The Cult of “Credibility” and Resolve
David Ignatius makes a depressingly common argument:
In the realm of power politics, U.S. presidents get points not for being right but for being (or appearing) strong. Presidents either say they’re going to knock the ball out of the park, or they say nothing [bold mine-DL]. The intangible factors of strength and credibility (so easy to mock) are, in fact, the glue of a rules-based international system.
Few people mock “the intangible factors of strength and credibility” as such, but many of us justifiably mock others that invest these things with so much importance in international relations. If the “rules-based international system” exists, it must be held together by something real and tangible, and it can’t be so heavily dependent on one state’s largely irrelevant reputation. Like all appeals to the importance of “credibility,” Ignatius simply asserts that it is essential and never offers any proof that it is so.
In practice, presidents frequently make public statements that fall in between these two extremes. When they have made extremely bold declarations, it has often created the very traps that Ignatius later criticizes Obama for falling into. The mistake that Obama made on Syria wasn’t that he wouldn’t do unwise things as quickly as Ignatius wanted, which includes arming opposition forces, but that he made declarations about Assad’s fate (“Assad must go”) when he could easily have said something much less ambitious and specific. Obama bought into the foolish notion that he had to say something significant and “strong” in response to Assad’s crackdown, and he has been paying the price ever since. Yes, Obama would benefit from saying less about crises and conflicts that the U.S. can’t resolve, but it would also be better for the U.S. and the administration if he didn’t keep giving in to the demand to “do more.”
It also doesn’t make much sense for Ignatius to insist that the U.S. “do more” when he then spends the second half of his column arguing that Obama should continue doing more or less what he’s been doing with respect to Ukraine. As far as Ignatius is concerned, the demand to “do more” applies only to Syria, and even then he isn’t demanding much more than what the administration is already doing. The entire column is an exercise in exactly the sort of useless criticism that Obama was belittling last week, and it is made worse by the fact that Ignatius doesn’t disagree with Obama policies on substance very much at all. He doesn’t think that Obama said anything very wrong last week in Manila, but he feels compelled for some reason to complain about it anyway.