Sunday, September 01, 2013

Credibility and Use of Force

I've been thinking a lot about citing credibility to use force, and it's very troubling because for the most part it is imaginary. Instead, it invokes some sense of damaged manliness. HULK MUST SMASH OR LOOK LIKE WEENIE!

Now, before I go any further, let me say to those who invoke the memory of Vietnam, there is no thought of sending American combat troops to Central America.
If we cannot defend ourselves we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of our homeland would be put in jeopardy.

--President Ronald Reagan, April 27, 1983. From Ronald Reagan, Speaking My Mind, pp. 155 and 160.

Does that sound familiar? I encourage you to go find that speech, which is filled with more inaccuracies and falsehoods than I could count. It's true that we only used "advisors" but we sure helped kill a lot of people.

And yes, I know the contexts are different. Obviously. But the credibility argument is terribly deceptive and dangerous.


RAJ 1:26 PM  

Exactly. If the point is to change the behavior of Syria's government (or other governments in the future) then strategies and tactics would presumably be judged on their potential effectiveness. But if the goal is to establish "credibility" on threats, then what we are doing is knee-capping: like a Mafia enforcer, it doesn't matter if the victim will comply or can comply; we need to make an example. And those examples of past are fueling massive skepticism in left-leaning sectors of Latin America and the Islamic world which does nothing for future strategic goals except make it harder.

Anonymous,  1:43 PM  

I think it is also true that credibility matters. Our dithering doesn't send a strong message except that we are floundering. Our geopolitical opponents love it and seek to exploit it. See the comments from Syria, Beijing and Putin over the last few days for example. It also disheartens allies. Today the reliably liberal paper El Pais in Madrid leads with an editorial citing this policy shift as a symptom of weakness. More importantly, the Obama administration's lack of resolve is read this way from Amman, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Ankara as well. What, they will ask, will we do if confronting Iran over its nuclear program? The mistake appears to be the way in which the policy is being formulated. Instead of aligning diplomatic support in advance of the decision to use force, we have decided to use force and then seek allies. The president can emerge from this in a stronger position if congress supports the policy, but could also end up terribly damaging our diplomacy's effectiveness if he loses the vote.

Anonymous,  1:55 PM

Anonymous,  1:56 PM

Greg Weeks 2:30 PM  

As I always say, if a few foreign pundits say something is true, it must be.

Anonymous,  3:07 PM  

What pundit did I cite? I thought the examples included government experts and representatives. Your use of a Ronald Reagan quote sounds more like punditry than anything I cited.

Many anti-intervention commentators seems to believe in a version of credibility as well. They waste not a moment in citing Iraq as the the defining moment for US foreign policy. According to the critics we forfeited the credibility to speak on these issues, never mind to act. So does credibility matter for great powers in diplomacy or not? I think the answer is clear.

I am glad Obama backed up and pushed the reset button with sending it to congress. Nevertheless, the choice sends a message of a weakness that will have to become a strength in the end. Democrats and responsible Republicans are unlikely to let him run US foreign policy into a ditch just because the Chinese and Russians support Assad.

Justin Delacour 3:10 PM  

"It also disheartens allies."

So going to war with Syria will be heartening to allies? Which allies? It doesn't seem very heartening to the Germans and the Brazilians, from what I'm reading.

Greg Weeks 3:16 PM  

The argument that anyone would doubt US resolve to bomb the living crap out of basically any country w/o nuclear weapons is pretty much ludicrous. We've done it over and over and over and over and over.

jdgalvez,  3:33 PM  

Thanks Dr. Weeks. Well put. I think that there is also something to be said for distinguishing "credibility" in matters where our national interests are not at stake from "credibility" where they are. I am going to guess that North Korea or Iran will understand that our concerns about their nuclear activities matter more to us than who wins the civil war in Syria. Frankly I think there is something sick going on when we begin to talk about our government being trapped by its own words ("red line") so that we have to kill some people to make a point.

And this is a self inflicted wound. OK, I do think that it might hurt credibility on one level--anytime our leaders say one thing and then fail to follow through. But I suspect that toppling Assad will not produce a preferable regime in Syria. Anyway, the Administration has already stated that a strike would not seek to topple the regime. So then the result is what... some Syrian government soldiers die and the regime survives? What message does that send? Best of all would have been to stay out of this completely. The "red line" was a big mistake. Argh.

Greg Weeks 3:43 PM  

Argh indeed. Assad is a disgusting criminal, yet the U.S. has a knack for poor planning and unwarranted optimism.

jdgalvez,  3:43 PM  


I think the only ones that really want this are our gulf Arab allies and the Saudis. They don't care who follows Assad or what happens to the Syrians. It is all just a part of their regional tango with the Iranians. And how deep does the commitment of these "allies" to the US run? (That is a rhetorical question)

jdgalvez,  3:52 PM  

Assad, Saddam, monsters all. And sometimes the "cure" is worse than the disease. ...I am going to go think about something else, this is getting too depressing. Be well all...

Anonymous,  4:10 PM  

I agree the "red line" comment was an ill-considered statement and doesn't need to be backed up with reflexive bombing to uphold US credibility on whether to bomb. I agree with Greg that the countries involved understand the US can and will act when it chooses. However, the credibility that is at stake is the credibility of saying for the past ten days that this horrific wartime act must be addressed, pushing for a military response, and then suddenly shifting course on a Friday night. The administration has upped the ante by sending it to congress to test its domestic support. There is a possibility that the administration will lose the vote. Then what?

Justin, the allies who are watching us most closely and evaluating us on our diplomatic credibility are those most dependent on the US for potential military support in a crisis. They are not in Brasilia. Germany's diplomats are still embarrassed by their recent diplomacy on Libya and the country is currently holding an election. The better barometer is Ankara, Tel Aviv or Amman.

Justin Delacour 4:11 PM  

Yeah, Obama just painted himself into a corner with all this nonsense about "redlines." If he's so worried about looking tough, why can't he just point to U.S. military assistance to the Syrian rebels as evidence that he's "standing up to" Assad?

Justin Delacour 5:06 PM  

In all seriousness, why would we really need to concern ourselves with whether Tel Aviv thinks the U.S. is taking the right course of action? It's not as if Tel Aviv has any real alternative to its relationship with the United States. In geo-political terms, the United States has nothing to lose (and probably much more to gain) from developing more independence from the Israeli leadership.

Anonymous,  6:55 PM  

No doubt there are some right wing hayseeds in congress who will vote for non-intervention because the Syrian civil war pits muslims versus muslims. They just won't say it that way. Instead they will invoke the "competing priorities" and the absence of national interest justifications.

I had forgotten about those that want to weaken or break our relationship with Israel. Does anyone believe Israel, a small country surrounded by actual and potential threats, would be more secure if the US lessened its support? The US acts as both a protector and as a restraint on Israel. Both are needed as Justin points out because the Netanyahu government is reckless with its rhetoric. In its insecurity it may try to strike Iran. So the US is acting in its national interests and the broader international interests by maintaining the close alliance with a strategic ally. It seems very cynical to say the US should weaken ties to gain diplomatic flexibility when so much is at stake. Not that far from the hayseeds, really.

Greg Weeks 7:22 PM  

I have no way of differentiating between Anonymous posts,, but this one seems to be more troll than logic.

Anonymous,  7:54 PM  

Greg, your response surprises me but it should not when you have previously stated that the US does not care about the civilian lives at stake any more than the Venezuela govt. This is President Obama, John Kerry and Samantha Powers not Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

It is your blog but you are failing to distinguish yourself with your commentary on this issue. Every time there is a conflict in the Middle East, some people advocate weakening the US-Israeli alliance as a potential benefit for the US. Often it has about as much sincerity with regard to US interests as Ronald Reagan promoting state's rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The argument needs to be exposed.

Justin Delacour 10:04 PM  

Ah yes, I see. Anybody who doesn't believe that we have to operate in lock-step with the Israeli leadership on all foreign policy questions must be a "hayseed" who is seeking to "break" the relationship with Israel. Brilliant.

Greg Weeks 10:09 PM  

Comments on my blog have gotten weird over the years, but accusing me of trying to weaken the US-Israeli alliance is truly original!

Justin Delacour 10:47 PM  

I think anonymous' distortions were in reference not to your post above but rather to my own assertion in the comments that, "in geo-political terms, the United States has nothing to lose (and probably much more to gain) from developing more independence from the Israeli leadership."

Notice that nobody's talking about breaking the relationship with Israel here. Strangely, some people launch into hysterics at the mere mention that the United States might be better off adopting a bit more independence from the Israeli leadership.

Anonymous,  12:38 PM  

Justin, thanks for clarifying that your comments were the target of my post. Greg, I was referring to your description of "troll." Likewise to your comments above on punditry and the straw man argument that somehow someone is arguing the US would not have credibility on bombing.

Despite what Justin says, the world's newspapers and blogs are filled with the kind of nonsense I describe in my posts. More is on the way. Justin is just at the beginning of the the anti-Israeli tide. When he begins his post, "in all seriousness..." he is clueing you in to where policy-makers should go. Some of my best friends are Jewish works well in social situations too. Everyone has the right to criticize Israeli policies and the US policies that support Israel. Justin is consistent in that. No problem there. The problem is when people exploit a crisis in the MIddle East to suggest we should weaken ties it is not far from blame the Jews for our own mess. I suggest people read some reader's commentary in a few European newspapers.

Justin Delacour 1:30 PM  

Justin is just at the beginning of the the anti-Israeli tide.

To say that the U.S. government should adopt more independence from the Israeli leadership is not "anti-Israeli." It's common sense. The U.S. foreign policy establishment does itself no favors in the world by demonstrating very little independence from Netanyahu and company.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP