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The Awful “Credibility” Argument That Never Dies

Pascal-Emmnauel Gobry says [1] that America’s biggest foreign policy problem is that the U.S. cannot be trusted. This is what he means:

What do the following groups have in common? Koreans above the 38th parallel in 1953; South Vietnamese in 1975; anti-Taliban Afghans in 1989; Iraqi Kurds in 1991; Somalis in 1993. Here’s the commonality: They all put their trust in the United States of America, and they got screwed as a result.

States are, in Nietzsche’s words, the coldest of all cold monsters. But not all states are as untrustworthy as the United States. Imperial Britain was ruthless. But it was rationally ruthless. This is not the case for America. When America intervenes in a country, forms local alliances, and then screws its allies, it is almost never because of cold-hearted calculation. Most of the time, it is because of frightened improvisation. All the cases I have laid out involve America pulling out of a half-finished conflict, primarily for domestic political reasons, rather than reasons of national interest.

Please understand my point: In each of these particular cases, you can debate the case for or against what America did, and in some, or even many, America might have even done the right thing. But you are still left with the problem that groups of non-Americans trust the American state at their own peril.

There’s no question that the people in many other countries that have believed unrealistic American promises (or what they understood to be American promises) have later come to regret it. Gobry’s list could be expanded to include nations that expected U.S. intervention on their behalf because they read too much into government propaganda or official policy statements that weren’t as meaningful as they thought them to be. The Hungarians in 1956 mistakenly expected the U.S. to help them against the Soviets, because that is what the “rollback” doctrine implied and it was what they were being told by our propaganda outlets, but there was never any chance that this would happen. The Georgian government misread praise from Washington, military aid and training, and support for their NATO aspirations as a green, or at least yellow, light to launch an offensive against South Ossetia in the foolish belief–encouraged by more than a few American politicians and newspapers–that the U.S. would protect Georgia against the Russian response. These calamities might have been avoided or been made less disastrous if the U.S. had not been so quick to make promises or implied guarantees that it was never going to back up in practice.

Most of the examples that Gobry cites are also products of unrealistic, ideological overpromising to nations that were ultimately not remotely as important to the U.S. as Washington pretended they were a few years earlier. So Gobry is almost completely wrong when he says that the U.S. left its would-be allies in the lurch because of “frightened improvisation.” In almost every case, the U.S. cut its losses once it was no longer prepared to pay the costs required to pursue its earlier goals.

The U.S. became involved in almost all of these countries out of overreaching and hubris. The U.S. has routinely underestimated the obstacles that would confront Americans in these countries, it has underrated the capabilities of its adversaries (and overrated those of its local clients), it has set goals that could not possibly be reached at acceptable cost, and it has grossly overestimated the competence of our government to build or sustain governments in places that we don’t understand very well. The surprising thing isn’t that the U.S. pulls back after overreaching, which leaves its local clients to fend for themselves, but that there continue to be local people that think that this time it will be different for them. The problem here isn’t that we can’t be trusted. No state can be trusted to absorb significant costs for the sake of unnecessary and unwise missions without end, and yet the U.S. keeps taking on these missions with alarming regularity.

In other cases, such as Afghanistan at the end of Cold War, this was not really a case of the U.S. being untrustworthy or “screwing” the people it had previously supported. A transactional patron-client relationship isn’t as meaningful as an alliance to either party, and it is often dissolved when one or both sides no longer needs it. One could think of a number of other proxies that the U.S. used during the Cold War that it felt no obligation to continue supporting once the Cold War ended, but that doesn’t tell us very much about how reliable the U.S. is as an ally or generally how trustworthy it is. One might ask whether supporting many of these proxies even made sense in the first place, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too concerned that this support didn’t continue indefinitely.


The reference to the Kurds in 1991 in this context is bizarre. Between the establishment of the northern no-fly zone and Operation Provide Comfort [2], the Kurds were the one group in Iraq after the Gulf War that the U.S. treated reasonably well. The more relevant example from 1991 was when the first Bush administration recklessly urged an uprising against Hussein, once again creating the false impression that the U.S. would support the people that took up arms, and then stood by as it was crushed. Once again, the major mistake was to encourage rebellion while having absolutely no intention of providing aid. The U.S. wasn’t betraying real allies in this case. Rather, it encouraged people to start a losing fight on the phony pretext that the U.S. would be their ally. Would-be insurgents should know by now not to trust the U.S., and we should know better than to encourage them. Unfortunately, very few people seem to have been paying attention.

Gobry says that all of his examples “involve America pulling out of a half-finished conflict.” That raises two questions: half-finished for whom and what would “finishing” the conflict involve? The Korean War ended in a stalemate where it should have ended even earlier. It ended up “half-finished” because the U.S. wasn’t prepared to “finish” a war that involved China, and for that Americans and South Koreans should be very grateful. In Vietnam, the U.S. left the war “half-finished” because “finishing” it wouldn’t have been worth the huge cost to both Americans and Vietnamese. Rather than treating the Gulf War as finished and successful, the U.S. committed itself to more than a decade of bombing Iraq that helped pave the way for the later war. That also could not be “finished” except at an unacceptably high cost. Instead of limiting its goals to humanitarian relief in Somalia, the U.S. gave itself a far more ambitious goal that it wasn’t prepared to see through. The pattern is hard to miss: we charge into countries we know little or nothing about, attempt to achieve things that would realistically take decades if they are even possible, and then predictably tire of the effort once we realize that it was never a good idea. The solution is not to find a way to become better at supporting U.S. clients and proxies in countries of marginal importance to U.S. security, but to stop putting ourselves in a situation where we have to con locals into supporting our latest ill-conceived project.

Gobry tops all of this off with an invocation of the discredited “credibility” argument:

In the meantime, the world is kept sorta-peaceful and sorta-prosperous because all over its map are, ahem, red lines, drawn by American security guarantees. But, if America continues to be so untrustworthy as an international actor, how long until there is a “bank run” on American security? Already, Chinese officials are watching America’s response, or lack thereof, to the defiance to Uncle Sam’s global order in Ukraine and Syria. The world is a big chessboard, and moves in one place affect the rest of the board.

This is as wrong as can be. For one thing, U.S. security guarantees to its treaty allies are of a completely different kind than U.S. commitments to clients and proxies. More to the point, what the U.S. does in one place doesn’t usually affect “the rest of the board” in the way that Gobry means. Even if the U.S. is perceived as having let down its local clients in one place, this has no relevance for what it will do in other places, nor is it important in shaping what other states expect the U.S. to do. The fall of South Vietnam and the overthrow of the Shah were the most dramatic reversals for U.S. policies in their respective regions during the Cold War, but this didn’t tell other governments anything about U.S. commitments to its allies in East Asia and Europe. And why would it? Jonathan Mercer noted in an article [3] last year that the Soviets were puzzled by the extent of America’s commitment to South Vietnam:

Similarly, Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, has found that the Soviet Union did not think the United States was irresolute for abandoning Vietnam; instead, Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests [bold mine-DL].

If the Soviets viewed the end of the Vietnam War this way, is it at all likely that China–or any other state–is going to judge U.S. commitments to its real allies based on what it does or doesn’t do about internal conflicts in countries where the U.S. has little or nothing at stake? No, it isn’t. The problem with the “credibility” argument isn’t just that it’s false, but that it creates perverse incentives to embark on and to persist in stupid and unnecessary policies for fear of what “they” will think of us if we don’t.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Awful “Credibility” Argument That Never Dies"

#1 Comment By James Canning On June 25, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

Complete rubbish from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Bravo, Daniel.

#2 Comment By collin On June 25, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

I remember Dan Drenzer once wrote the US is a terrible empire builder. That is why the US does not have the ‘credibility’ to win these countries wars. Basically, there is no profit in it and endless war drains our energy and resources. It is not a complete accident to the two slow Post War US economies, 1974 -1982 & 2008 -, followed an extended military adventure. (Yes there are more important factors here as well.)

On the other hand the world is now a free trade world and this is something China seems to picking up. There foreign policy goal to increase their trade with the world. I wish we focused on that more.

#3 Comment By Jay C On June 25, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

Also, Gobry’s list of “US betrayals” starts off with a fairly ahistorical assessment: “…Koreans ABOVE the 38th parallel in 1953”??

The formerly unitary Korean polity had already been divided at the 38th in 1945: a Soviet client state north; and a Western (mainly US) client state south. (Eventual)unification had been supposed to be in the cards, but that opportunity vanished when the North decided to force the issue by arms in 1950. The US did indeed stand by its “allies” in Korea (still are): but those were the ones SOUTH of the line.

#4 Comment By 1 born / minute On June 25, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

If I understand correctly, Mr. Gobry has just realized that the US government employs a lot of liars pretending to speak in the name of the American people – truly horrid types who make promises that the American people never made and never asked their government to make.

As gently as possible, I suggest to Mr. Gobry that if you’re thinking of starting an armed rebellion somewhere and some whacky US senator, or some second or third generation ethnic American claiming to be a American State Department official, or some Wall Street Journal op-ed writer is telling you that the US is “100 percent behind you”, well, baby, you probably just been had! Naivete that profound is subject to the laws of evolution!

#5 Comment By Cole On June 25, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

I am reminded of a book I once read about the Peloponnesian War, which said that Athens and Sparta would routinely encourage some dinky polis or other to rebel against the enemy’s rule . . . then stand back and do nothing as said enemy rolled in to crush the rebellion. So the enemy would use up valuable resources destroying his own assets, at very little cost to the other side.

It’s a very old, very cruel strategy, and still in use because it’s quite cost-effective and optimism is a common human failing. We needn’t worry that we’ll ever run out of takers, unless we become so weak that it’s impossible for even the most gullible to believe we can protect them.

#6 Comment By jk On June 25, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

Well, when we prop up a puppet regime with arms and dollars, bad things inevitably happen once the US populace start getting pissed off once the US flag draped coffins start returning home and the economy starts to flop to support for some foreign war that is supposedly in their interest.

America never had a stomach for prolonged guerrilla warfare in a far away land.

#7 Comment By Kieselguhr Kid On June 25, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

PEG’s argument is beyond awful and I don’t have any strong critique of what Mr. Larison says here, but I’d offer the slight correction that he Kurds did suffer a pretty bad reversal of fortune a few years after ’91 — because they themselves, to resolve foolishly overblown internal disputes, invited Saddam in. So PEG’s not entirely wrong to think America abandoned them to Saddam — but it was after all their own call.

#8 Comment By HenryClemens On June 25, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

Re Vietnam: I served in Vietnam as a Naval Advisor in 1967 in DaNang and went back there with the Foreign Service in 1973. In ’67 it would have been imprudent to drive unescorted through much of what was called I Corps (the five northern provinces). In ’73 I could have driven on my own to Saigon. The ground war had been mostly won. But the strategic threat of a conventional attack from the North remained. The only real deterrent was air power. The GVN asked for it. We refused; you can always count on us. And then came the War Powers Act and the Congressional decision to slash economic and military aid. I am not sure that the RVN could have survived had we maintained our commitments (though my view was much more optimistic than most of the commentators (who had, in fact, last been in country when the US troops pulled out and who did not update their prejudices thereafter)), but South Vietnam certainly could not survive without the aid we promised. It would not have cost us all that much to fulfill our pledges, but honor, as Montesquieu remarked, is not a leading characteristic of democracies — and certainly not of ours at that time. Conservatives, at least, might remember that and be ashamed.

#9 Comment By Warren Bajan On June 25, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

Those who supported Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq to rid it of WMD then later to establish a democracy should not speak of credibility. They have none!

#10 Comment By AnotherBeliever On June 25, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

“All the cases I have laid out involve America pulling out of a half-finished conflict, primarily for domestic political reasons, rather than reasons of national interest.”

Yes, the people sometimes get a vote on what the national interest is. Citizens of representative democracies consider this a feature, not a bug.

As far as a run on the bank of international security, taking the argument on its own merits, a few points: first, it is equally as plausible that a run on the bank would occur precisely BECAUSE other parties can see how thinly spread and overextended we are, physically and morally. Secondly, such an event could as well be attributed to the Arab Sring-like trends of big power structures being toppled by popular revolt. (The role of economic stress in these events is underrecognized by many analysts, realist and neocon alike – it’s not all social media and desire for self-rule.)

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 25, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

The only example that has any relevance is Vietnam. The conflicted in a peace treaty entreated by the NV. We should have supported the South until they were strong enough to withstand an invasion or encroachment.

Given perhaps, our unwise intervention — having so entrenched ourselves we should have ensured an alliance.

It is a unique example in that there was a long historical relationship and a victory had been secured.

That said, whether we over promise or out and out abandon the effort is really a question of semantic interpretation verses actual difference. Asking a woman onto the dance floor and then failing to show up for the dance is bad form. But the only example that is clear cut is Vietnam.

Though I am surprised the Bay of Pigs an obvious example was not included.

The problem here is why anyone believes the US given the record. Apparently hope over shadows any doubts nations have.

Our commitment to intervene in cases of genocide leaves us wanting in Rwanda. Though here again we made no specific promises.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 25, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

“It would not have cost us all that much to fulfill our pledges, but honor, as Montesquieu remarked, is not a leading characteristic of democracies — and certainly not of ours at that time. Conservatives, at least, might remember that and be ashamed.”

I just read this and I agree.

#13 Comment By STJ On June 25, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

This article is on point! Once again it reinforces my general rule that before any major foreign policy venture (military or otherwise) we must have a clear statement of why we are getting involved, what interests are at stake, what success looks like, and how we plan to get there.

#14 Comment By Kieselguhr Kid On June 25, 2014 @ 10:46 pm

Although (I suppose in part to be contrarian) I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s a scale on which the idea that US credibility is sacred and worth upholding even at other costs, is an absolutely _great_ idea, which is at the scale of individuals. That is to say, Mr. Larison correctly notes that other states ought to be (and sometimes even are) smart enough to recognize that the US prioritizes its interests, and its commitment to (say) Japan is not a thing to be judged in terms of the depth of its commitment to (say) al-Maliki.

But on the individual scale (where the costs are orders of magnitude smaller), credibility is probably something we should try like hell to keep inviolate. So the failure to grant some kind of asylum to Iraqis who served US soldiers as translators or intelligence sources, is (besides being a grotesque moral failure) terrible policy: it costs the US credibility with other foreign intel sources we need and makes it harder and harder for us to get human intelligence, wherever we might want it: _individuals_ can make the calculus that the US doesn’t honor its commitments to them. Similarly in the Bergdahl case there’s been a lot of complex back-and-forth — and I’m not saying the answers are easy — about what precedent we set for men who serve the US, and I think Ruth Marcus was right to draw a parallel to Alan Gross.

It seems off track, it only occurs to me because the image of the pore trusting Kurds or SOuth Vietnamese or what have you sort of bridges this idea between what the state might expect and what the individual Kurd or whomever might expect, and it is deceptively seductive because on the latter scale, credibility matters.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 26, 2014 @ 9:21 am

Leaving aside the other issues, one should also question the moral paradigm at work here. Except perhaps in extreme cases, in which truly “primitive” people are taken in by sweeping promises, the reality is that client and patron both possess a degree of sophistication. It is not as if the poor, trusting, simpleton client is led down the garden path by the evil or Machiavellian or simply negligent master, only to be sold out at the last minute when a better deal comes along or it becomes inconvenient to honor commitments.

Rather, both sides “play” the other. South Vietnamese generals and government officials played the USA just as much as vice versa. The graft, the corruption, the refusal to work together, as each warlord or satrap tried to play all ends against the middle and rise to the top of the heap, and feeling safe in doing so because the USA was doing the actual work of fighting the VC and NVA. The Afghan militia looked to squeeze every last ounce of aid out of the USA, when the pro Soviet government was already just a shell, and using that aid, like the ARVN generals, more for their own purposes, more for use against their rivals supposedly on the same side, than against the Kabul government (which thusly clung to power for years after the Soviet pullout). In Somalia, scheming local politicians, with UN support, attempted to convert what had been a humanitarian effort into US military backing for their envisaged regime. Which, again, shows, a two way, sophisticated relationship.

Yes, the USA “uses” allies, really, more accurately, clients, of convenience. But those clients use the USA as well.

Of course, “little people” can get caught in the switches. But that is the case whenever a policy fails. Not every defeat is a “betrayal,” some defeats are just defeats. As in Vietnam. The US wanted to win. It tried everything it could think of to win, short of genocide and including the loss of tens of thousands of American lives.

And the same might be said of successes too. The US never, as far as I know, promised to broker the various mujahaddin groups in Afghanistan. Everyone understood that the US was only in it to tweak the Soviets. And there were no “anti Taliban” Afghans in 1989, as the Taliban hadn’t even been formed yet, and it would be years before anyone would ever conceive of themselves in this way. And, if anything, the mujahaddin, which the US had supported, actually resembled the Taliban. Those who opposed the mujahaddin were likely supporters of the pro Soviet government, in other words, our enemies? Why would we owe them any “loyalty?”

The US arms and patronizes many, many dubious forces. If I had my druthers it would do a lot less of it. It would have many fewer clients. But the fact that it does have so many clients does not somehow imply an open ended, never ending, all embracing moral commitment to prevent any harm from ever attaching to those clients for having worked with or for the USA. Clients, as well as patrons, play double games, are self interested, can switch sides, and so on. We are not talking about King Arthur and the Round Table here, but dirty, double dealing, cynical politics, being played by all sides. If we are going to play these games (and, again, I think we shouldn’t), we should do so with our eyes wide open, because our adversaries, and clients, certainly have theirs open.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 26, 2014 @ 9:31 am

“It seems off track, it only occurs to me because the image of the pore trusting Kurds.”

The Kurds are not to be trusted. They are part of the problem. The Kurds exist in Iran, Turkey and Iraq. They reside in countries always seeking some manner of asylum. When they were given an opportunity to have their own homeland the failure was wholly theirs, they fought with each others. In Iraq, where they sought shelter from Turkish reprisals and were accommodated they actually rooted for Iran. Kurdish intelligence on the question of WMD was no better than anyone else’s and they were in country.

I am not sure we as US citizens comprehend the realities of governance and we should. We seem to live in some fogged state. But there are parts of the world in which if you decide to revolt against the authority you risk a brutal response. That’s the risk. And that response will be intended to send a message — the consequences of treason are dire. And if you are a guest and you engage in the same — there’s a phrase in the Marine Corps, when trouble is headed someone’s way,

“You can stand by.”

The only wonder about the Kurds is how any national tolerates their existence after open betrayal routinely exhibited. Poor us.

#17 Comment By Brian Miller On June 26, 2014 @ 10:35 am

How any national “tolerates the existence” of the Kurds, Elite? Wow. That is verging on Fascism, is it not? Not to go all Godwin, but I imagine more enthusiastic junior SA members eagerly proclaiming the same thing in the early 30s??

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 26, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

No. I have pleasant and great conversations with Kurds. They are warm, friendly, but on t.he issue of Iraq, not to be trusted.

If I come to you for protection and you do so. You invite me and mine into your home. We don’t get red carpet treatment, not should we.

On one Tuesday morning a bruhaha erupts with your neighbor over some property dispute or barking dogs or noisy trampelines . . . whatever the issue. And me and mine sieze the opportunity to seize ground by siding with your neighbor —

I doubt seriously that you’d allow me to remain. Yet, Iraq did just that. The Kurds seem bent on looking for opportunities to grab others goods and livlihood.

If you were my best friend and you engaged in that behavior — I would tell you — straight up —

You’re fortunate to be alive, much less occupying a space as a guest. That’s not facism, that is self preservation.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 26, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

The Kurds are using us to take that which is not theirs. And that is a recipe for disaster. Despite the shocked response of a kurdish gentleman who spoke with me prior to the invasion when I said absolutely not to any suggestion that the US invade Iraq — I remain today as i did then.

Bad strategy, Bad ethics and horrible consequences.