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Home/Daniel Larison/‘Credibility’ Is Just an Excuse to Launch Attacks

‘Credibility’ Is Just an Excuse to Launch Attacks

Andrew Bacevich takes aim at the bogus hawkish “credibility” argument:

But does making threats and then dropping bombs enhance credibility? If so, notwithstanding Obama’s and Trump’s own occasional qualms, the United States would have amassed vast stores of the stuff over the past 30 years or so. Presidents since Ronald Reagan, including Obama and Trump, have followed up threats with bombs on myriad occasions. Targeted nations have included Libya, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen, with the punitive action episodic in some cases and sustained in others. No nation in recent memory has dropped more pieces of ordnance on more countries than has the United States. Indeed, no other nation comes close.

Over those same 30 years, however, America’s standing as a global leader has declined. It turns out in practice that credibility is less a function of using force than of demonstrating prudence. Yet somewhere between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, those charged with formulating U.S. policy decided that the dictates of prudence need not apply to the actions of the world’s one and only indispensable nation. In recent decades, the abiding feature of American statecraft has been grandiosity, with military activism camouflaging a loss of strategic realism.

Resorting to force frequently over the last several decades has not made the U.S. more respected, trusted, or reliable in its commitments. When hawks warn that a “failure” to strike this or that country could undermine our “credibility,” they want us to believe that hostile states will think they can get away with attacking our allies and that our allies will fear that our government won’t come to their assistance. They continually confuse decisions about whether to initiate hostilities against other states with decisions about whether to respond to aggression in defense of allies, but this just calls attention to the fact that the military intervention they want has nothing to do with our security or the security of our allies.

“Failing” to bomb Syria in 2013 did not put any of our allies in greater danger, and I suspect more than a few of our allies were glad that our government refrained from committing more illegal acts of war. Backing off from an illegal attack on Iran has not encouraged rivals to be more aggressive, but the possibility of starting a war over a drone alarmed our allies that our government was once again prepared to plunge into an unnecessary war because of a crisis of Trump’s own making. Other states do not believe our government to be unwilling to back up threats, especially when it concerns something that genuinely affects the U.S. and our allies, but many of them do worry that our government is overeager to pick fights and look for reasons to use force when alternatives are available. Like a trigger-happy vigilante, our government uses force all the time for any reason and frequently for no good reason at all. “Credibility” is just the most convenient excuse.

It is significant that the “credibility”-worshipers that complain when the U.S. doesn’t attack another country have little or nothing to say about the effect on our reputation when the president reneges on international agreements negotiated in good faith. “Credibility” fans don’t particularly care if other states don’t trust our promises when it relates to anything else, but they are livid when a president doesn’t seize every opportunity to rain down death and destruction on other countries. I submit that no one making “credibility” arguments really believes them, but they use these arguments to stoke fear that “inaction” (i.e., not killing people) might be more dangerous than “action” (i.e., killing those people). “Failing” to bomb another country doesn’t have negative consequences for the U.S. (how could it?), but reneging on diplomatic commitments is likely to make other governments less likely to trust our promises and less likely to enter into agreements with our government in the future. Hawks don’t have much of a problem with the latter because they aren’t interested in making diplomatic agreements, but they are very worried that the U.S. “misses” the chance to launch an attack because they want to get the U.S. embroiled in new conflicts. “Credibility” is the ready-made excuse to launch attacks when no U.S. interests are at stake, and it can be reused over and over to sell gullible people on wars we don’t need. The price of those wars is then paid by the people in the affected countries and our military. It’s time to stop buying into the incredible “credibility” argument.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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