Krauthammer frets about the danger of lost “credibility” over Syria:
Instead he’s backed himself into a corner: be forced into a war he is firmly resolved to avoid, or lose credibility, which for a superpower on whose word [bold mine-DL] relies the safety of a dozen allies is not just embarrassing but dangerous.
Considering how often hard-liners mock Obama for his overconfidence in the power of rhetoric, some of them invest presidential statements with an incredible amount of significance. The truth is that the safety of “a dozen allies” and more depends on the treaty commitments that the U.S. made decades ago, and it also depends on the ability of U.S. and allied militaries to deter attack. Vaguely-worded statements on developments in Syria’s civil war don’t undermine those commitments or make that deterrent any less effective. The only people that take this claim seriously are hawks that want to goad the administration into making an easily avoidable blunder. Nothing would look more ridiculous to the rest of the world than being hectored into an unnecessary war by jingoistic columnists.
As Zakaria pointed out yesterday, scholarship on the subject has found that the standard argument about the dangers of losing credibility isn’t supported by the evidence:
Political scientists have studied the subject of credibility extensively. In “Calculating Credibility,” Daryl Press looks at the 1930s and the Cold War, periods when leaders felt the need to follow through on tough rhetoric for fear of losing face. Press concluded that “The evidence in this book suggests that the blood and wealth spent to maintain a country’s record for keeping commitments are wasted: when push comes to shove, credibility is assessed on the basis of the current interests at stake and the balance of power, not on the basis of past sacrifices. . . . Leaders understand that no two crises are sufficiently alike to be confident that past actions are a reliable guide to the future.”
Like possible chemical weapons use, warning about lost “credibility” is just a pretext to cajole the administration into doing what Syria hawks have wanted to do all along. It would be wise to dismiss it as such. Plunging the U.S. into another war to follow through on a vague threat would not reassure allies or deter enemies. It would broadcast to the entire world that our government has no idea what it’s doing abroad and cannot resist the lure of new conflicts. Following through on tough rhetoric by taking foolish, avoidable military action wouldn’t make other governments take the U.S. more seriously, but would almost certainly invite mockery and scorn.