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The Sloppy Thinking Behind “Credibility” Arguments

Other states don't perceive America's supposed lack of "resolve" in the same way that our own hawks do.
US Navy Vice Admiral Brent Bennitt (Left), Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific, and Chinese Vice Admiral Wang (Right), Commander of the Chinese South Sea Fleet, exchange goodbyes on the pier at Naval Station North Island, San Diego, Calififornia. This marks the first time Chinese warships have crossed the Pacific and visited the Continental United States. The Luhu Class Destroyer HARIBING (DDG 112), Luda II Class Destroyer, ZHUHAI (DDG 166), and a supply ship, the Fusu Class, NANYUN (AOR/AK 953) (Chinese vessels not shown), stopped at Naval Station, North Island, San Diego, California. The next port of call for the Chinese contingent is Acapulco, Mexico.

Jackson Diehl trots out a very tired argument:

First, Obama’s refusal to supply weapons or other military support to the moderate secular rebels fighting Assad in 2011-2012 opened the way to the creation of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Then, his decision to retreat from enforcing his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons caused countries around the world to change their calculations about U.S. resolve. Eastern European officials are convinced that it helped to produce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Japanese diplomats say it contributed to China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea [bold mine-DL].

I am skeptical that any foreign officials have actually made such claims, but it’s possible. I am even more skeptical that any officials that may have made these claims believe them to be true. If any foreign officials have made claims like this, it is because they know this is what they think many people in Washington want to hear. Hawks in Washington are deeply invested in the idea that U.S. “credibility” abroad is preserved through the frequent use of force, so it wouldn’t surprise me if equally hawkish officials in other countries agreed with them. That doesn’t make their interpretation accurate or reasonable.

For one thing, Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea predated the 2013 Syria debate by many years. Chinese-Japanese tensions over the Senkakus likewise predated the abortive Syrian intervention. Japanese diplomats would undoubtedly like to shift attention from the role that some of their own politicians played in escalating tensions over the Senkakus. Telling a credulous hawk that the “failure” to bomb Syria is to blame for the problem is much more attractive. However, unless lost “credibility” has the ability to travel backwards in time, it makes no sense to blame the decision not to bomb Syria for anything that was already developing for many years before that. Regardless, there is a world of difference between commitments that the U.S. has made to a treaty ally and a vague threat made against a third-rate dictatorship. No one seriously believes the two are equally important or related to one another.

As for Ukraine, it is simply risible to believe that a decision not to attack a Russian client made Russia more aggressive. Had the U.S. bombed Russia’s client in Syria and shown the world its “resolve,” does anything think that Russia would have been more accommodating to a pro-Western Ukrainian government or less inclined to intervene in Ukraine earlier this year? Russian decision-making in that case had everything to do with what was happening in Ukraine starting with the protests from late 2013 until the the overthrow of Yanukovych early this year. Trying to tie those decisions back to an American decision not to bomb a different country over an entirely unrelated matter is not only ridiculous and fairly desperate, but it smacks of an America-centric view of international affairs that is both lazy and unfounded. Other states don’t perceive America’s supposed lack of “resolve” in the same way that our own hawks do. Waging another illegal war obviously would not have made Moscow more respectful of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the contrary, flouting international law by illegally bombing Syria just a few months before the Ukraine crisis erupted would have provided Russia with a ready-made excuse for its own later illegal behavior.

It is necessary to stress that there is “no military solution” to many foreign crises because there is a dedicated group of pundits and politicians that is absolutely sure that U.S. military action is the answer to almost any situation. These people put so much stock in the efficacy of U.S. hard power that they attribute it to near-magical powers over the behavior of other states that it clearly doesn’t possess. If the choice is between acknowledging the reality that some crises have no military solution and the fantasies of “credibility” enthusiasts, I’ll take the former every single time.