If Congress denies Barack Obama permission to strike Syria, will that "basically finish off the current American president as a credible actor on the world stage"? Numerous advocates of intervention have made that argument in recent days, and now they've been joined by Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who warns that an "unprecedented" vote of that sort "wouldn’t just be a normal political rebuke of President Obama," but "a remarkable institutional rebuke of his presidency, with unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy."
Presidential credibility is an intangible thing, and the term has been abused over the years by overeager hawks and cult-of-the-presidency devotees. But the global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says -- that the promises the White House and the State Department make are binding, that our military commitments aren’t just so much bluster, and that when the president speaks on foreign policy he has the power to live up to his words.
It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked this credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance. But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.
That's an eloquent statement of an unpersuasive argument. Its smaller mistaken premise: "The global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says." That's an empirically false statement. Presidents of the United States say things that they don't mean all the time. The White House and the State Department break promises all the time. This has been so through all the decades that we've led the current global order.
To speak on this subject circumspectly, it must be conceded that lots of false statements, like "I will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay" or "Our goal isn't regime change in Libya" do little if anything to jeopardize the world order, while other broken pledges, like "I will uphold our NATO obligations if a member state suffers an unprovoked attack," would be hugely significant if they occured.
Into which category does Syria fall?
If President Obama is prohibited from intervening, other countries may well be reminded that the Constitution gives America's legislature the power to declare war, and marginally discount presidential saber rattling regarding wars of choice that haven't yet been endorsed by Congress. And that narrow, particular loss of credibility would be salutary, for reasons that Jim Manzi adeptly explains.
But there is no reason to believe that failing to intervene in Syria would affect, for example, the global system's understanding of how the United States would react to a North Korean attack on the demilitarized zone, or an Iranian attack on Israel, or aggressive moves by China to assert more power in the Pacific Ocean.
Noah Millman draws the important distinctions:
Congress, if it votes no, would not be refusing to back up an American treaty obligation, nor would it even be rejecting a painstakingly negotiated international agreement. In other words, it would neither be going back on America’s sworn word, nor undermining the ability of the Executive to negotiate. It would be refusing to endorse a decision to take aggressive action that is not required by any treaty obligation and that appears to have been prompted by an off-the-cuff remark. If, in future, foreign capitals doubt whether such remarks are to be taken seriously unless they either fit into longstanding policy or are corroborated by other policymakers, that’s all to the good.
It's also important to remember that remarks by the president, off-the-cuff or otherwise, aren't the only or even the primary way that other states gauge the likelihood that America will or won't act to back up what we've said we're going to do. America's actions flow from our interests, the risks and rewards of pursuing them in a given situation, and the absolute and relative power that we enjoy.