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The “Credibility” Con Game

Stephen Walt takes [1] a turn at demolishing the awful “credibility” argument:

Unfortunately, this obsession with credibility was misplaced. For one thing, a state’s “reputation” for being tough or reliable didn’t work the way most foreign-policy elites thought it did. American leaders kept worrying that other states would question the United States’ resolve and capability if it ever abandoned an unimportant ally, or lost some minor scrap in the developing world. But as careful research by Ted Hopf, Jonathan Mercer, and Daryl Press has shown, states do not judge the credibility of commitments in one place by looking at how a country acted somewhere far away, especially when the two situations are quite different.

I would just add a few comments to supplement what Walt says about this. The “credibility” argument is almost exclusively used by foreign policy hawks, and they pay no attention to negative international reactions to U.S. behavior that contradict their assumptions about “credibility.” If other states react to provocative and confrontational policies by becoming more assertive in their respective regions, hawks interpret that as proof of the other states’ inherent aggressiveness and “expansionist” tendencies.

Hawks usually don’t accept that adverse responses that directly follow U.S. actions have any connection to U.S. policies, but any development that happens to take place after the U.S. “fails” to “act” somewhere is preposterously traced back to the moment of “inaction.” Thus the U.S. is blamed for somehow “causing” unrelated events in one part of the world by choosing not to do something in an entirely different part, but it is excused from responsibility for the direct negative consequences of whatever it has actually done. That’s because the only thing that jeopardizes “credibility” in their eyes is “inaction” (i.e., not attacking or threatening to attack someone), and adverse consequences of “action” (e.g., expanding alliances, invading/bombing/occupying other countries) are ignored or spun as the result of later “weakness.” The appeal to “credibility” is the bludgeon that hawks employ when the case for their preferred “action” is extremely weak, which is quite often. That bludgeon would have much less effect if more people recognized that the “credibility” argument is entirely without merit.

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5 Comments To "The “Credibility” Con Game"

#1 Comment By AnotherBeliever On January 7, 2015 @ 9:04 am

“Thus the U.S. is blamed for somehow “causing” unrelated events in one part of the world by choosing not to do something in an entirely different part, but it is excused from responsibility for the direct negative consequences of whatever it has actually done. ”

Precisely. It’s not that credibility doesn’t matter. It’s just that successfully pulling off a military action with clear goals and actual justification may gain you credibility, but hair trigger military action at little provocation, especially when you don’t achieve your goals (assuming you had any) will cause your credibility to suffer. Meanwhile, failing to respond to things which do not threaten national security, or attempting to further some goals by diplomacy or trade, can garner as much if not more credibility. I won’t even get into how partaking in torture affects a national security platform based solely on “values.”

#2 Comment By tbraton On January 7, 2015 @ 10:30 am

I know I am butting my head against a wall, but I will repeat once more my irrefutable contention that the failure of the U.S. to respond to Britain’s burning of the White House 201 years ago has contributed greatly to the fact that the U.S. lacks all credibility to this day. When are we going to pay back the Brits? 200 years is a long time to procrastinate. Returning Winston Churchill’s bust to the British Embassy just doesn’t cut it in my humble opinion.

#3 Comment By cfountain72 On January 7, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

The ultimate irony is that the actions taken and supported by these same hawks actually undermine the same ‘credibility’ they claim to covet. As an example, can anyone seriously claim that we have more ‘credibility’ in 2015 as a country (militarily or diplomatically) now than we did in 2000? Or in 1990?

We have spent many years doing the exact sort of expensive, adventurous interventionism that McCain, or Graham, or Kristol, or Krauthammer, or Hillary have supported, often using the ‘credibility’ argument as a crutch. And lo these many years later, we have been unmasked as a hellfire-equipped Apache helicopter-in-a-china shop, without any claim to true moral or strategic superiority. Credibility, which may have once been supported through substantive examples of respect for liberty, sovereignty, self-determination, and restraint, have been replaced with little more than our current might-makes-right, ‘do as I say, not as I do’, nation-building, imperial fiction of what neocons label ‘credibility’.

Peace be with you.

#4 Comment By Crprod On January 7, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

Credibility in foreign affairs, as commonly used today, is about the same order of reality and usefulness as heritage on Civil War blogs.

#5 Comment By Myron Hudson On January 7, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

That’s a good way of describing it. They have effectively tied themselves in a knot with their “logic”. And as anyone with friends or family among our actual allies in Canada, Australia or Europe knows, our credibility pretty much hit bottom during W’s first term. When the neocons had their hands on the steering wheel.