The Odd Hawkish Obsession with Reputation
Elliott Abrams concludes another hawkish argument on Syria with a very tired claim about lost credibility:
When Moscow judges what we will do as Russia presses Ukraine, and when Beijing estimates the American reaction to a new “air defense zone” in the East China Sea, the gap between words and actions in Syria must be high on the agenda.
Syria hawks have often tried to drag unrelated issues into the debate over intervention in Syria, and this usually involves claiming that the U.S. is jeopardizing its position elsewhere in the world by failing to follow through on foolish statements that the administration made on Syria. As superficially plausible as these claims might seem, they fall apart as soon as one gives them a few minutes’ consideration. Unlike some American hawks, Russia, China, and other governments are not likely to view all of U.S. foreign policy through the lens of one or two issues in the Near East. If the U.S. doesn’t get itself into another war in the region, that is probably to the disadvantage of other major powers, since that means that the U.S. won’t be bogged down in a new conflict for months or years to come.
More to the point, would “action” in Syria have changed Russian and Chinese behavior in these other areas in the least? The question almost answers itself. No, it wouldn’t have. Is it at all likely that China would not have created its so-called “air defense zone” if the U.S. had started bombing Syria four months ago? There doesn’t seem to be any reason to think so. Would Moscow have chosen not to use economic pressure and threats against Ukraine if the U.S. had gone ahead with another military intervention against one of its clients? No. It seems more likely that Russia would have responded to the bombing of Syria by becoming more antagonistic to U.S. allies and clients to the detriment of the latter. Hawks misjudge the importance of reputation and credibility in international relations, and they consistently misunderstand how other states view and react to U.S. actions.