Jonathan Tobin claims that the U.S. is damaging its credibility with current Syria policy:

More than just the people of that unhappy country will regret the consequences of America’s lack of guts and leadership on Syria. Though there are good reasons to worry about what would follow even a limited U.S. or Western intervention in Syria, the combination of talk and inaction will convince the Russians and Chinese they can dig in and back their awful Syrian client without fear of consequences. Even worse, it will convince them that President Obama is no more likely to go to the mat with Iran about its nuclear program than he is about Assad’s mass murders.

It would have been better for the U.S. if the administration had not made its initial mistake of saying that Assad “must go” when it was not really willing to compel him to leave power, and it would have been wiser not to condemn other states for opposing the military intervention that Western states had already effectively ruled out. There is not much point in issuing empty ultimatums. The administration made its initial mistake because it assumed that Assad would be overthrown eventually, and it was wrong about that. On the other hand, I’m not sure it is politically possible for any modern American administration to remain mostly silent in response to an ongoing foreign conflict when there is constant hawkish agitation for the U.S. to “do something.” Administration critics were apoplectic because of Obama’s limited response to the Iranian crackdown in 2009-2010, so one can only imagine how politically difficult it would have been to do something similar in response to the Syrian crackdown. Bear in mind that empty denunciations that would make no constructive difference to a foreign opposition movement were exactly what most administration critics were demanding from Obama in response to the Iranian crackdown. Most interventionists didn’t seem worried about a loss of credibility created by the gap between rhetoric and action back then.

Incidentally, this is what is wrong with a related interventionist argument that the U.S. should threaten military intervention in order to facilitate diplomacy. Transparently empty threats don’t increase U.S. leverage. Of course, interventionists want the U.S. to threaten some form of military intervention precisely so they can then invoke the need to retain “credibility” when that threat is ignored. This is the credibility trap that interventionists want the government to fall into every time there is an opportunity for the U.S. to interfere in another country’s affairs. First, demand forceful rhetoric, then complain that rhetoric combined with “inaction” undermines U.S. credibility, and then demand military action to keep the U.S. from losing credibility. Ideally, government officials wouldn’t use rhetoric they aren’t willing to act on, but it would be far worse to blunder ahead with an unwise course of action simply because officials have being using excessive rhetoric.