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The Misleading “Credibility” Obsession

Rajan Menon notes how often the debate over attacking Syria becomes an argument about U.S. policies toward other countries:

What’s striking about the debate over President Obama’s plan for a punitive strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad is the extent to which it centers on countries other than Syria.

This reflects the reality that Syrian conflict and even the use of chemical weapons in that conflict are not all that important to the U.S. Nonetheless, both are being treated as if they were extremely important because of their supposed implications for U.S. policies and interests elsewhere in the world. At one point in the hearings this week, Hagel made the far-fetched claim that Japan and South Korea–both treaty allies of the United States–would begin to doubt American commitment to their security in the absence of an attack on Syria. This is the same weird conflation of official, ratified security guarantees and “unscripted” presidential remarks that we see in a recent Roger Cohen op-ed, as if the former could be undermined by a failure to attack another country in an entirely different part of the world. Hagel also claimed that not attacking Syria would “embolden” North Korea, which doesn’t make any sense and amounts to little more than a scare tactic.

Menon continues:

In reality, the credibility gambit often combines sleight of hand with lazy thinking (historical parallels tend to be asserted, not demonstrated) and is a variation on the discredited domino theory. This becomes apparent if one examines how it is being deployed in the debate on Syria.

As Menon observes later, it is easy to imagine that Iran could react to an attack on Syria by becoming more interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, and North Korea could see a new justification in keeping the nuclear weapons it already has. Recent U.S. military interventions over the last decade may have sent a message to authoritarian regimes, but they aren’t the message that Washington wanted to send. Two states without nuclear weapons have been attacked and overthrown, and now a third that doesn’t have nuclear weapons faces military attack. The danger here isn’t that these regimes don’t take U.S. threats seriously, but that they are only too willing to assume that they need nuclear weapons to prevent those attacks from happening.

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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