The Return of the Absurd “Credibility” Argument
Richard Cohen writes another tiresome column on Syria:
But in the Far East, what concerns South Korean, Japanese and other policymakers is not just the potential instability of the region but also the Obama administration’s erratic Syrian policy. A “red line” was pronounced, then ignored. Force was threatened by the president, and then the decision was lateraled to Congress where, to further the metaphor, the ball was downed and, just for good measure, deflated. None of this comforted the nations that see China as a looming menace and rely on the United States for backup.
It goes without saying that Cohen presents no evidence that allied Asian governments are worried because the U.S. didn’t attack Syria. He is just recycling the foolish “credibility” arguments about Syria that were made and refutedlast year. This was a particularly silly argument at the time, even when it was being made by administration officials, and it is still silly now. Bogging the U.S. down in another war in the Near East is exactly what our Asian allies wouldn’t want, because it diverts attention and resources that might otherwise be directed their way.
The decision not to attack Syria has not undermined U.S. commitments to its treaty allies in Asia in the least. The “red line” in Syria was the product of what proved to be a meaningless presidential statement in a press conference. The obligations that the U.S. has to defend South Korea and Japan are of longstanding and are legally binding. The one has nothing to do with the other, but Syria hawks have consistently sought to confuse the two in order to get the war they have been agitating for over the last two and a half years.
The real danger in Asia is not that our allies lack confidence in U.S. guarantees, but that they are only too ready to take aggressive measures on the assumption that the U.S. will be there to back them up. Cohen tries to draw lessons from WWI, but he somehow manages to miss one of the most important lessons of all. This is that a great power should not make its allies believe that they have a blank check to act however they please in disputes with their neighbors.