by Robert E. Hunter

“…my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.”
– President Barack Obama, Stockholm, September 4, 2013

President Obama and other US supporters of attacking Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons have based much of their argument on the issue of credibility. In particular, will other nations (and non-national elements, like terrorist groups) take seriously US declarations if we do not now follow through on preserving Obama’s “red line?”

This question relates to one of the most important elements of statecraft, especially for the United States, which presents itself as the “indispensable nation” and is seen by many others to be so. Further, if the US does not take the lead in trying to reestablish the prohibition on chemical weapons, no one else will do so.

More generally, if the US were seen as being haphazard or even indifferent to the commitments it makes, especially regarding the use of force in specified circumstances, bad results could ensue. Enemies could seek to exploit what they would perceive as American weakness; allies and partners could be less certain that the US would come to their assistance when they were threatened in some way.

This was the conundrum that bedeviled every US administration during the Cold War, as it sought to reassure European allies that the US, even at the price of its own destruction, would use nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union was not, through such US commitment, deterred from aggression against the West.

At this point, with Syria’s violating Mr. Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons, reinforced by his declaration last weekend that he will use force, he has no choice but to do so. That will be true even if Congress votes down the authorization he has sought (which it is unlikely to do) and even if he now goes to the United Nations for a mandate to act (which UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China would veto). Obama has “nailed his colors to the mast,” and failing to follow through, it is argued, would have consequences. Contrary to his recent statement in Stockholm, his credibility as president and commander-in-chief is, indeed, “on the line,” certainly in Washington’s unforgiving politics.

But what are those “consequences?” Are all red lines equally significant? Does failure to honor every declared commitment, formal or informal, large or small, always mean that other US commitments will not be taken seriously? It is hard to accept that proposition at face value — and countries which have tested it have rued the day. Indeed, like beauty, credibility is very much “in the eye of the beholder.”

Certainly, some commitments are more important than others. It would not matter if the president promised to quit smoking and did not; but it would matter very much if he pledged to defend the nation against a terrorist attack and sat idly by in face of another 9/11. “Credibility” must thus be seen on a sliding scale, and deciding where on this scale a particular commitment lies is a matter of judgment. (It is also important not to declare a “red line” if it does not truly relate to US national security interests, as Obama did in the current instance.) This is a major reason that most US security commitments take the form of treaties, ratified by the Senate.

The first requirement is to match the commitment to an objective reality of US security needs, as clearly understood both by the US and others. While deterring the use of chemical weapons is desirable and has a long history stemming in particular from World War I, what has happened in Syria does not directly impact on the security of the United States (chemical weapons have also accounted for less than two percent of casualties in the Syrian civil war, to which the “international community” has been largely indifferent). It is not like the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11. It is not like Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which put at risk a large fraction of the world’s exportable hydrocarbons. Had the United States not responded with military force to these direct threats, allies could rightly have wondered about American willpower, and enemies could have tested it elsewhere. Not only would US security have been put in jeopardy, so would the confidence that others have reposed in us. That is not now the case in Syria. Nor, despite the president’s assertion, is this a matter of the international community’s credibility, an effort to spread the responsibility and show the American people that the US is just the agent of a broad consensus. The risk in making that assertion is that a large fraction of the world’s nations do not agree that attacking Syria will help, and that list goes far beyond Russia, China and Iran.

President Obama has made attacking Syria a matter of US credibility. But that can arguably also be less a matter of objective reality, based on cool analysis, than the need to build congressional and popular support for a decision already taken. He can thus raise the stakes to try building political support for a decision he has already made. He knows there is little or no risk of US casualties, given the reliance on stand-off weapons, as was done most recently in the Libya conflict. Given that fact, what objection can there be to making a demonstration of military force, which might encourage “the others” to think twice about using chemical weapons?

The problem lies not in trying to fence off this particularly odious weapon, but in what happens after the US punishes Syria. It is one thing to argue that American credibility is at stake, it is quite another to ignore what has to be a key requirement in establishing that credibility, as well as demonstrating US leadership: laying out a convincing strategy for the Day After. The idea that a limited use of force can teach the Assad regime a lesson without escalating the conflict even further and tipping the balance in favor of the rebels assumes precision in the use of military force that has few if any historical precedents.

And if Assad were toppled, what then? The Syrian civil war pits the Alawite minority rulers against the majority of the population. Assad’s overthrow would likely produce revenge-taking and a bloodbath far worse than what has happened so far, and whoever gains power in Damascus would be unlikely to put US interests high on the agenda.

The Syrian conflict is also part of a larger civil war in the heart of the Middle East that, in its current phase, began with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. In getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the US also deposed a minority Sunni government that had ruled over Iraq’s Shia majority for centuries. Since then, several Sunni Arab states (plus Turkey) have sought to right the balance; their efforts to overthrow the Alawites in Syria are just grist to that mill. But the United States certainly has no interest in becoming party to a Sunni-Shia conflict. Quite the reverse: the US and the West need that conflict to end and at least avoid adding fuel to the fire.

In trying to show Congress that the US is not alone in wanting to punish the Syrian government, the administration is underscoring the strong support of Arab states. They want to enlist the United States as their instrument in overthrowing Syria’s Alawite rule and supplement the arms they have been sending the rebels, buttressed by the intervention of Islamist terrorists, many from their own countries — terrorists who see both the Shia and the West (the US in particular) as enemies.

Why then, make such a matter over “credibility” in Syria? To cut to the chase: the real issue of demonstrating US credibility, today, is not about Syria but about Iran. In addition to setting a red line against Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons, President Obama has regularly pledged to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons with “all options are on the table.” That is far more serious business because nuclear weapons are much more consequential than chemical weapons. Already, Arab states and Israel are arguing that if Obama does not honor his red line commitment in Syria (a relatively minor concern in international security terms), he might not honor his much more important red line regarding an Iranian bomb.

That argument presumes that the US is incapable of weighing the relative importance of different threats or “red lines.” An Iranian bomb could have much greater consequences for US security (though how much is at least debatable) than what is happening in Syria, and whatever the US does in Syria is unlikely to impact its calculations about Iran’s nuclear program.

The false debate over US credibility in Syria is only part of the problem. More important is whether, in the process of trying to reestablish a prohibition against one weapon of warfare, a US attack will cause the Syrian conflict to spread and draw the US more deeply into the Middle East morass. This could also intensify Israel’s concerns about its security, not just regarding Iran, but in particular about potential Islamist terrorism emanating from “liberated” Syria. The US attack will also undercut the ability of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to risk engaging the West diplomatically to end the stalemate over its nuclear program. (The administration and Congress have already done their best to throw cold water on possibilities that might emerge from Rouhani’s election.) And that could increase the chances that, at some point, the US will face the terrible dilemma about whether to attack Iran.

Unfortunately, despite assertions to the contrary, the administration has not adequately attempted to resolve the Syrian conflict through diplomacy. Since early on in the Syrian conflict, Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must go and thus ensured that his government would not negotiate. In his first months as Secretary of State, John Kerry should have devoted himself to Syria; instead he pursued Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which every experienced negotiator knows can go nowhere while Israel faces real security challenges on at least three fronts (Syria, Iran and Egypt). And Obama is now in Europe, not trying to put together a Syrian peace process, but rather pursuing his domestic political need to convince Congress that we have strong international support for attacking Syria.

The US will attack Syria. But as it does, the Obama administration needs to focus on business far more important for US interests: beginning, finally, to create a viable, integrated, coherent strategy for the Middle East that recognizes all of its many regional facets and has some chance of success, however long it takes and however difficult the task. That plus a full-court press for diplomacy on Syria is where the US should now place its emphasis, not focusing on punishing the Syrian government which, however successful, won’t lead toward peace and security in the region.

This is what it means to be a great power. This is where US credibility abroad is truly at stake.