Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently objected to Obama’s decision to go to Congress for a vote on Syria, and claimed the following would be the result of a ‘no’ vote:
It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.
I’ve gone over this a few times, but it is worth revisiting this argument once again. If Congress had held a vote and the resolution had been defeated in either house, that very well might have disappointed some allies and clients, but it doesn’t follow from this that they would assume that U.S. commitments to them had been in any way changed. Likewise, adversaries would understand that nothing had changed in U.S. policies related to them. In practical terms, the U.S. would not have been “weakened” at all. While we’re at it, consider what an illegal attack with virtually no international or domestic support would have done to the way the U.S. is perceived, and then compare the real and tangible backlash from that to vague concerns about “weakness.”
As Robert Farley points out in a new article, we can’t know for sure how foreign governments will interpret U.S. “action” or “inaction” in Syria. Some adversaries might have been pleased if the U.S. had become entangled in yet another conflict, since that consumes energy and resources that might otherwise be ready for use against them. East Asian allies probably found it preferable that the U.S. avoided military action in Syria, which would have distracted the U.S. from their concerns, so it seems likely that they would have been content with a Congressional ‘no’ vote.
Farley also observes that there is not necessarily any one message received by all other governments:
The central problem is that it is extremely difficult to send messages about resolve and determination that will be understood in the way you want them to be understood. States don’t own their reputations; friends and foes are free to draw their own (often conflicting) interpretations of events.
Many Americans are not very good at imagining how U.S. actions can appear to allies and adversaries. There is a tendency to assume that military action always intimidates the latter and always reassures the former, but when that action is ill-considered, reckless, or self-destructive it will have the opposite effect. When one’s patron is repeatedly frittering away its resources in avoidable and unnecessary conflicts, that could very easily undermine confidence in the patron’s protection and support rather than reinforce it.