International Relations

Threats and Credibility: How Obama’s Decision to Seek Congressional Authorization for Syria May Have Been a Game Changer

Sep 11 '13

The following is a guest post from University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D candidate in political science Roseanne McManus.


In August 2012 and March 2013, President Obama referred to the use of chemical weapons by Syria as a “red line” and a “game changer.”  The evidence appears to indicate that Syria disregarded these warnings, using chemical weapons on a small scale in March 2013 and on a larger scale in August 2013.  However, now Syria has expressed at least initial willingness to give up its chemical weapons.  My research on the conditions for effectiveness of statements of resolve sheds light on the reasons for this change.  Specifically, it suggests that Obama’s threats have recently become more effective because seeking approval from Congress has resulted in a greater observable ability to follow through on them.

A fair amount of political science research has already been devoted to the question of how tough statements can effectively convey resolve to adversaries, despite the incentives for leaders to exaggerate their resolve.  The most prevalent current theories suggest that it is the costs of backing down from resolved statements that prevent leaders from making statements too casually and thus render statements more credible.  These costs might include damage to a leader’s or nation’s international reputation or a decline in the leader’s domestic support.

Clearly, these types of costs exist in the Syria case.  Obama was hammered in the media and by other politicians for his weak response to Syria’s first use of chemical weapons.  Many of Obama’s critics explicitly mentioned the loss of US credibility as a cost of Obama’s inaction.  The fact that backing down from his statements would be domestically and internationally costly for Obama should have been obvious to Syria from the outset.  Yet, Syria did not heed Obama’s warnings.  This suggests that we need to bring other factors into our analysis.

My research, available here, shows that factors related to the costs of backing down are rather poor predictors of whether statements of resolve will be effective at influencing the outcome of international disputes.  Much better predictors are factors related to whether a leader has the observable ability to follow through on statements.  While many theories tend to take a leader’s ability to follow through on statements for granted, I argue that there can be substantial risks and obstacles to following through, such as domestic actors who can block or forestall action (known in political science as veto players) or the danger of domestic backlash if a conflict goes poorly.  Therefore, statements of resolve will only be effective if adversaries can observe that a leader has the ability to overcome these risks and obstacles.  My statistical analysis shows that US presidential statements of resolve have a greater influence on dispute outcomes when the president has a greater ability to follow through on his statements due to a secure political position and/or hawkish domestic veto players.

How does this apply to the Syria situation?  It was clear from the outset that it would be difficult for Obama to follow through on his initial red line statement.  With marginal popularity and many other domestic priorities to focus on, it appeared that Obama would have only limited political capital to expend on pushing through a new policy on Syria.  Furthermore, it was obvious that Obama’s own political base was likely to be skeptical of military action.  In addition, even before the current intense debate kicked off, it was clear that there was significant doubt about the wisdom of further US involvement in Syria among both parties in Congress.  (Interestingly, my results, which cover the years 1950-2001, indicate that having more Republicans in Congress has typically allowed presidents to make more effective statements because Republicans have historically been more supportive of a tough foreign policy.  Although Republicans currently control the House, their positive impact on the effectiveness of statements seems to have declined with the rise of the more isolationist Tea Party.)  For all of these reasons, it was observable to Syria that Obama would have difficulty following through on his statements.  Thus, it is not entirely surprising that Syria failed to comply.

This analysis also sheds light on Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for military action and on Syria’s recent apparent concession.  If Congress does approve military action, it will be extremely obvious to Syria that Obama has the ability to follow through in the present and in the future.  The fact that Congressional approval would also mean approval by at least a portion of the opposition party would make the signal that Obama has the ability to follow through even clearer.  Indeed, it appears that the tactic of seeking Congressional approval may already be working even before a full Congressional vote.  The very act of seeking approval has signaled Obama’s confidence that he has the ability to follow through and prompted more politicians, including Republicans, to speak up in support of him.  Based on this analysis, it is probably no coincidence that Syria’s suggestion that it is open to giving up its chemical weapons came only a few days after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to authorize military action.