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Why Terrible “Credibility” Arguments Survive

The "credibility" argument never needs proof to be taken seriously.

Ian Bremmer makes a muddle-headed appeal to the importance of “credibility”:

The president of the United States issued an explicit warning, Mr Assad ignored him, and Mr Obama changed the subject. It’s hard to imagine a move more damaging for US credibility [bold mine-DL]. China, Japan, South Korea, and others were left to wonder if America’s tough-talking president might also buckle under future pressure applied in Asia. Europeans began to doubt that the US wanted to lead — from in front or from behind. Israelis questioned how far Washington would go to safeguard their country’s security. The Saudis, already sceptical of US commitments following Mr Obama’s refusal to protect Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time US ally, from the Arab Spring’s barbarians at the gates, began to doubt that the US was committed to the battle to contain Iran.

The strange thing about Bremmer’s argument is that he goes to admit that the decision not to attack Syria was the better one available at the time, but still feels compelled to rehearse this story about the great damage that was supposedly done to U.S. “credibility” worldwide. Even though he thinks not bombing Syria was the best of bad options, Bremmer still has to go through the motions of bowing before the idol of “credibility.” He bluntly says that it is hard for him to imagine something more damaging to U.S. “credibility” than the Syria episode in the late summer of 2013, but when he tries to demonstrate the damage that has supposedly been done by this episode he doesn’t have much at all to back it up. As we see in this passage, he is mostly just guessing about what others might think about the decision (since he has no proof that any other government is thinking this way), or he is lumping in unrelated developments that have very different causes.

For example, Bremmer asserts that major Asian governments and “others” were “left to wonder” what would happen if the U.S. “buckled” under pressure in Asia, but there is no evidence that any of these governments have actually worried about this, much less that they worry about it because of anything that did or didn’t happen in Syria. “Europeans began to doubt that the U.S. wanted to lead,” Bremmer says, but neglects to tell us who all these doubting Europeans are supposed to be. There were almost no European governments in favor of bombing Syria in August and September 2013, and likewise hardly any that were alarmed by the U.S. decision not to bomb. Unlike many hawkish politicians and pundits in the U.S., most European governments don’t equate military intervention with “leadership” and therefore don’t perceive an absence of “leadership” when the U.S. chooses not to bomb another country. If pressed to show any practical consequences of all this severe damage to “credibility,” Bremmer would not be able to offer any. That’s because they don’t exist.

The cleverness of the “credibility” argument is that it never needs proof to be taken seriously, and it flourishes in spite of a fair amount of evidence that the obsession with “credibility” is misguided and dangerous. Promoters of this argument conjure up far-fetched scenarios, and yet their warnings are invested with great importance despite the fact that they are mostly just indulging in evidence-free speculation. “Credibility” arguments warn about things that might conceivably happen in one place because of a “failure” to “act” somewhere entirely unrelated, but they never have to be proved right by events to receive a hearing. These arguments continue to be reproduced and circulated as if they offered a profound explanation for the way states behave, but they don’t. On the contrary, these arguments detract from our accurate and useful understanding of how states perceive the threats and actions by other states and bias our policy debates even more in favor of “doing something” than they already are. Worrying about “credibility” in this way is really just an irrational fixation that people continue to indulge in, and they do so because its false claims seem intuitive and because it is useful for making weak hawkish arguments appear superficially more compelling than they would be otherwise.



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