Saying ‘No’: Can the U.S. Credibly Commit to Restraint in the Middle East?

The Obama administration is facing a credibility problem, but it’s not the one most people think.

What if no one believes you when you say “no”?

The Obama administration is facing a credibility problem, but it’s not the one most people think. The policymakers during the Cold War believed that their key problem was convincing the Soviets that they would say “Yes”—yes to defending Germany, yes to using nuclear weapons, yes to the expense of maintaining global containment.

President Obama, however, wants to say “No”—no to permanent engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, no to leadership of the Libya operation, no to the war in Syria and, most importantly, no to the idea that the United States should permanently guarantee the military and political balance of power in the Middle East. The problem is that few believe Obama really wants this, and fewer believe that he can pull it off.

The traditional problem with credibility-led foreign policy involves positive commitment; the United States commits to defending Germany against the Soviet Union, but the Germans have reason to doubt the U.S. willingness to defend their territory. Washington can reaffirm the credibility of the commitment in several ways, such as developing a multilateral institutional linkage (NATO), forward deploying U.S. troops or adopting an aggressive nuclear posture. The United States also needs to mind its broader international reputation; if it fails to defend its friends in South Vietnam, for example, the West Germans may grow skeptical of the strength of U.S. commitment.

This logic, associated with extended deterrence, outlined much U.S. and Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War. It drove the United States into Korea and Vietnam, animated U.S. behavior in Latin America and undergirded the alliance system that Washington constructed in Europe and elsewhere.

While credibility is most often associated with a leader’s “will” or “resolve,” it can also have an institutional component. During the Cold War, the United States government struggled to counter the perception that Congress might prevent the United States from fulfilling its military obligations. NATO’s Article 5 suggested automaticity, but in fact gave Washington a way out of responding to Soviet provocation. The United States and the USSR each developed military force structures designed to enhance its opponent’s belief in its credibility.

The Obama administration has a different problem. It wants to convince countries in the Middle East (and to a lesser extent, in Europe), that the United States will not intervene to save them. The White House has sought, since President Obama came into office, to reduce the U.S. commitment and footprint in the Middle East while redistributing military and diplomatic effort to Asia. This preference comes from both a clear distaste for the policies of the Bush administration, as well as from a belief that the Asia-Pacific represents a more important, long-term strategic interest from the United States.

But do signs of commitment and displays or restraint actually work?

Establishing a reputation for either credibility or restraint amounts to sending a message to other players (both allies and enemies) about the nature and strength of intentions. Sending a “message” in international politics invites problems, however, because it’s very difficult to ensure that the other player gets the message you want to send. States tend to interpret reality based on what they want and what they need, rather than on objective evaluation.

Indeed, some evidence from social psychology suggests that both allies and enemies are more likely to interpret messages incorrectly than correctly. Observers tend to understand displays of strength as a temporary affectation, while displays of weakness are interpreted as a permanent disposition. Several studies in political science have struggled to establish any linkage between efforts to signal resolve and the enemy’s assessments of credibility.

In practical terms, this means that much of the blood and treasure the United States expended to demonstrate credibility in the Cold War went for naught. The Germans didn’t see Vietnam as evidence of U.S. commitment; they worried that the Washington had become so distracted by Southeast Asia that it would not defend Europe when the time came.

What goes for the credibility of affirmative commitment also goes for the credibility of restraint. No one in the Middle East seems to believe that the United States can stand aside from the key conflicts. And this belief in the certainty of U.S. intervention dreadfully distorts the military and diplomatic politics of the region.

For example, a large portion of the Iraqi political class continues to believe either that the United States will defeat ISIS before the threat grows critical or that Washington is actively using ISIS as an excuse for continued intervention. Similarly, Turkey believes that the American focus on ISIS allows it to concentrate on the longer-range problem of preventing the development of a Kurdish state. Some Syrian rebel groups persist in the belief that American assistance will someday arrive. Israel and the Gulf States have undertaken some balancing moves of their own, but remain deeply dependent on U.S. military support.