’?

The Obama administration has received a lot of ribbing over its use of the euphemism "kinetic military action" — inartful spin in an attempt to avoid describing the Libyan operation as a war. Many observers have suggested that this fussiness over language may betray the president’s discomfort with the idea of war. There may be ...

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration has received a lot of ribbing over its use of the euphemism "kinetic military action" -- inartful spin in an attempt to avoid describing the Libyan operation as a war. Many observers have suggested that this fussiness over language may betray the president's discomfort with the idea of war.

There may be something to that critique, but there is another perhaps more important way it is revealing. To a remarkable extent, this president has embraced the kinetic aspects of war. It is the non-kinetic aspects, and especially the overall strategic dimension that harnesses kinetic and non-kinetic lines of action into a coherent strategy, that the president has failed to use.

The clumsy spin may thus be betraying the administration's a-strategic approach to the wielding of military power.

The Obama administration has received a lot of ribbing over its use of the euphemism "kinetic military action" — inartful spin in an attempt to avoid describing the Libyan operation as a war. Many observers have suggested that this fussiness over language may betray the president’s discomfort with the idea of war.

There may be something to that critique, but there is another perhaps more important way it is revealing. To a remarkable extent, this president has embraced the kinetic aspects of war. It is the non-kinetic aspects, and especially the overall strategic dimension that harnesses kinetic and non-kinetic lines of action into a coherent strategy, that the president has failed to use.

The clumsy spin may thus be betraying the administration’s a-strategic approach to the wielding of military power.

If war and coercive diplomacy only involved kinetic military action, this would be one of our most bellicose of presidents. Look at the kinetic military action he has authorized:

  • In the GWOT, more targeted drone strikes over more territory — including territory where we are not officially conducting combat operations — than President Bush.
  • In Afghanistan, a surge in military forces — actually several escalations – that in absolute numbers exceeds Bush’ Iraq surge and in proportional terms dwarfs it.
  • In Iraq, a meticulous implementation of the Status of Forces drawdown that the Bush administration handed over to Obama — no meaningful acceleration of troop withdrawals.
  • In Libya, a massive aerial/missile bombardment of Qaddafi’s forces, the largest U.S. air/missile strike since the opening days of the Iraq War.

Compared with his last two Democratic predecessors, Clinton and Carter, and measured only in kinetic military terms, this is dramatically more hawkish behavior.

The problem is that he has simultaneously hobbled this kinetic action with other measures that work at cross purposes (and that are more reminiscent of Clinton and Carter’s approach):

  • In the GWOT, the Obama administration started out publicly (and repeatedly) upbraiding our Pakistan ally which had the predictable effect of making cooperation with the United States that much more politically costly for the Pakistani government.
  • In Afghanistan, Obama announced an arbitrary July 2011 date as the end of the surge, and then the Administration proceeded to confuse everyone as to the meaning of that deadline. This had the predictable effect of producing the very hedging behavior among the Afghan public and the government that the administration claimed it was trying to stop.
  • In Iraq, the administration took its eye off the ball, letting the political paralysis fester and ignoring Iraqi pleas for more presidential-level engagement. Moreover, until very recently, the administration disregarded the rest of the SoFA plan left to them by the Bush Administration, namely the need to renegotiate a new strategic partnership with Iraq that would allow for adequate military presence after 2011.
  • In Libya, the administration launched the Libyan attacks only after poor-mouthing for weeks the very military option they eventually implemented. The president also promised that US involvement would be arbitrarily time-limited and that no ground forces would be used. This had the predictable effect of neutralizing any shock and awe and now, weeks later, Qaddafi shows little sign of being intimidated by the attacks.

The net result of this is that Obama’s strategy is inordinately reliant on kinetic effects. Napoleon used to say that the moral is to the physical as three is to one. Obama’s approach denies his team that psychological force multiplier.

So when the administration talks about kinetic military action, realize that this may simply be indicating that that is the only part of the strategy that has a good chance of succeeding. We should all hope that the impressive kinetic military action the president has authorized is sufficient to overcome the deficiencies in the non-kinetic aspects of the strategy.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.