Syria (III)

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on September 1, 2013

Arguing for a punitive strike on the grounds of credibility and norm enforcement may be politically advantageous for the administration, but on the merits the case seems a bit weak.

Credibility is confusing, the more so because it’s used in discussions about foreign policy as if everyone understands what it means. At first blush, credibility is an intuitive concept–if I say I’ll do something and I don’t, then my credibility suffers and people are less likely to believe me the next time I say I’ll do something. Simple.

However, we also recognize different “flavors” of credibility. If I’ve made two commitments–say, to alphabetize my enormous library by author and also to remain faithful to a single person so long as we both shall live–those commitments exist along separate credibility continuums. If I fail to do the former, I’m disorganized. If I fail to do the latter, I’m an adulterer. However, most folks would be uncomfortable with the proposition that people who fail to organize their libraries are more likely to be adulterers because they haven’t demonstrated “credibility” generally. At the same time, there’d be less pushback for the assertion that someone who’s cheated on a succession of partners can’t be trusted to make a lifelong commitment their spouse. “Dating” and “marriage” are associated continuums, while “marriage” and “library maintenance” are not.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there’s also an “intensity of interest” factor. It’s reasonable to expect the seriousness of our commitments to align with their importance. Accordingly, If I fail to act on a commitment that’s critical to my interests, that damages my credibility a lot more than my failure to act on a relatively unimportant commitment.

All of these threads get jumbled up in discussions about credibility, with serious consequences. When Domino Theory advocates raised alarms about the Cold War balance of credibility between East and West, they helped lay the foundation for a disastrous intervention in Vietnam that cost 60,000 American lives. The logic, roughly speaking, went like this: if we don’t fight communism in Vietnam, it will embolden our enemies while simultaneously undermining the strength of our commitments in Europe. It’s a slippery slope argument that only hangs together if you ignore the “intensity of interest” factor.

In Syria, it’s not clear what credibility means. If the primary concern involves preserving the credibility of President Obama’s “red line” threat from last year, it’s not clear that we should do anything. The statement is a year old and it was made in the waning days of his re-election campaign. If, on the other hand, we think the use of chemical weapons undermines the credibility of the presidency as an institution and our broader regional commitments, then there’s a case for unilateral action. Finally, if the credibility at stake is that of the international norm against chemical weapons use, then we should be looking for a multilateral approach, per Fallows:

Their premise is that the use of chemical weapons is so heinous and unprecedented that, if allowed to go unpunished, it will change world relations in a disastrous way. Minor response: If this is so clearly true, then presumably someone outside the U.S. Executive Branch will agree. Starting with: the U.S. Congress, the U.S. public, NATO, the Brits, the Australians, the Canadians, the European Union, the Arab League. Someone in the civilized world. 

And that’s the crux of the issue–the arguments, means, and ends don’t really line up. The administration hasn’t made a good case for why US credibility is on the line in a consequential way, nor has it pursued a multilateral approach consistent with normative concerns. Instead, it looks like a hodgepodge policy designed in the face of events and around political liabilities.

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Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on September 1, 2013

Rejected Movie Pitches–Two Nazis and 4,500 Gallons of Distilled Male Urine: the Androsterone Story.

(David Foster Wallace circled words in his dictionary. I’m using each of them in a sentence, moving alphabetically from “Ablative Absolute” to “witenagemot.”)