Over the last week analysts, pundits, and academics have been raging a fierce debate in op-ed columns and online blogs on America's response to Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of Sarin gas against civilians in August. Among those urging the U.S. to take military action, one argument has been the appeal to American credibility, i.e. the U.S. as the guarantor of the international system must intervene militarily in Syria to enforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons.
This case for American credibility, however, is deeply problematic. The various fallacies inherent to the argument not withstanding, it overlooks two key points: first, public opinion among our allies is opposed to military action, clearly showing that they do not expect the U.S. to intervene in Syria, and second, as developments in recent days have shown, America's allies as well as other nations are not in favor of a military intervention.
In a recent Financial Times article Ian Bremmer and Jon Huntsman argued that U.S. military action in Syria was necessary as "America's credibility itself" was at stake now and "we must act because we said we would." According to them "The world will judge our capacity to respond in future situations by the resolve we show here." Similarly, former State Department official Elliot Cohen argued that "the credibility of America as a global power and a guarantor of international order, is on the line" and U.S. inaction would embolden its enemies to pursue policies against its interests and simultaneously create insecurity among its allies.
The appeal to credibility has already been strongly challenged. Both Rajan Menon and Shibley Telhami separately noted that previous appeals to American credibility had led to unnecessary and costly interventions in places like Korea and Vietnam. Moreover, they argued that credibility could not be an end in itself, and any action should be based on securing interests. Moreover, Menon also pointed to several fallacies in the reasoning, such as advocating the potential mistake of a U.S. intervention now simply because President Obama had previously made the mistake of creating a red line or assuming that enemies acting with impunity as a result of U.S. inaction was a forgone conclusion.
In addition to this, two other aspects of the credibility argument need to be examined.
First, rather than asserting that American credibility is at stake in Syria, we must ask the crucial question: Are American allies looking at the situation and questioning U.S. commitment to preserve and enforce a Western-led international system and its norms? The answer, as seen through western public opinion, is negative.
The most resounding opposition to any military action in Syria came from the United Kingdom, our traditional ally, where the Parliament voted against Premier David Cameron's bid to support U.S. intervention. More relevant to the question of American credibility, 57 percent of British the public is completely opposed to an U.S. strike to deter Assad from using chemical weapons. Also, two-thirds want the UK to stay away from all military interventions in the Middle East.
Furthermore, nearly 60 percent of Germans are also opposed to any military action against Syria, while a majority (52 percent) of Italians say they do not want an attack against Assad even if Italy is not in the coalition. Finally, in France, where the government supports U.S. action against Assad, two-thirds of the public is against international military intervention as well.
Similarly, according to Pew Research almost a majority (48 percent) of Americans remain opposed to U.S. airstrikes in Syria. Three-fifths are afraid that it will lead to a backlash against America and its allies, just under two-thirds (61 percent) predict it will lead to a longer military commitment, and a majority (51 percent) see at as ineffective in discouraging use of chemical weapons.
As far as public opinion in the Arab world is concerned, Shibley astutely points out that there the problem is not countries questioning American credibility, but rather being deeply suspicious of any U.S. action in the region.
Thus, the data clearly reveals that American credibility is not at risk (or consideration!) at home or abroad.
Second, as was underscored at the G-20 summit last week, some of the world's leading nations do not want the U.S. to get militarily involved and decided to back a political settlement of the crisis. Among the developing nations the BRICS have sharply opposed the policy. Then on Saturday, the European Union, while condemning Assad and calling for accountability, urged that all actions and responses must go through the UN process. It had taken a similar stance during the G-20 summit.
While there may be arguments for militarily intervening in Syria that carry more merit, the case for preserving American credibility is not it. Had credibility been an issue the U.S. would not have to lobby so hard to pull together an international coalition. Clearly the challenge the U.S. faces now is not maintaining its reputation as the preserver of international norms, but that of convincing other countries to do the same.
The appeal to American credibility as a reason for striking was always weak and with dwindling support behind military intervention the argument has been exposed as vacuous.