Home / Robert Farley / Let’s Credibilate That Argument

Let’s Credibilate That Argument


My latest at the Diplomat continues the conversation on Syria, credibility, and reputation:

You can count me as among the skeptics that the Syria deal is a harbinger of impending U.S. failure. As Dan Drezner and Heather Hurlburt discussed last week, there is a growing divide between academics and policymakers on reputation and credibility. The evidence that commitments are interdependent in a way that meaningfully affects reputation is exceedingly thin. The central problem is that it is extremely difficult to send messages about resolve and determination that will be understood in the way you want them to be understood. States don’t own their reputations; friends and foes are free to draw their own (often conflicting) interpretations of events.


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  • SIS

    Acting based on “credibility” alone is idiotic as it means nothing. Being a credible moron is not a good position to have, for example. Prof. Farley is completely correct – no one is actually capable of controlling what message people chose to get from someone’s actions.

    • +1

      Plus, in practice, “credibility” almost always means “kill more people where there isn’t a reasonable substantive rationale for doing so”.

      I know some people here hate my position on Lybia, but nonetheless, consider that very few people have argued that our cutting a deal with Gaddafi on Lockerbie and then assisting in his overthrow cost us “credibility”, even though that certainly looks like the sort of precedent a future dictator might look at in deciding whether to deal with us diplomatically. The only type of “credibility” that seems to matter is the credible threat to use pointless military force.

      • EH

        I’d go further to say that “credibility” means a temper tantrum if not allowed, elsewhere termed “butthurt.”

    • joe from Lowell

      You know what harms credibility more than accepting a compromise?

      Losing. It’s very bad for your credibility to be seen doing your best to follow through and failing at the effort.

  • Manta

    Does “credibility” means that when you give an ultimatum you should go to war anyhow even when you get what you asked for?

    • Hogan

      If you get what you asked for, it means you didn’t ask for enough. Ask for more, rinse, repeat. Eventually you’ll get your war.

      • cpinva

        “If you get what you asked for, it means you didn’t ask for enough. Ask for more, rinse, repeat. Eventually you’ll get your war.”

        that worked well for Austria-Hungary, Germany and their allies, during the buildup to WWI.

        • Hogan

          They got their war, didn’t they?

  • Lurker

    I do not think that anyone will doubt the US resolve. In this particular case, the deal looks like usual politics: no one loses totally but nobody gets everything, neither. During the last decade, the US has been loath to make such compromises, to everyone’s detriment.

    Instead of a lack of resolve, this looks like a return to sanity.

  • rea

    WTF? We got what we wanted, we got Russia to guarantee it, and naturally such success destroys our credibility. We need to lose a couple of long, pointless wars to rehabilitate it.

    • Manta

      I have the impression that for many people what US wanted was a war with Syria; and chemical weapons were only a pretext.

      To be fair, that’s exactly what happened with Iraq war, so it’s not as if it’s a totally unwarranted assumption.

    • Lurker

      Actually, this guarantee is exactly the problem. United States acted now like a great power in the great game of the balance if power. She was not acting like the sole superpower. Essentially, the US informally recognised that it is one state working in the Westphalian system. This is a clear break to Bush-era unilateralism and may be perceived as weakness.

      For some others, it looks as if the US is no longer a rapid dog, a menace to the world peace but a responsible potential partner.

    • joe from Lowell

      We got what we wanted

      If you assume, as certain people do*, that what we wanted was a war to oust Assad, and the reaction to chemical warfare was a mere pretext, then you can pretend that Obama had to back down when Congress didn’t go along and Putin called the chemical weapons “bluff.”

      And if my aunt had wheels, she’d be a bus.

      * the “anti-imperialist” left, the neocons, Russia

      • shah8

        was that a yo mama joke?

  • fledermaus

    The reason the “credibility” argument won’t die is because it is too useful for hawks. It is essentially unfalsifable and always cuts in favor of war. Plus it appeals to our juvenile press corps who think international diplomacy is just one big elementary school playground.

    • tucker

      “…elementary school playground”? More like sandbox.

    • +1

  • shah8

    Yeah, to extend what fledermaus is saying, so far as I understand the history I read, credibility is something aimed at a domestic audience–most clearly with Wars on Terror and comcommitant security theater like threat levels. The US specifically did not have any sort of working relationship with Al Qaida such that they could establish a meaningful picture of intents. Another way credibility has little impact on influencing other entities to US advantange would be to look at our posture vis á vis Iran. Public positioning has very little impact on Iranian policy because Iranians reject out of hand our ideas about what Iran’s geopolitical role should be, and we have no intention of compromising. Anything that got done with Iran, was done on the low, with low level contacts e.g., cooperation against Al Qaida in 2003.

    Ultimately, credibility as a public posture is mostly about being macho than any sort of productive diplomatic maneuver. If it doesn’t work with Militarist Japan, when we controlled their friggin’ oil, then it probably wouldn’t work against North Vietnam. START probably worked because we assumed a credible posture of nonagression despite SDI, various commodities warfare, etc…

    Credibility works from the stance of on honest broker who obviously has the resources to enforce agreements. It doesn’t work from assuming tough guy posture. Any effective parent can tell you that.

  • joe from Lowell

    Our credibility and reputation are in such tatters that Putin felt the need to jump in and save Assad even when it looked like Congress was going to vote no.

    If you want a “Suez Moment,” look at Iraq. Why, we’ve been knocked down all the way from hyper power to a mere sole superpower. I think we’ll manage to muddle through.

  • joe from Lowell

    As I’ve noted before, this entire argument reminds me of stories during the 2008 campaign about whether one of McCain’s latest gambits has really put Obama on the ropes. Two weeks later, everyone had forgotten what the story was about, and Obama had lined up another 60 school board members and county commissions, and another few thousand doors had been knocked on.

  • wengler

    ‘Credibility’ is the most overrated facet of international relations. It presumes that state actors act in easily predictable ways. The only widely accepted international norm is that double standards are the norm.

    • Another Holocene Human

      It’s bullshit when you’re talking about democracies, anyway.

      “Credibility” died in Flanders fields.

  • Another Holocene Human

    You mean people and leaders project their own fears, neuroses, and personality disorders on other countries and other countries’ leaders?

    That can’t be right–sounds too much like sense.

    Also, less opportunity for the Village to toady up to whatever paid partisan ME-faction shill they have on today and run their nerd glasses down their nose and look incisive or whatever.

    fwiw, I find the partisan ME faction shills to be spectacularly nauseating. It would be like Al Jazeera having a spokeclown from VDare provide commentary on the Voting Rights Act, or have that Saddleback asshole talk about why it’s so important for Uganda to kill all the gays.

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