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The “Credibility” Distraction

Doyle McManus didn’t care for Obama’s attack on his hawkish foreign policy critics:

The second problem is that the president ducked the critics’ chief complaint: that his aversion to all forms of military intervention, even indirect ones, has emboldened malefactors like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar Assad to test the limits. That’s a legitimate worry, and much of the public appears to share it, according to recent public opinion polls.

Perhaps Obama didn’t address this objection because he found it to be even more ridiculous than agitation for more aggressive policies. It is a very shallow complaint, and it is based on a number of serious misunderstandings about how the U.S. is perceived and how this affects the decision-making of other states. First, it’s nonsense to claim that Obama has an “aversion to all forms of military intervention.” If only he had such an aversion, he might be able to make more credible arguments against his hawkish detractors. The truth is that Obama has conducted a foreign policy that is in many respects just as militarized as that of his predecessor, and he has been responsible for ordering military strikes in several countries. Had Obama gone ahead and ordered the bombing of Syria as he nearly did last year, it would only have angered and goaded Syria’s patrons into acting against U.S. interests. Authoritarian governments don’t see the U.S. as too passive and reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts. They are usually more preoccupied by the fear that the U.S. is working to undermine them, and they tend to perceive every adverse development as proof of Washington’s hostility.

The idea that the U.S. “emboldened” anyone by not launching an illegal attack on another country is thoroughly disconnected from reality. It might be a legitimate worry if there were any merit to the argument, but there isn’t. To the extent that they are paying any attention to it, I suspect most Americans are not impressed by this brand of hawkish whining. They definitely don’t agree with the implication that the U.S. ought to have bombed Syria to preserve its “credibility,” since a large majority was absolutely opposed to bombing Syria for any reason.

Fettweis addresses this question in his chapter on honor and “credibility”:

This is about as close as security studies scholarship ever gets to a settled question: credibility gained in one instance does not help states in future endeavors, and neither does damaged credibility cause much harm. There is little reason for leaders to be concerned about their reputations, and it is certainly never wise, especially in today’s world, to fight for honor. (p. 124)

I don’t know why Obama didn’t respond to the “chief complaint” that McManus identifies, but he would be right to dismiss it as a baseless assertion that has repeatedly been shown to be wrong.

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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