Credibility Counts

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On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech in Washington, the reverberations of which were felt on the other side of the world. Describing U.S. foreign policy objectives in Asia, a region where both China and the Soviet Union were seeking to spread Marxist-Leninist revolution, Acheson declared that America had established, by force of arms, a “defensive perimeter" that ran "along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus." More significant than the territories Acheson included, however, was the one he left out: the Korean peninsula. There, in the northern half, the Soviet- and Chinese-backed Communist regime of Kim Il-sung was preparing to invade its southern neighbor.

Five months after Acheson conspicuously neglected to include South Korea under the American security umbrella, the North did indeed invade the South, at Stalin's urging. In the first military action ever authorized by the newly established United Nations Security Council, the United States assembled a multinational coalition to defend South Korea from military aggression. After three years of fighting and more than a million deaths, the war ended with an approximate reversion to the pre-conflict borders.

Judging the decisions taken by political leaders is always easier in hindsight, and it would be rash to blame Acheson for the Korean War, the fundamental causes of which were Communist ambition and postwar American retrenchment rather than the words (or lack thereof) uttered by an American secretary of state. No one can argue with any certainty that had Acheson's speechwriters added a line to his address including South Korea under the American aegis, Kim's soldiers would have sat contentedly above the 38th parallel. As Acheson's biographer Robert L. Beisner observed, "No one in Washington then even planned to send more troops to Europe, let alone fight in South Korea." If Acheson committed any sin, it was one of omission, not commission.

Contrast that unintentional (and, to some extent, unforeseeable) blunder with the considerably more deliberate jam in which President Barack Obama mired himself when he declined to enforce his own "red line" regarding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons in 2013. There, the connection between word and deed was much clearer. A year prior, asked at a press conference under what circumstances Washington might deploy military forces against the Assad government, Obama answered, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

When, in August 2013, the Assad regime was revealed to have used sarin gas on thousands of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, the president sounded ready to act. "It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations" of what he called an "international norm" prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Over a matter of weeks, however, Obama stepped down from his threat to use military force, first insisting upon congressional authorization that he knew he didn't need, then acceding to an opportunistic and cynical Russian proposal that would spare the Assad regime in exchange for the removal of its known chemical weapons stockpiles. Over three years later—after hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, a massive refugee crisis threatening Europe's political stability, and a Russian air campaign in support of Assad that marks Moscow's triumphant return as a Middle Eastern military power—the president and his sycophants still insist that reluctance to enforce the red line was not a mistake but a feat of great strategic vision.

According to this chorus, which stretches from the White House to sympathetic journalists and policy analysts, an overextended America has long been hamstrung by its obsession with so-called credibility. From Vietnam to Iraq to Crimea and Syria, denizens of the Washington "Blob," to use deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes's derisive phrase for the capital's bipartisan foreign policy elite, have exaggerated threats to our security and promiscuously asserted an American stake in conflicts that have little bearing on our interests. "Credibility," defined simply as the alignment of word and deed, is the term invoked by critics of the administration's Syria policy who allege that the president lost a great deal of this precious commodity by promising to do something and then breaking his word. In most areas of human activity, credibility is a prized attribute; in diplomacy, it wins friends and cows enemies. But to partisans of the outgoing administration, already engaged in a process of historical revisionism aimed at obscuring the true record of this disastrous presidency, credibility is nothing but a pretext for bellicosity, one that burdens America with unnecessary commitments and perennially leads us down the path of doing, in the president's colorful words, "stupid shit."

According to the Obama brain trust, the United States has repeatedly been dragged into conflicts around the world because its military and diplomatic elite cannot countenance the idea of losing face. "Today's obsession w credibility akin to 19th C dueling & 'affairs of honor,' " tweets former Obama defense official Derek Chollet. The importance placed on credibility by the American foreign policy establishment has earned it only the contempt of Obama and his circle, as revealed in two magazine interviews, both remarkable for their candor. In the first, conducted by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, the president stated that far from feeling ashamed or embarrassed about his failure to bomb Assad in 2013, he was in fact "proud." He had stood up to the "Washington playbook," which includes the expectation, apparently preposterous, that the leader of the free world will stand by his word on matters of war and peace. "Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you're willing to drop bombs on someone" is how the president, in his characteristically uncharitable way, described the position of his critics. With this blasé dismissal of a substantive policy disagreement, Obama reduced military actions designed to avert mass murder to trigger-happy demonstrations of virility.

As a further demonstration of the playbook's supposed limits, Obama pointed to Russia's August 2008 invasion of Georgia. "I don't think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force," the president quipped. Yet five years after Bush's "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq, Moscow rolled its tanks to within 30 miles of Tbilisi. Even the most warmongering of American leaders, Obama implied, cannot scare other nations away from behaving in ways they believe secure their national interests. It would thus be naïve to think that Obama's own backing down from an explicit promise to order military action against the Assad regime had any consequences beyond the ruffled feathers of Washington's war hawks. While it's true that the Iraq war had no visible bearing on Russian decision-making in Georgia (a straw-man argument from a president expert at constructing them), what Obama conveniently left out of his history lesson was that Vladimir Putin might have gone even further had the Bush administration not made a strong show of force in the region, dispatching warships to the Black Sea and pointedly sending humanitarian aid in military aircraft to the embattled Georgian government.

A more apposite event to discuss in the context of Georgia would have been NATO's decision, at the behest of France and Germany, to reject Membership Action Plans for both Georgia and Ukraine at the alliance's April 2008 Bucharest summit. Like Acheson's Asia speech, this move telegraphed Western indecision and weakness, effectively leaving these countries in a strategic gray zone, which Putin took as a green light for aggression. Indeed, within six years of that summit, both ex-Soviet states were home to large numbers of Russian occupation troops.

Asked by Goldberg if the refusal to enforce his Syria red line had in any way led to Putin's aggression several months later in Ukraine, Obama dismissively replied, "This theory is so easily disposed of that I'm always puzzled by how people make the argument." No one, however, seriously argues that Russia invaded its neighbor because America didn't punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Like Kim Il-sung's invasion of South Korea, the origins of Putin's meddling in Ukraine lie in local factors. Yet for the president and his defenders to argue that his about-face on Assad had no effect in emboldening Russian foreign policy adventurism is special pleading. Obama's reluctance to follow through on his insistence that "Assad must go" sent the same message that NATO's rejection of Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine did in 2008. In both cases, Putin was reassured that he would be pushing against an open door.

The second interview through which the administration conveyed its disdain for credibility was David Samuels's New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes. Throughout the administration's negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, the White House insisted that a convincing threat of military force was always on the table and that this is what extracted punishing concessions from Tehran. Yet as Rhodes basically admitted, the White House wanted a deal so desperately that it was willing to deceive the public about the nature of the Iranian regime, which it claimed had become more "moderate" following the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani.

To push this deceptive narrative, the administration created a media "echo chamber" by feeding talking points to receptive journalists, many of whom, Rhodes sniggered, are "27 years old" and "literally know nothing." With a theocratic dictatorship raring for nuclear weapons on one side of the negotiating table and an exhausted America seeking an exit from the Middle East on the other, you don't need to be a nuclear strategist to deduce the outcome of the negotiations. When Samuels asked Obama's former secretary of defense and CIA chief Leon Panetta if, as Obama had repeatedly insisted, military force would have been used to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, Panetta admitted "probably not." (According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon in his new book The Iran Wars, one of the main reasons Obama stepped down from his red line threat in Syria was concern that the Iranians would suspend nuclear negotiations should the United States take military action against their client, Assad.)

Writing at Vox—one of the administration's favored new media outlets in selling the Iran deal—Max Fisher channeled White House spin in his denunciation of the "credibility trap" that has long ensnared American leaders. The perception that American behavior in one crisis or region might affect the course of events in others is "disproven" and "demonstrably false," claimed Fisher, citing "political scientists." Fisher pointed to a raft of academic studies to prove his point, as if the sum total of the world's diplomatic and military history, in all its vast complexity, could be quantified and explained by social science methods. Forced to come up with a theory to explain why so many foreign policy analysts and practitioners are consumed by a fervent belief in credibility that is "demonstrably false," Fisher approvingly quoted an international relations professor who surmised that the issue is "gendered," a way for them to flaunt their "manliness." Zack Beauchamp, another of Vox's writers whom Rhodes probably had in mind when he referred to credulous members of the administration's "echo chamber," called the idea of foreign policy credibility "total bullshit."

Revealingly, like many of their liberal peers, Fisher and Beauchamp subscribe to an entirely conventional view of foreign policy credibility when a Republican is accused of undermining it. After Donald Trump declared on the campaign trail that he might not defend the Baltic states—NATO members all—from Russian attack unless they "fulfilled their obligations to us," Fisher, now of the New York Times, intoned, "If Mr. Trump creates doubt about the United States' commitment to defend the region, that will play into the uncertainty and volatility that already makes it dangerous." Beauchamp alleged that Trump's "equivocating" on American treaty commitments "creates a dangerous amount of uncertainty" and accused him of "trashing one of the foundations of the postwar European order." Bullshit for thee but not for me.

Because they're so wedded to the fiction that Obama's red line fiasco was really a brilliant diplomatic victory, the president and his allies have committed themselves to arguing against reality. The much-vaunted effort to remove Assad's chemical weapons was not the great success they once claimed; in October, the State Department admitted that the regime continues to use chlorine gas explosives against civilians. (This somewhat arbitrary focus on chemical weapons, moreover, has obscured the regime's use of conventional arms to massacre far more people.) Ever since Washington paved the way for Moscow's military intervention by making clear it would stay out of the fight, the administration has insisted that Russia was entering a "quagmire." Propping up Assad, Obama told the Atlantic, "doesn't suddenly make [Putin] a player. .  .  . [T]here's not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important." This would probably amuse Putin, who seems to care more about traditional great-power metrics like maintaining a military foothold in the Middle East and shoring up support for a longtime ally than he does global warming or whatever else dominates G20 meetings. Thinking Putin has gained anything with his Syria intervention, the president went on, "is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally." Yet by any objective measure—as opposed to those used in Obama's dialectical fantasy world where "progress" moves us all ineluctably forward—it is Putin who has achieved his goals in Syria and the West that has failed miserably.

Ultimately, the greatest repudiation of the notion that credibility doesn't matter comes from Obama's own hapless secretary of state, John Kerry. At this month's Saban Forum, Kerry admitted that a failure to defend the president's red line "cost us significantly in the region, and I know that and so does the president. .  .  . It cost. Perception can often just be the reality." America's allies have been saying much the same thing. "This signal was interpreted as weakness from the international community," said French president François Hollande, who blamed Obama's indecisiveness for Russian aggression farther afield. "That's what provoked the crisis in Ukraine, the illegal annexation of Crimea, and what's happening in Syria right now." A former Japanese defense ministry official told me, on a recent visit to Tokyo, "if you are not going to enforce red lines you should not talk about [them]." Washington's inertia, he said, had "undermined" the U.S. position in Asia.

Denying that credibility counts in the world—arguing that it's nothing more than a form of magical thinking designed to embroil the United States in endless conflict—is a willful delusion and recipe for policy failure. It's also a crafty debater's tactic, of which this White House and its minions are especially fond. Challenge this administration's weakness on the world stage, and you will be met with an endless stream of false dichotomies. Those who criticize the president for not doing more in Syria, he and his acolytes allege, want to ignite another war in the Middle East (as if what Syria has been experiencing these past five, dreadful years is not already a war). Those who recommend he send defensive weapons to Ukraine want war with Russia. Those who find fault with his nuclear deal want war with Tehran.

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, responding to then-rival Hillary Clinton's claim that his campaign promises amounted to "just words," Obama delivered one of his more memorable speeches. Reciting some of the most famous aphorisms of the American canon, from the Declaration of Independence's revolutionary claim that "all men are created equal" to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Obama righteously declared, "Don't tell me words don't matter." How sadly ironic that this president, who more than any other in recent memory acts as if his speeches are a substitute for action, was so selective in recognizing the importance of his words.

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