Foreign Policy

Questioning U.S. Credibility with Syria

A nation's credibility is of course important in the conduct of foreign policy, but as a goal of military action, it has a troubled history. Focus on defending U.S. credibility in the mid-20th century blurred the difference between vital and non-vital interests, ultimately leading to American intervention in remote places like Korea and Vietnam. These experiences show that a state cannot act militarily based simply on fear of a threat to credibility without stating what immediate, objective interests are at stake or worrying that the need to protect credibility might require further action. At least ask: Is the interest at stake today worth the price of the next possible escalation?

Moreover, protecting credibility requires a full understanding of the reputation in question -- something neither the White House nor its critics have displayed. Despite the talk of not being taken seriously, America remains a feared superpower in the Middle East, and Washington's hand is seen in almost everything big and small. For Arabs in Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere, the problem is not American credibility on the use of force; rather, they have a deep mistrust of U.S. aims.

Regional attitudes toward CW use are also misunderstood. What most Arabs think needs to be done in the Syrian conflict, including by the United States, has not been shaped or changed by the use of CW. In reality, three issue areas, none of them driven by the CW question, determine Arab attitudes on Syria: humanitarian, sectarian, and strategic.

The humanitarian concern arose at the outset of the Syrian uprisings, as Assad used the might of his army to brutally attack civilians. CW use was another example of brutality, but not the main force behind regional perceptions.

The strategic side of Arab attitudes has of course many dimensions, but at the core is Saudi-Iranian competition that has drawn allies on each side. This is also independent of CW concerns. Saudi rulers have been privately lobbying the West to intervene since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings, long before the use of CW. Iran, too, sees the American role in Syria as part of a bigger strategic picture involving U.S. and Israeli interests, not CW as such. 

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