Syria: Whose Credibility?

It's not America's, but Obama's, that's on the line.

Let’s be clear. U.S. credibility is not at stake in Syria. The President’s credibility is at stake. The two are not one and the same. Or, if they are, we no longer live in a democracy.

One of the hallmarks of democracy is political disagreement. Populations abroad are sophisticated enough to separate us Americans from the policies that emanate from Washington. Just ask any American who has traveled abroad at any time during the past three decades. Populations from Sudan to Sumatra make allowances for U.S. foreign policy, and don’t hold us personally accountable. So, do we really think canny foreign leaders of countries like Iran and North Korea are less shrewd when it comes to reading the U.S. as a whole?

This President is not the U.S. The idea that politics stopped at our shores died with the Cold War.

So, what else might be motivating seemingly smart people who now urge action on behalf of the country’s credibility? One increasingly common argument is that we need to signal Iran, North Korea, and other rogue actors to not even think about using chemical weapons. These pundits’ underlying assumption is that a hand-slapping strike in Syria will do that. It is hard to see how, but even giving them the benefit of the doubt, here’s the other thing such a strike will surely do: it will make a total mockery of our caring anything about the Syrian people. In fact, it will only further demonstrate that we are using Syria for ends that have nothing to do with Syrians.

Of course, that would simply be in keeping with what we have already done. By planning to provide some weapons, but not providing enough to make any difference, we may only prolong the struggle. By dangling the promise of ‘hope and change’ to the rebels, we have encouraged them to keep fighting. When he called for regime change two years ago, President Obama (along with other leaders who did the same) only ensured the situation in Syria would become a zero-sum game. Why wouldn’t President Assad use everything at his disposal to retain his position?

Meanwhile, the American people never signed up to support any rebel faction or to oust Assad. Congress never debated, let alone issued a Declaration of War against Syria. That is the only rubric under which Washington should be acting either in Syria or against the Assad regime. Otherwise, what we have been engaging in thus far is a covert war.

In the 24/7, leak-saturated twenty-first century, covert war makes no sense—if it ever did.

So, here we are: Washington has been equivocating covertly from the outset. Nonetheless, now those in favor of a strike seem to think that if only we make the signaling public (and splashy), we will deter the actors we want to deter. How sadly ironic that what this actually exposes is the extent to which Washington misreads other people’s sophistication and underestimates other regimes’ ability to read our signaling for what we actually communicate: we don’t have a principled foreign policy or a national strategy.

If we were principled regarding casualties we would have done something about Congo years ago, where twenty times more people have lost their lives than in Syria. If we were principled about a breach to the chemical weapons taboo, we would done something to Syria months ago—and the whole world, to include the American public, would have known to expect nothing less. A breach is a breach, whether 15 or 1500 are killed. A breach is also a breach as soon as it has occurred.

In other words, anyone taking the measure of the President has already done so. Congress should not now allow itself to be blackmailed over the red herring that the President’s credibility is ours. The chemical weapons red line was his self-declared red line. His actions have already made it clear to anyone abroad who has reason to study him—which includes every leader of any other country—just how inconstant he is. Should Congress now sanction military action in Syria, then it will be U.S. credibility on the line.

We have three branches of government. When the President speaks, one branch speaks. When the U.S. military acts, the United States military acts. Therein lies our credibility.

Anna Simons is a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School and co-author of The Sovereignty Solution. The views expressed here are her own.