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Don’t Fight Wars for Reputation

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A reader writes:

In all seriousness–Saddam Hussein thumbed his nose at the U.S., and for
the sake of our credibility as a world hegemon, the U.S. was forced to
stop playing the game of brinkmanship with Saddam since he kept pushing
the envelope further and further.

Two objections. First, I don’t see how Saddam was pushing the envelope farther and farther. He was contained, his military and economic power was steadily declining, and he had no friends. His expressions of joy after 9/11 were irritating, but hardly cause for war. Brinksmanship is when two sides approach a cliff that neither wishes to fall into. Saddam was hanging to the cliff by his fingernails. Not brinksmanship.

More importantly, I don’t think our credibility as world hegemon depends on our will to crush tinhorn dictators into the ground. I think that it depends on our system of government and our commitment to a long-standing alliance with the most powerful democratic states in the world. Military force matters, but hegemony based only on military force cannot last.

In addition to everything else, Saddam continually violated UN sanctions,
and kept shooting at our aircraft that were patrolling the no-fly zones
over Iraq.

Again, irritating, but hardly cause for war. If we take violation of UN sanctions as a criterion for war, we will never have peace. Moreover, it’s notable that in the 13 years that the no-fly zones existed, he never successfully shot down an Allied aircraft. In most cases, anti-aircraft batteries didn’t fire, but merely locked onto American or British planes.

Since we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, other countries of the world have
stopped thinking of the U.S. as a “paper tiger” (fair or not, a
reputation we earned after pullouts from Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia,
as well as the tepid response to the Iranian hostage crisis, the embassy
bombings, the Cole bombing, and other acts of violence against U.S.
interests). It is impossible to quantitatively determine the deterrent
value of this strategy on both friends and enemies. One might suggest
that in the future, other so-called “allies” will be less likely to
engage in illicit trade with rogues such as Saddam Hussein, and potential
enemies will be less likely to cross the line we draw in the sand.

And now they think of us as a real tiger. Which is worse?

Who were we supposed to attack after the Cole bombing? After the bombing of the US embassies in Africa? Would launching a few airstrikes on Iran in 1980 have prevented all this, or would it have made us look even weaker? Would keeping troops in Somalia for the last twelve years have prevented a single act of terrorism, or would it have cost dozens, even hundreds of American lives? Shall we bomb a random Islamic country every time an act of terror is committed? Seems pointless.

We do not own our reputation. We cannot determine what others think of us. They observe, and draw their own conclusions. They can conclude that we are weak regardless of what we do. You’re right that no one can quantitatively determine the effect of our actions on our reputation; I suspect that the effect is quite small.

Finally, I very much doubt that any allies or enemies will be deterred by our actions. Our enemies in Iran and North Korea have in fact been spurred to greater efforts to produce nuclear weapons. Because we lack capability, we can do nothing to prevent this. Reputation, even if important, cannot make up for a lack of capability. Our allies remember the role we played nursing and supporting Hussein; the only reputation we have gained with them is one of hypocrisy.

Of course, this begs the question: if the U.S. needs to maintain its
credibility, won’t we be forced to use our military more often, and with
less provocation? (Under what criteria, then, should the U.S. act?)
Additionally, the more we use our military, the more the U.S. would be
viewed as an aggressor, which would damage our reputation as well.

Now you’re thinking. We must have reputation in order to prevent challengers. To maintain our reputation, we must use force against any potential challenger. That’s bad enough. Even worse is the fact that we produce more potential challengers every time we use force.

Rule #1 of Foreign Policy Club: Do not trust defectors.
Rule #2 of Foreign Policy Club: DO NOT TRUST DEFECTORS.
Rule #3 of Foreign Policy Club: Do not fight wars for reputation.
Rule #4 of Foreign Policy Club: DO NOT FIGHT WARS FOR REPUTATION.

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