Syria and the President's Credibility Problem

In international diplomacy, world leaders often threaten that, if an adversary acts in a specified way, they will take action to punish the transgression. The purpose of such threats -- such as President Obama's declaration last year that use of chemical weapons by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad would cross a "red line" -- is to deter the adversary, in which case the threat need never be performed. But this tactic can only succeed if the adversary believes that the threatening party will, in fact, back up the threat with action. A strategic challenge arises when, as in the Syria case, it would not be in the interest of the threatening nation to carry out the threat if it is ignored. The problem is how to make such a threat credible. Why should a foreign leader believe that we Americans would really cut off our own nose to spite our face?

One way to solve the problem is to rearrange the facts on the ground such that responding to the transgression would be self-interested. Following World War II, the United States pledged to stand with Western Europe if the Soviet Union were to launch a military assault. But was an American threat to fight an all-out war, possibly a nuclear one, in order to protect West Germany credible? Fearing the answer might be "no," the U.S. stationed a relatively small numbers of ground troops adjacent to the Iron Curtain, directly in harm's way. The goal of this forward positioning was not to stave off the massive Red Army, but to guarantee American involvement if a war were to break out.

Another way to confront the credibility problem is to convince an adversary that a leader will react emotionally, rather than rationally, to provocation. This explains why, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un occasionally rattles his saber at South Korea and the United States, we are forced to take notice. We believe that Kim is probably not crazy enough to launch a war that would lead to his regime's destruction in response to some perceived or imagined slight, but we cannot be entirely sure.

American Syria policy demonstrates that our government does not believe involvement in that country's civil war would serve our interests. The nation is weary of the cost of Middle East wars, in blood and money, and neither side in the Syrian conflict is likely to be a future American ally. Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people does not change this calculus. And President Obama's reputation for responding to all matter of crisis in a cool, rational, and calculated manner works to his detriment in this situation. Perhaps a foreign leader would fear that a "cowboy" like George W. Bush might react impetuously to such an obvious outrage, but it is unlikely that Assad would worry about a "shoot first, ask questions later" response from the man called "no drama Obama."

The President's only hope of shaping the behavior of a nation like Syria with threats of potential military action is by pledging American credibility in future diplomatic encounters as collateral for the threats. Talk of "red lines" and of chemical weapons being "game changers" invoked this strategy. Last week's massive chemical gas attack in the Damascus suburbs now requires the President to act militarily or forfeit that collateral. The question is not whether entering the fray in Syria is in our interests - it is not. The question is whether failing to follow through on the threat would be even more harmful to our interests in the long run because foreign leaders, including those in Iran, would be less likely to believe future threats.

Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons now leaves the President with three options. He can maximize our nation's future credibility by taking aggressive action that significantly harms the Syrian regime and has a high immediate cost to the United States in terms of further entangling us in another Middle East crisis. By bearing that high cost, Obama would demonstrate just how crucial we believe our credibility is, thus enhancing it in the long term.

Alternatively, the President could choose not to respond. This would avoid all risks of American casualties or further entanglements, of course, but at the cost of weakening the power or our warnings in the future. Like a bankrupt who claims to have learned the error of his spendthrift ways, Obama, or the next President, could vow that we will never again make the mistake of issuing a threat that we are not prepared to perform. This is a high risk strategy, it would certainly hurt the President politically, and it could not work repeatedly. But it does have the potential of avoiding harm today without severely compromising our national credibility tomorrow.

The third option, a minimalist cruise missile or air attack that would consciously avoid altering the balance of power in the Syrian conflict, is now considered by pundits to be Obama's most likely course of action. By impressing voters with a show of toughness delivered on the cheap, this would boost the President's popularity at home, but it could be the worst choice for the nation in the long term. By suggesting that we believe we can make threats, retreat from them when called on to act, and yet still save face with a show of "shock and awe," the President would signal to foreign despots not only that we make idle threats, but that we think the costs of doing so is low. This would doubly encourage them to ignore our leaders' stern warnings in the future. Because our national credibility depends on the assumption that the reputational costs will be substantial if we were to fail to carry out threats after our bluff is called, trying to minimize the costs in that event is, ironically, a poor strategy.

Russell Korobkin is the director of the UCLA Law School's Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program and the author of "Negotiation Theory and Strategy."