Arthur Herman and Lewis Libby recycle the very tired “credibility” argument once again:
In retreating from the Middle East and abandoning Ukraine to Russian aggression, the Obama administration contended America wouldn’t lose prestige around the world. It was wrong. Asian powers, especially China, have noted the U.S. failure to enforce the “red line” in Syria, the withdrawal from and abandonment of Iraq in 2011 while planning to do the same in Afghanistan, and the stiff-arming of America’s longtime ally Israel, most recently in the United Nations Security Council.
President Obama’s appeasement of Iran’s ayatollahs to achieve a nuclear deal—shaky at best, fraudulent at worst—sent the same message: America rewards aggression and punishes loyalty.
It is notable how often defenders of the bogus “credibility” argument have to rely on making things up to advance their case. The U.S. didn’t “retreat” from the Middle East under Obama (more’s the pity), and it is a stretch to say that it “abandoned” Ukraine. It would be more accurate to say that the U.S. didn’t start quite as many wars in the Middle East under Obama as it could have, and didn’t do as much as it could have to fuel the conflict in Ukraine. If the U.S. didn’t pursue policies as aggressive as the ones hawks wanted, that doesn’t amount to “retreat” or “abandonment.” Even if these things had happened, it wouldn’t tell us anything about how other states judge U.S. “credibility,” since the U.S. didn’t shirk any of its obligations.
On the contrary, the withdrawal from Iraq happened because the U.S. kept its word that U.S. forces would leave on schedule (hawks wanted the U.S. to renege on that promise). Abstaining on UNSCR 2334 was a belated affirmation of existing U.S. policy. Deciding not to bomb Syria meant that the U.S. didn’t blatantly violate international law. Many of these examples actually show how the U.S. has honored commitments it made when it could have opted to break them, but hawks never count that as strengthening “credibility” because they always use appeals to “credibility” as not-very-subtle demands for more meddling and intervention. If “credibility” means anything, it can’t just be a ready-made excuse to attack other countries and interfere in the affairs of other states, but that is typically how its defenders present it.
I very much doubt that any Asian allies cared one way or the other about the “red line” episode or withdrawal from Iraq. If they did care at all, they probably welcomed both outcomes, since both suggested that the U.S. might not be quite as obsessed with that region and would be able to pay more attention to East Asia. China could not have been pleased that the U.S. didn’t bog itself down in yet another war in 2013, and its leaders aren’t dumb enough to mistake a decision not to attack Syria with an unwillingness to honor treaty commitments to genuine allies. We would be foolish to assume that they are that dumb. No one else except for American and Israeli hard-liners interpret the nuclear deal in the way the authors do, and except for these hard-liners no one saw the abstention on UNSCR 2334 as a rebuke to an “ally.”
Most governments around the world welcome the nuclear deal because it has restricted Iran’s nuclear program and others approve of it because it allows many of them to resume doing business with Iran as they used to do. Almost every government in the world supports the substance of UNSCR 2334, and another U.S. veto would have been an annoyance to many of them. Herman and Libby have just reproduced the usual hawkish litany of complaints about Obama, and then pretended that other governments view all of these issues in the same way they do. It would be funny if these arguments weren’t taken as seriously as they are.
“Credibility” doesn’t work the way its hawkish boosters pretend that it does, but they give the game away when they describe the supposed damage to “credibility” entirely in terms of the actions and policies that they opposed. They could save everyone some time and dispense with the conceit that this has anything to do with maintaining “credibility” in the eyes of other governments. “Credibility” arguments are very often nothing more than hawkish whining that they didn’t win the policy arguments here at home. Since it was a very good thing that they lost these arguments, they have to pretend that something more important is at stake, and so we hear the endless bleating about lost “credibility” that was never actually lost.