President Obama has had difficulty in developing and sustaining a consistent course of action in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. As the New York Times reported last month, “Over the last three weeks, the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television. Mr. Obama’s handling of his confrontation with Syria over a chemical weapons attack on civilians has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly. Instead of displaying decisive leadership, Mr. Obama, to these critics, has appeared reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.”
Three moments support this perspective. Alarmed by intelligence reports in August of 2012, suggesting that the “besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons,” Obama announced at a news conference that month that should Syria move or use large quantities of chemical weapons, they would be crossing a “red line” that would “change my calculus.” Yet as journalists reported, cabinet and staff members who participated in the discussion of these new and alarming reports, could not recall any discussion whatsoever about announcing a red line. It seemed that on so important a matter, Obama was speaking extemporaneously, and as a result boxed himself into a course of action he had not fully vetted or even clarified. Moreover, as a writer for the London Review of Books notes, “a clearer invitation could scarcely be imagined by anyone who had an interest in drawing the US into the war.”
Third, with congressional opposition to a missile strike growing, Obama used a September 10 speech, planned as a venue for making the case for a missile strike, to announce that he would give the Russians and Syrians time to come up with a plan for the UN to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. Russia, it appears, was emboldened to propose such a plan, after John Kerry in a news conference, made the offhand comment that Assad could avoid war, if he turned over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week, adding quickly, that Assad "isn't about to do it, and it can't be done." In others words, Obama supported a plan that his Secretary of State had said was unworkable.
One way of interpreting these decision-making slips is to argue that they represent Obama’s customary fecklessness and unreliability. Certainly some of his long-standing critics believe this to be true. Another way is to emphasize Obama’s open mindedness, his ability to tolerate uncertainty and to respond to changing events with agility. Certainly, some of his long-standing supporters believe this.
I propose a different tack. I'll assume that Obama is customarily a disciplined decision maker, in the specific sense that he relies on an extended process of consultation with his staff and cabinet members, as well as on debates among them, before making a decision. However, this mode of decision-making creates delays, and may result in many false starts and premature conclusions. Yet, as long as these twists and turns take place in private, they actually help Obama grow comfortable with a particular decision. As one analyst writes, “President Obama is almost defiantly deliberative, methodical and measured, even when critics accuse him of dithering. When describing his executive style, he goes into Spock mode, saying, 'You've got to make decisions based on information and not emotions.'
His decision in 2009 to increase troop levels in Afghanistan had this character. As the New York Times reports, “The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar on Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”
In other words, I will assume that Obama is most satisfied when he avoids impulsive decisions even when this process creates delays, false starts and frustration. This assumption has the merit of suggesting that his opponents and supporters are both expressing partial truths. To his opponents, he meanders through his decision making process giving the appearance of undisciplined thinking, to his supporters his path to a decision, however indirect, depends on a rational consideration of all alternatives. If this is true, how do we account for what appears to be his impulsive decision making in the Syria case? In this case he appears to have made decisions too quickly and to have acted out, rather than thought through, his different options.
I am drawn here to the distinction between ambiguity and uncertainty. Uncertainty describes our lack of knowledge about the facts, or our inability to predict the future accurately. Ambiguity describes our inability to ascribe meaning to facts we may already know with certainty. Thus for example when Obama made the decision to kill Osama Bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan he faced some imponderables. Was Bin laden actually there? Would the Pakistanis detect a Navy Seal intrusion and send troops to confront them? Would the Seals kill someone that they mistook for Bin Laden? But while these uncertainties were fodder for the decision making process, Obama had no doubt as to the meaning of this undertaking namely; to weaken Al-Qaida and to revenge the death of the thousands killed in 9/11. This is why he made finding Bin Laden such a priority.
Meaning in this sense is linked to the story we tell ourselves about our experience, to a narrative that links different facts together into a comprehensible composite. One hypothesis is that Obama stumbled in responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, because he lacked a story he believed in. Was the Syrian crisis the story of an enemy threatening us or our allies, a story of an evil government acting immorally, a story of a proxy war between powerful states, a story of the Arab spring in which democratic forces confronted authoritarian ones, or finally a story of a religious war between two Muslim sects. Each potential story reinforced the viability of different strategies, for example to act as a proxy in a proxy war, to stay out of a religious war, or to support democratic movements. Obama in a candid moment acknowledged that he wished he did not have puzzle his way through this dilemma. “I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how can I prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas.” The New York Times, notes that " current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his Blackberry or slouching and chewing gum." In other words, Obama stumbled on the ambiguity of the situation he faced and had an impulse to withdraw from the difficulty.
This hypothesis, while admittedly speculative, has the merit of shedding some light on Obama’s decision to impose a “red line” in the first instance. Psychologists describe a thinking process called, “reaction formation.” This happens when for example, a person who feels hostility toward a friend, masks it from himself through a stance of being overly solicitous. We say that the person finds his hostile feelings to be unacceptable to himself, and so conceals them, without consciously intending to do so, by showing exaggerated feelings of kindness. This leads to situations in which, as the saying goes, a person “kills with kindness.” (It is also the meaning of Shakespeare’s famous phrase in Hamlet, “the lady doth protest too much.”)
One hypothesis is that facing the pressure that ambiguity created, Obama tried to reject that pressure by projecting outward a stance of certitude, by in fact drawing a red line. It was as if he were saying, “I will respond to ambiguity in the domain I can’t control, by eliminating ambiguity in the domain I can.” This, despite the fact that from a strategic point of view a nation state often gains leverage by projecting ambiguity. This is why the Israelis for the longest time did not acknowledge that they had built an atomic bomb, why the United States has no clear red line for triggering the defense of Taiwan from attacks by China, and why Saddam Hussein suggested, without ever explicitly saying so, that he had weapons of mass destruction. (This bluff of course was his undoing, as bluffs sometimes are, but that does not mean bluffing is never a path to victory. After all, it helped him project power in the Arab world.)
To say that Obama rejected the psychological pressure that ambiguity imposed on him personally, by projecting it outward, is to say that he allowed his psychological vulnerability, in the moment, to shape his fate making decision. This is the opposite of disciplined decision making. Is this too harsh a claim? Perhaps, but one hypothesis is that his process of personalizing a decision is one occupational hazard of the way he makes decision in the first instance.
Return to the description of his decision-making about Afghanistan. “It was a virtual seminar on Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examination.” Obama does not rely on what one scholar calls “brokers” to assemble knowledge and then present it to Obama. “The most striking characteristic of Obama’s decision-making style was his personal involvement in the details of policy. Rejecting the use of an honest broker, either in principle or because of the personalities of the staffers he chose, Obama himself delved deeply into the major policies of his administration.”
In this way of deciding, the people close to him, particularly White House staff members who have no independent power bases, can become extensions of his own thinking process. If this is true he is vulnerable to thinking through them rather than with them. The danger here is that his thinking may become solipsistic, particularly when facing ambiguity. This danger is compounded by the fact that his staff members, in contrast to his cabinet officials have as their primary task the defense of his political interests. Chuck Hegel or John Kerry can represent the independent perspectives of the groups and interests they lead and manage, namely the military and the State Department. In this way they bring in the wider world into the decision making process. But the White House staff must represent in the end, their best understanding of the president’s own interests. This hypothesis may explain why in fact he did not consult with Kerry or Hegel before deciding to turn the decision to bomb Syria over to Congress. This may also explain how Obama could change his mind after conferring with his chief of staff alone. It also gives an account of why some journalists characterized Obama as making policy by “thinking out loud.” Failing to engage the military and State Department as links to the world outside the White House, he remained in the seminar room, where thinking out loud is quite acceptable.
Obama supporters may argue of course that these twists and turns, these false starts may all prove irrelevant if in the end the Russian plan for collecting and turning over Syria’s stockpiles to the UN, succeeds. Syria cannot use chemical weapons and the US has not bombed Syria, avoiding in this way collateral damage and the death of more innocent people. But this argument presumes that the pressing issue facing Obama is chemical weapons, rather than the Syrian crisis writ large. After all conventional weapons have already killed more than 100,000 people, millions of Syrian citizens have been displaced, creating certain trauma for a generation to come, and the war is destabilizing Iraq by reviving the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. The question remains what stance should the U.S. take toward this conflict? How can Obama bring meaning to the ambiguities that underlie these events?
One hypothesis about decision making in the face of ambiguity is that a decision maker can find a compelling narrative in such a situation by drawing on his feelings, his gut, as well as his thoughts. Feelings are synthesizers, they enable us to value facts and give them color, according to our dispositions, interests and hopes. George W. Bush relied perhaps too much on his feelings, for example, knowing his gut that the War against Saddam Hussein was a war for democracy in the Middle East. In retrospect, this proposition was simplistic, and revealed Bush’s own failures as the gutsy “decider,” (as he once described himself). Obama may face the opposite dilemma. He stays too much in his head plumbing for facts, that however accurate and numerous, can never on their own confer meaning. This can reinforce his natural cautiousness. But as we saw in the case of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, it can also lead him to act impulsively.