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Regulation Strategies for Conflicting Emotions: Obama’s Quandaries on the Red Line and the Fight Against ISIS

Elites
Foreign Policy
Political Leadership
Political Psychology
USA
Decision Making
Policy-Making
POTUS
Philippe Beauregard
Université de Montréal
Philippe Beauregard
Université de Montréal

Abstract

In 2013 United States’ President Barack Obama hesitated to enforce his own red line in Syria and decided to pursue a diplomatic option to tackle chemical weapons while in 2014, after two months of hesitation, the President decided on unilateral air strikes targeting ISIS, and eventually on building a broad coalition to destroy the insurgent group. The President felt conflicting emotions in facing these difficult decisions and his decisions took different directions despite the fact that he sought to withdraw the US from the Middle East, and had committed himself to act only in the case of Syria. Recent political research studying the influence of emotions on decision-making has emphasized discrete emotions and how they are associated with specific appraisals and action tendencies. Scholars often focus on cases where one dominant emotion explains foreign policy, and have an additive view of how emotions interact. However, there is substantial evidence in psychological research that humans can experience a mix of emotions at the same time, and that emotions are not additive. Policymakers who must consider a wide range of information and speak to several audiences are often in a situation where they are likely to experience conflicting emotions. What are conflicting emotions’ consequences for foreign policymaking? How are these conflicts resolved? The cases of President Obama’s response to the Syrian chemical attack weapon in 2013 and the rise of ISIS in 2014 provide empirical data to study these neglected questions. I argue that the policy process of managing conflicting emotions is typically marked by emotion regulation strategies of situation modification, attention deployment, and cognitive change. Conflicted decision makers attempt to gain time through calculated procrastination, to resolve their conflict by focusing their attention on new developments, and they restructure their frames to validate and justify their new course.