Many of my fellow Syria hawks argue that the U.S. should strike because its “credibility” is at stake. They mean “credibility” in the sense of credible U.S. power to maintain peace and security, particularly the ability to project a credible threat. We certainly have a credibility problem, but the problem is much worse than most hawks seem to realize. It arises not just from Obama’s head-in-the-sand pacifism but — more important — from the lack of a consensus national-security strategy that is rationally related to the threats we face abroad.
The Bush doctrine focused on the confluence of rogue regimes, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. It called for early preemption of gathering threats and the spread of democracy to drain the swamp in which threats take root. But the Bush doctrine was largely discredited by the trauma of the Iraq war, particularly among independents and younger conservatives of a more isolationist bent. The doctrine was replaced in the Obama administration by a fluffy collection of meaningless platitudes and campaign talking points. Since then, America has been almost totally permissive of rogue regimes that support terrorism and proliferate WMD. It no longer has any real policy of confronting them. Hence there is no real “threat” against Syria or Iran, and if there is no threat, there can’t be a credible threat.
It certainly is worrisome that Obama is in danger of not following through on an explicit threat against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. But the source of his threat was not U.S. national-security policy. It was an “international norm” that matters mostly to proponents of world government among the academic Left. That group does not have enough influence to provide Obama with a solid majority in favor of strikes, so Obama has had to go looking for support among proponents of the old Bush doctrine. And they insist that any military strikes must materially weaken the Assad regime, enough to bring it down or at least push Assad to the negotiating table. To get their support, the administration is expanding the target list. But that does not mean Obama has embraced the Bush policy (which Bush himself often shied away from) of confronting rogue regimes that support terrorism and proliferate WMD. Even if he carries through on his threat, the threat doesn’t stem from any consensus policy, so strikes can’t make the policy more credible.
Simply put, there is no national-security policy right now. That’s why we have a credibility problem. Following through on one isolated threat is not going to prevent U.S. credibility from diminishing further, because U.S. credibility is already zero. We know this by looking at the Persian Gulf, where a constant rotation of several aircraft-carrier strike forces — armadas of terrifying power — are having exactly the same effect on Iranian policy as a bunch of ducks floating in the water.
In Syria, the U.S. should strike for strategic effect, to turn the tide against Assad, push his regime to seek a negotiated settlement, and end its alliance with Iran. It should do that for humanitarian reasons and also for reasons of strategic necessity — namely, that the U.S. cannot afford to casually tolerate the existence of regimes like Syria and Iran. The coming decades are going to be very turbulent, and the U.S. will have to be kinetically engaged in the world if we’re going to avoid major catastrophes. Regimes like Syria and Iran should be walking on tippy-toes to avoid getting whacked by the U.S.
A little credibility could go a long way — we should try it sometime. A real national-security strategy would be a good start.