“Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

In the deluge of blogospheric commentary on the administration’s massive Syria problem, you see a lot of extreme positions on the question of whether it is important to use force to uphold Obama’s or the US’s “credibility.”  Advocates of intervention (who are relatively few) often argue that this is a critical consideration (eg, Walter Russell Mead, or John Kerry).  Opponents argue that maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force (eg, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, Jim Manzi, Stephen Walt, among many others).  Maybe it’s boring to say, but both extreme positions are wrong.  Credibility, or following through on previous diplomatic commitments, should clearly not be the only consideration but neither should it be completely disregarded.

If a prior commitment or threat implies that, the way things play out, you would have to take an action that is incredibly costly and not at all in your current interest, then, fine, take the hit and don’t do it.  No one will infer that you are no longer willing to fight for anything that’s important to you.  At worst you will face more challenges than you otherwise would have on some foreign policy margin.

But neither does the position that credibility should be completely irrelevant in a decision to use force make much sense.  I’m struck by how often advocates for this position in effect lay down the following two Diplomatic Commandments for US presidents:

1)  Never make a commitment to use force (set a red line) that you aren’t willing to actually follow through on.

2)  Never fight a war or carry out a military action just for the sake of credibility.  Use force only if it is in your national interest, all things considered, at the time of decision.

If you think about it, there is a pretty strong tension between these two commandments, because (2) implies that any prior public commitments you make are essentially meaningless—you are going to use force according to whether it makes sense at the moment, regardless of what you said in the past.  So what would the point be of making public statements concerning what you might be willing to use force over?  How would doing so convey any real information beyond what other states could already surmise based on behavior or a strategic calculation of your interests?  Do you really want to say that leaders should never try to indicate what they might view as an important interest that they might be willing to use force over when this isn’t already 100% clear?

States certainly want to be able to communicate credibly on the question of what they would use force over, and on average it is probably a good thing—in terms of avoiding unnecessary conflicts—if they can.  But there is an inevitable downside.  The cost of credible communication is that there is sometimes a cost for not following through, and that cost can be a consideration inclining a leadership towards using force when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

I’m drawing here on arguments about what the IR literature usually calls “audience costs,” which are domestic political costs a leader may pay for escalating an international dispute, or for making implicit or explicit threats, and then backing down or not following through.  Having the ability to generate such costs can be a good thing for state, as they enable a leader to communicate more clearly in dangerous situations.  But they inevitably come with a risk of a downside, which the Obama administration is now experiencing.

A couple of recent articles have argued that case evidence for the existence of audience costs is slight.  At least in the case of Snyder and Borghard (gated), I think this was based mainly on the mistaken belief that if the public supports a leader for not going to war (or otherwise backing off), this means there weren’t audience costs created by the leader’s escalation or threats.  Instead, the relevant question to ask is whether the leader would have preferred not escalating or making the threat to begin with to having done so and then later backed down.  In this example, does Obama regret the “red line” statements?  Probably yes, but even if not, isn’t it obvious that he has already paid some domestic political price for not doing anything on chemical weapons use in Syria earlier this year, and will all the more so if he doesn’t follow through now?  I’m not saying that in this case he should follow through for the sake of credibility and reputation, just that lambasting presidents for taking credibility or domestic audience costs into account in deciding what to do is neither realistic or nor necessarily good council as a general principle.

6 Responses to “Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

  1. Mihai Martoiu Ticu September 7, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    When writing such texts one should also take readers from abroad into consideration. One has to convince them as well. The Pentagon was right when concluding that:

    “Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic — namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is — for Americans — really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.” http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ADA428770.pdf

    This is also the case for the rest of the world. People see the Americans as strangely narcissistic, when talking to the world they are talking to themselves. Micah Zenko discovered this first hand: “During my encounters with foreign officials, few take U.S. government pronouncements seriously, and instead assume they are made to appease domestic audiences.” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/20/the_signal_and_the_noise

    The conclusion is that nobody outside U.S. takes any pronouncement from the USG or US politicians seriously.

    Moreover, it is disturbing to hear that one should follow a threat to use military force. Such a threat is illegal in international law and the unilateral use of force is as illegal as the threat. Thus saying that one should kill Syrians because one threatened to do that, is like saying that somebody who threatens another person on Twitter should really kill that person, to keep his word. Only Mafia has such credibility concerns. The rest of us expect the threatener to just respect the law. On the same way we expect US to respect international law.

  2. Jim Manzi September 7, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    But I don’t think I made any argument close to the “maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force” position that you ascribe to me. I actually argued that credibility is a nested mukti-step game, and that disciplining presidents to have to have lined up credible domestic political support prior to issuing threats would (among other things) lead to greater credibility.

    Jim Manzi

    • James Fearon September 8, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

      You’re right, on re-reading I’d agree you are not dismissing the importance of credibility in general. A better link would probably have been to the National Review editorial statement you were taking issue with.

      If presidents had to line up congressional support for every threat or warning they felt it necessary to make in carrying out foreign policy, this would defeat the purpose of delegating foreign policy to an executive branch. The question is where to draw the line for congressional control or explicit authorization. During the Cold War the line was drawn (implicitly, by Congress) pretty far towards the president. Maybe it’s in the course of moving back now.

  3. albatross September 8, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    This is probably my lack of knowledge about IR theory, but it seems like your description is omitting other reasons for the communications. If I tell some guy in a bar “shut up or I’ll punch you out,” I may be honestly conveying my plans to him, but I may also be bluffing (maybe I’m quietly figuring out where the nearest exit is), or posturing for a different audience (maybe I’m trying to impress a girl). Indeed, it seems like a huge amount of the practical reason why we’re supposed to care about the president’s credibility in terms of making this kind of threat is to preserve his ability to bluff, since that may accomplish our goals at very low cost–at least if you don’t count the cost of the times we follow through with a dumb threat in order to preserve our credibility. But posturing is the real problem, I think–I suspect (as is suggested in the first comment) that most US politicians’ public statements on foreign relation are about posturing for American audiences, and are only incidentally about their effects on foreigners. That’s the kind of statement we *really* don’t want to be acting on.

  4. TGGP September 8, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    The linked post is not from Steve Walt, but Jerome Slater posting on his blog.

    • James Fearon September 8, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

      My mistake, sorry. But I think Steve’s posts on either side of Slater’s can serve.