Paul Pillar

How Commitments Work

A recurring theme in foreign-policy debates is the damage to national credibility that supposedly would result if a state backs away from anything that could be seen as a commitment. Commitments in this context need not be anything as formal as a treaty of alliance. They could be seen to be established by a leader's rhetoric or to be implied by an ongoing endeavor such as a military expedition. An argument frequently heard, as it was during the Vietnam War and now during the war in Afghanistan, is that backing away would so damage U.S. credibility in the eyes of other nations or other actors abroad that the United States would no longer be believed when it expresses some other commitment. And because of that, goes the argument, the ability of the United States to protect its most important interests would be diminished.

The trouble with such an argument is that it simply does not reflect how states tend to assess the credibility of other states. Such assessments are based on how important a particular interest is believed to be to the other state, much more so than how the other state behaved in the past when dealing with some lesser interest. That is how we in the United States routinely estimate the behavior of other nations. The fact that the other guy once backed away from an interest that was not vital to him does not lead us to think that he will not defend to the death an interest that is.

Commitments do matter, however, in a way that our very preoccupation with them suggests. They matter because of their role in our own internal debates. Because we believe that backing away from a perceived commitment would be damaging, anyone seen to be doing so is vulnerable to a charge of harming the nation's interests. This points to a tactic for getting support for a measure that might not otherwise get it. First, elicit an expressed commitment to achieve some objective. Then, later, argue that one's preferred measure is the only way to achieve the objective and to uphold the commitment. Further argue that failure to take the measure and thus failure to uphold the commitment would severely damage the nation's credibility.

Something like this has been happening with the issue of Iran's nuclear program. When commenting a few weeks ago on a draft Senate resolution that would declare the advent of an Iranian nuke to be unacceptable and to reject any policy involving containment of a nuclear-armed Iran, I noted that this is just the sort of declaration that sets the stage for its proponents later to demand the United States take whatever steps are needed to fulfill the commitment of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, even if this means starting a war. This process already has begun. The resolution has not yet been adopted, but President Obama's statement that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable—part of the high price he paid to buy time before Israel starts a war with Iran—is enough for the tactic to be employed. In a group discussion about Iran I attended this week, someone asked rhetorically how, if the United States allows Iran to build a nuclear weapon, anyone in the region will believe anything that the United States says in the future. The implication was that the United States needs to spare no risk or cost to prevent the given eventuality, not because the eventuality is unacceptable but instead because we have declared it to be unacceptable. It seems to go unnoticed that if this is a problem, the problem lies in having made any such declaration in the first place.

Now consider a different sort of commitment expressed by the leader on the other end of this issue: Iranian supreme leader Khamenei. He has said that possessing nuclear weapons is a sin. This posture has evoked comment in the United States, mostly in the direction of downplaying the significance of this religiously based posture and emphasizing that pragmatic considerations leading Iran to view possession of a nuclear weapon as advantageous would trump any fatwas about the weapons being sinful and that the supreme leader can always revise his ostensibly religious pronouncements to fit circumstances. It is interesting to note that some of the same people who say pragmatism would overcome this particular religiously based posture also contend that religiously based fervor or fanaticism would trump pragmatism when it comes to how Iran would behave if it did get the bomb.

Pragmatic considerations will indeed carry more weight than religious views about sin in governing Iranian decisions about whether to build a bomb. But Khamenei's publicly declared posture about the sinfulness of nuclear weapons is nonetheless significant in the same way that publicly expressed commitments by our own leaders are significant: in affecting what policies can be sold to internal and domestic audiences. If the supreme leader determines that it is in his regime's interests to strike a deal with the West that would clearly rule out an Iranian nuke, his statements have made it more feasible for him to win internal backing for such a deal—by underscoring publicly that Iran never wanted nuclear weapons anyway and is morally right not to want them. Leaving himself this kind of out is a reason for optimism in what the coming negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 can achieve, notwithstanding all the other hurdles and roadblocks that the negotiations will have to overcome.