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Panetta and the Zombie “Credibility” Argument

Peter Beinart ridicules Panetta’s recent use of the discredited “credibility” argument in an interview:

But like most other Obama critics, Panetta’s argument for why the U.S. should have bombed Assad has little to do with conditions on the ground in Syria. It’s all about American credibility. As Panetta told USA Today, “There’s [now] a little question mark [among America’s allies] as to, is the United States going to stick this out? Is the United States going to be there when we need them?”

The credibility argument was always a stretch.

It would be generous to call it a stretch. The argument that Panetta is making here has no merit, and “credibility” arguments of this kind are worthless. It is an argument that sounds plausible only so long as you don’t give it much thought. “Credibility” in the sense that Panetta means it doesn’t matter, and appearing to “lose” it doesn’t have the effects that he claims.

Other major powers don’t assume that U.S. guarantees to its treaty allies in their region are less valid because the U.S. didn’t bomb a regime in a different part of the world. U.S. allies and clients don’t decide their involvement in later military interventions based on whether the U.S. has followed through on previous threats. They determine whether the specific intervention is one that they think they are in some way obliged to join or support. Likewise, U.S. allies don’t equate security guarantees that Washington makes to them with a president’s off-the-cuff warning to a minor dictator. Opting not to bomb Syria didn’t make U.S. allies any less confident of U.S. backing, nor does it appear to have made them any less inclined to join new U.S.-led military interventions.

The House of Commons voted to reject intervention in Syria last year, and has now voted to approve a partial role in the war against ISIS. If Panetta’s “credibility” argument were the least bit true, we would expect there to be fewer governments supporting the current intervention than there were prepared to bomb Syria a year ago. Instead, we see the opposite. Even if almost all of the members of the current “broad coalition” are offering symbolic backing or token contributions, that is more than could have been said about governments supporting the abortive intervention in 2013, which at the end would have included the U.S. and France.

This is not because the “red line” episode in Syria caused other governments to be more supportive of U.S. actions in the future. That would be just as false and fatuous a conclusion to draw about that episode as saying that it undermined national “credibility.” The point is that the “red line” episode had no meaningful effect on other governments’ decision-making in other cases, including later cases involving military action in and near Syria. The case for attacking ISIS may not be very strong, but it is evidently more compelling for many more governments than the very weak case for bombing the Assad regime in 2013. Either there was no loss of “credibility” in the first place, or the “loss” occurred and had no discernible effect. Either way, “credibility” is a useless concept when it comes to debating and making foreign policy decisions, and it ought to be cast aside.

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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