This past weekend, The Economist lambasted President Obama’s policies in Ukraine and Syria for fostering a “nagging doubt” about America’s credibility as an ally. Then, on Monday, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart suggested that such notions are “bunk.” For Beinart, the “credibility fallacy” is an excuse to avoid complex discussions of America’s global interests.
I have some sympathy for one of Beinart’s arguments: Casual strength-vs.-weakness narratives are unhelpful. Foreign policy is too important for posturing. But ultimately, Beinart is wrong. Contrary to his assertions, American policy in Ukraine and Syria most certainly does influence America’s adversaries — especially in the Middle East.
For a start, take Dexter Filkins’s study of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force and an archetypal hardliner of the regime. In his meticulous analysis, Filkins shows how the sharp edge of Iranian strategy is shaped significantly by perceptions of American global resolve. Where America is seen to be resolute and determined, Iran is deterred. Where America is seen to be timid and uncertain, Iran is emboldened.
And perceptions of U.S. credibility among players who are not part of a foreign regime are also important. Take America’s adversaries in the Middle Eastern media. Opinion makers there now present Obama as the master of a rudderless agenda. These populist narratives are important — they mobilize political agendas in ways that are either favorable or problematic for the United States.
We must always remember that the Middle East is a region beset by strategic paranoia. It harbors a political environment in which perception drives policy and perception thus makes reality. Consider the Syrian civil war. In the absence of American leadership on Syria, the Sunni Arab monarchies have moved to fill the vacuum. Indeed, the Saudis warned that this would happen when, last December, they threatened to be “more assertive.” We have seen the consequences of this new assertiveness. Lacking U.S. reassurance, the Sunni kingdoms have retrenched into hypersectarian fear. Specifically, they’ve allowed their citizens to fund Salafi jihadist groups that oppose Assad (and thus also Iran). And those jihadists have been doing what they do best — most recently, going on crucifixion rampages. Tellingly, the White House is now speeding up weapons transfers to more nationalist-minded Syrian rebels. The Sunni monarchies have shamed themselves by their actions, but perception of U.S. leadership does matter.
Still, there’s another major problem with Beinart’s argument: He, like the Obama administration itself, is blind to the necessity of understood purpose in foreign policy. Again, a recent example encapsulates this truth.
Last September, serving the president’s short-lived Syria authorization-of-force request, Secretary of State John Kerry and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, gave testimony to Congress. For much of the hearing, Dempsey appeared sullen. Why? Because he knew the administration’s policy represented the antithesis of basic strategy. First, the president had relinquished his authority as commander-in-chief by equivocating on his “red line.” Then, in the hearing, Kerry proudly trumpeted the administration’s intention of using strictly “limited” force. His portrayal of military strategy as a clean, simple mechanism of government was extraordinary. But don’t take my word for it, watch this video. Dempsey’s rebuke says it all — disgust. Disgust at the void between stated intention and strategic vision. And disgust at what that void did to American diplomacy. After all, barely a month before the hearing, Dempsey had been in Israel trying to persuade a skeptical Netanyahu that America would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. That day in Congress, Dempsey knew America’s credibility was suffering — and that a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran had become more likely.
Disgust, also, because Dempsey knew that America’s adversaries were also watching — and probably believing that America’s purposefully purpose-deficient foreign policy lacked the credibility to cause them to exercise restraint. (As a side note, it isn’t by chance that the U.S. Army’s leadership manual offers “influence” through “purpose” as its first principle.)
Today, America’s adversaries are watching the second and third acts of this spectacle of strategic vapidity. Act II: the administration’s cover-up of Assad’s continuing chemical warfare. Act III: the administration’s apparent unwillingness to respond seriously to Putin’s aggression — the Russian markets actually rallied after the latest “tough” U.S. sanctions.
So, yes, America’s foreign-policy challenges require in-depth consideration and debate. That’s especially important where military force is on the table. Nevertheless, when strength is proffered in words, those words must carry the perceived guarantee of action. Without that support, the echo of empty rhetoric finds its way into the strategic contemplations of others. The result is America’s diminished credibility and the invitation to aggression that this degradation represents.