Last December, I wrote in these pages:
"The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 notwithstanding, a significant 'trust deficit' remains between the United States and other major powers over the question of Iraq. The administration must openly deal with this problem, not ignore its existence. A willingness to engage our partners and assuage their concerns is a pragmatic gesture worth making."
In the conduct of foreign affairs, there are several types of credibility. The Administration, to its credit, has dealt with one challenge to American credibility by demonstrating the willingness of the United States to use decisive and overwhelming military force to eliminate threats to its security. However, with two other types of credibility--credibility of assessment and credibility of commitments--the gap has widened further. The inability of American forces to locate either significant stockpiles of Iraqi WMD or to uncover the infrastructure of a WMD program, more than two months after the war, has damaged the credibility of the claims put forth by the administration. Meanwhile, the lack of real progress in Afghanistan, the fact that neither the Taliban nor Al-Qaeda have been completely neutralized and that progress in postwar reconstruction has been so limited raises questions about America's commitment to revitalize failing states once active combat operations have ceased.
Not surprisingly, therefore, a number of senior foreign officials who have visited Washington in the past month have expressed increasing skepticism about the validity of U.S. claims and the sincerity of American intentions. To take but two examples: Dimitry Rogozin, chair of the Russian Duma's international affairs committee, has resurrected his proposal that a joint U.S.-Russian team of experts be formed to assess whether North Korea has truly crossed the nuclear threshold (while some of his parliamentary colleagues question whether U.S. intelligence reports about Iran's nuclear program can be trusted if similar reports about Iraq have proven to be less than accurate). George Iacovou, foreign minister of Cyprus, wonders aloud why Cypriots should trust the promises of the international community that it will provide the necessary assistance to help implement a peace plan when, in the case of Afghanistan, much was promised but little has been delivered--a question which is quietly echoed by leaders elsewhere in the Near East.
Rallying coalitions to deal with potential threats such as North Korea and to implement solutions to volatile conflicts (such as the Middle East peace plan) requires that other countries believe that American assessments and promises are credible. This is especially critical if the United States expects other states to contribute personnel and funds for such operations.
Much now depends on how British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard handle political fallout from parliamentary efforts to assess whether intelligence reports on Iraq's WMD program were overblown. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has described the UK's second weapons dossier "an embarrassment" for Tony Blair's cabinet, while a recent poll suggests that a growing number of Britons are now less likely to trust Blair's assessments on other issues due to a perceived credibility gap on Iraq. It is true that Howard, on the other hand, has received a boost from the war, with most Australians now supporting his decision to commit forces as part of the coalition--but Australia has also largely withdrawn from continuing participation in the mission in Iraq. Blair has no such cushion, and as British soldiers also continue to be killed or wounded in Iraq, he will find himself under increasing political pressure to make clear why it was in the national interest to commit British forces to toppling Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, Blair's political future should be of utmost concern to the Bush Administration. If Blair is weakened (or even forced from office, although that is, as of now, an unlikely possibility), it will be a major blow to the standing of the Bush Administration, and lessen the possibility that, in the future, other key allied governments will be willing to give carte blanche to American assessments about what constitutes threats to the common good. This creates a real risk that the United States will become increasingly isolated as it attempts to cope with other challenges, as political leaders in other countries decide that it is not worth the risk to accept U.S. claims at face value.
Why American credibility also matters is because the United States does not have the resources to cope with all of the challenges that menace its security. The Cold War burden-sharing model, with Europe and East Asia functioning as the bankers to America as security provider, is breaking down. The continuing appreciation of the euro against the dollar (now hovering in the 1.15 euro to the dollar range) and United Bank of Switzerland's assessment of a weaker dollar for the next several years are two signs that the flow of inexpensive capital to the United States to finance its deficits may be slowing down.
All of this points to the need for the administration to begin a robust campaign to rebuild consensus among our major allies and partners. Ambassador Levitte made an important point last week when he observed:
"The United States sees that when it wants support in Afghanistan or Iraq from contingents from other countries, it's only going to find them in Europe. Europe is America's irreplaceable partner. They are the two pillars of world democracy and the world economy. The G-8 summit was an opportunity to show that the storm over Iraq is fading away for good. It allowed the participating heads of state and government in Evian to send a strong signal to the world demonstrating their capacity to work together." (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue24/Vol2iss24Levitte.html)
Building on this foundation, and restoring American credibility, should be a leading priority of the administration for the remainder of 2003.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.