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Obama and the Bogus ‘Credibility’ Argument

Obama reportedly rejects the bogus “credibility” argument related to threats and use of force:

Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of “credibility”—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. Within the White House, Obama would argue that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”

The president is right about that, so it’s very odd that he appeared ready to do just that in Syria in the summer of 2013. As the article reminds us, the obsession with “credibility” that Obama disdains was one of the main arguments that his own officials used in justifying an attack on Syria at the time. Supporters of intervention had to lean so heavily on the “credibility” argument because the rest of the case for bombing Syria was so remarkably weak, and so they had to come up with additional reasons why the U.S. “needed” to attack. Among other ridiculous claims made at the time by administration officials, then-Secretary of Defense Hagel said North Korea would be “emboldened” by a “failure” to attack Syria. These were transparently, obviously nonsensical claims, but this is what Obama’s top officials were saying. I suppose it’s good to know that Obama found their arguments to be unpersuasive, but then why did he let things get as far as they did?

Later in the article, Obama expresses pride in his final decision not to launch the attack on Syria:

This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

Choosing not to attack Syria was, in fact, the right decision, and Obama did eventually come around to the correct position, but it’s still remarkable how ready Obama was to follow the “playbook” for several weeks during that debate before realizing that the administration’s own case for intervention didn’t make sense. Obama deserves some credit for eventually resisting the pressure to attack, but then he never would have been in that position if he hadn’t spoken so carelessly about the so-called “red line” and then tried to back up a threat he never should have made.

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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