The Bogus ‘Credibility’ Argument Five Years Later
Hal Brands repeats the tired and discredited “credibility” argument about the 2013 “red line” episode in Syria:
Admittedly, it is difficult to say precisely what impact that perceived weakness had on the subsequent calculations of allies and adversaries. But the sense that Washington was wavering in its willingness to honor its commitments [bold mine-DL] surely did not have a stabilizing effect on global affairs just as revisionist actors were starting to test international norms and balances of power in increasingly assertive ways.
Brands’ version of the argument is slightly more nuanced than the“kill Syrians for Ukraine” op-eds that we have seen in the past, but it is based on the same faulty assumptions that backing up an off-the-cuff threat against the Syrian government with military action has something to do with honoring American commitments elsewhere in the world. Other states do not judge these things this way. They find U.S. promises and threats to be credible or not based on the interests that the U.S. has in a particular place. Our formal defense commitments to allies were not damaged in the slightest by the decision not to bomb the Syrian government back then. None of our international commitments was in any way weakened when Obama backtracked on his ill-advised threat. You can agree or disagree with the decision not to follow through on that exceedingly vague threat, but stop pretending that it had any effect on U.S. “credibility” in the world.
The only people that still believe that U.S. “credibility” was damaged at all by the decision not to bomb the Syrian government in 2013 are those that called for that attack and the foreign leaders that wanted the U.S. to take that action for their own reasons. Brands quotes former French President Hollande complaining about this episode, but Hollande has his own axe to grind about this. France was prepared to join in the attack, but had to call it off when the U.S. and Britain dropped out. Hollande is hardly an impartial judge of international reaction to an episode in which he was directly involved. It is hard to believe that our other treaty allies in Europe and Asia were dismayed that the U.S. didn’t attack yet another country in the Middle East. It is impossible to take seriously that our adversaries read U.S. restraint in this instance as proof that our government wouldn’t honor its real commitments to allies.
By his own admission, Brands can’t describe the effects that not bombing Syria in 2013 had on the calculations of other states. The reason he can’t is that there is no evidence that it had any effect. Our government’s willingness to blow up Syrian soldiers because they crossed a line arbitrarily set by a president at a press conference one day is not a measure of our reliability as an ally. All Brands can cite is a “sense” that the U.S. was “wavering,” but the only people that sense this were the ones that thought the U.S. should intervene in Syria years earlier. The only ones casting doubt on U.S. willingness to honor its commitments after September 2013 are the very “credibility”-obsessed pundits that claim to care so much about those same commitments. Brands insists that the “red line” episode “sent just the wrong message about American credibility at just the wrong time,” but there is no evidence that it sent any message about our “credibility.”
The test for whether the standard “credibility” argument holds any water is fairly straightforward: identify actions by adversaries and allies that wouldn’t have been taken if the U.S. had carried out attacks on the Syrian government in 2013. No one can explain how choosing not to attack another government five years ago changed the behavior of a single government anywhere in the world, but we are supposed to believe that it “did inflict real blows on U.S. credibility.” It is perhaps fitting that belief in the “credibility” argument is itself essentially an article of faith for a certain kind of foreign policy analyst: no proof is needed to believe in it and the complete lack of supporting evidence doesn’t lessen the devotees’ fervor.