The Credibility Argument Isn’t Credible

by Patrick Appel

Reuel Marc Gerecht claims that “America’s credibility in the region — which is overwhelmingly built on Washington’s willingness to use force — will be zero unless Obama militarily intercedes now to knock down the Assad regime”:

If the president intends to maintain American influence, which means maintaining a credible threat to go to war to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, then Washington’s response to Assad’s challenge must be devastating. The entire regime must be targeted: elite military units, aircraft, armor and artillery; all weapons-depots; the myriad organizations of the secret police; the ruling elite’s residences; and other critical Alawite infrastructure.

Military interventions don’t automatically make future threats to use force more credible. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drained the treasury, exhausted the American military, and lowered the public’s support for wars of any kind. If we never fought those wars, Iran and Syria would have much more reason to fear our saber-rattling because America would still have the will and resources to launch a real war should the need arise. Getting bogged down in Syria makes our threats to Iran less credible, not more. Larison sighs:

If the “credibility” argument is nonsense, and it is, how ridiculous is Obama’s willingness to make policy decisions on the basis of it?

If Obama knows that the military action he’s about to order is useless, it is that much more indefensible if he proceeds to order it. The fact that the attack will be brief and relatively low-risk for U.S. forces is its only redeeming feature. An attack on Syria has the potential to trigger retaliation, lead to military escalation, or possibly even spark a regional war, and yet it is entirely unnecessary for U.S. or allied security. Obama’s readiness to use force obviously isn’t in doubt, but each time he yields to the impulse to intervene militarily when no U.S. interests are at stake his reputation on foreign policy takes a well-deserved hit.

Walt makes a similar argument:

What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn’t want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won’t solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he’s been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a “red line” a few months back, so now he’s getting taunted with the old canard about the need to “restore U.S. credibility.” This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president’s credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?