Reputation is important, or so we are told.
Norm Podhoretz thinks that reputation is really important. In fact, he has argued that the September 11 attacks are a direct result of American irresolution in the War on Terror. In his recent Commentary article, Podhoretz traced a series of failures, starting in the early 1970s, on the part of American administrations to face up to the threat of Islamic terrorism. These failure, he argues, had the effect of emboldening terrorists to greater attacks, and of convincing sponsors of terrorism that no US response would be forthcoming. Here is a representative passage:
The sheer audacity of what bin Laden went on to do on September 11 was unquestionably a product of his contempt for American power. Our persistent refusal for so long to use that power against him and his terrorist brethren—or to do so effectively whenever we tried—reinforced his conviction that we were a nation on the way down, destined to be defeated by the resurgence of the same Islamic militancy that had once conquered and converted large parts of the world by the sword.
It’s not terribly important that there are a whole set of empirical problems with Podhoretz’ work. He believes, oddly enough, that the Iranians freed American hostages during Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 because they feared Reagan would launch a military strike, not because they wanted to embarrass Jimmy Carter. The greater sin is the common conflation of all Islamic states and terrorist groups under the same banner; if they’re Islamic and they like blowing things up, they must hold identical views and positions (Islamofascism).
Anyway, more interesting to me is Podhoretz argument about reputation. By not retaliating forcefully against terrorism, the United States has invited attacks on its territory and interests. If the US responded forcefully in 1979, or 1983, or 1984, or 1991, or 1993, or 1998, or 2000, the September 11th would not have occured because the Islamofascists would realize that the United States meant business, and was not to be trifled with. Saddam Hussein would not have invaded Kuwait in 1990 if he had believed in US resolve, nor would Bin Laden have been able to pull of the 9/11 attacks if other muslims believed the US would respond forcefully.
This is a convenient narrative for hawks, for a couple of reasons. First, there are no value trade-offs associated with military action. The use of military force is valuable in and of itself, as it indicates our seriousness to our enemies. We need not be overly careful about who we go to war against, as long as we demonstrate our power and willingness to use force. Intervention justifies itself, so we don’t need to worry too much about finding WMDs or creating democracy in Iraq (or South Vietnam). Indeed, in response to a 9/11, our first action should be to invade SOMEBODY, regardless of whether or not they had anything to do with the attacks. Invading someone gives us a reputation for forcefulness, while inactivity indicates a lack of resolve.
Second, emphasizing the importance of reputation gives full rein to every masculinist impulse we might have. Using force is a manly thing to do. If we react in a passive, or “womanly” manner, we invite more attacks. Backing down from a fight, even a pointless one, leaves us without honor or the respect of our friends and enemies. Real men kick ass when something like 9/11 happens, and aren’t too particular about the ass.
Sensible people have combatted these ideas in a couple of ways. We’ve pointed out that the costs of an intervention may outweigh even its reputational effects. We’ve suggested that, instead of a reputation for resolution, we might be acquiring a reputation for stupidity, or for hostility toward the islamic world.
What we haven’t done enough of is point out that fighting a war for the sake of reputation is ridiculous. We do not “own” our reputation, and cannot control how it is perceived by others. What we believe is resolute may be perceived as irresolute or even hostile by others. Podhoretz hits on this inadvertantly when he writes
The fact that Saddam miscalculated, and that in the end we made good on our threat, did not overly impress Osama bin Laden. After all—dreading the casualties we would suffer if we went into Baghdad after liberating Kuwait and defeating the Iraqi army on the battlefield—we had allowed Saddam to remain in power. To bin Laden, this could only have looked like further evidence of the weakness we had shown in the ineffectual policy toward terrorism adopted by a long string of American Presidents. No wonder he was persuaded that he could strike us massively on our own soil and get away with it.
We have not argued, as we should, that it is IMPOSSIBLE to convince Bin Laden and his ilk that we are resolute and forceful. He will always find evidence for irresolution in our actions. We could invade every Islamic state and still fail. We could stay in Iraq for twenty years and still fail. Simply because we are convinced of our resolution does not mean that anyone else will be. As Jonathan Mercer discusses in Reputation and International Politics, states have minimal control over their international reputations. Thus, fighting a war on behalf of reputation is a lost cause.
I’ll detail this case in an upcoming post.