A Vote Against Syria Won't Destroy the President's Credibility

It will only damage the commander in chief's ability to threaten wars of choice unilaterally -- and that's a good thing.
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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."

Douthat writes:

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.

In Syria, the U.S. faces significant risks and meager rewards in a matter peripheral to our interests. Foreign observers understand how that shapes our actions.

A final problem with Douthat's piece is its failure to consider all of the ways that a president might lose international credibility. Had George W. Bush backed down just prior to the Iraq invasion, reversing himself about the wisdom of giving the weapons inspectors more time and his certainty about the presence of WMDs, many in the world would have cast the reversal as a blow to his credibility. But in hindsight, it's easy to see that Bush and the United States lost far more credibility by invading a foreign country on false pretenses, failing to adequately plan for the occupation, utterly failing to anticipate sectarian violence, suffering thousands of casualties over a bloody decade, and departing as losers.

Douthat points out at the end of his column that a loss of presidential credibility "is not an argument that justifies voting for a wicked or a reckless war, and members of Congress who see the Syria intervention in that light must necessarily oppose it." What I wish he'd have added is that there are all sorts of scenarios in which intervening would damage Obama's credibility far more than not intervening. A strike on Syria preserves rather than destroys presidential credibility only if you assume that it proceeds smoothly. But there is no reason to make that assumption! Even in Douthat's exaggerated account of how much a blow to Obama's credibility matters, he casts the problem as lasting until January 2017, when a new president takes office. By way of contrast, an intervention in Syria that proved even 25 percent as catastrophic as Iraq would do far more damage to American credibility for many more years into the future.

The overall credibility of America isn't at stake when Congress votes on Syria. Not even Obama's overall credibility is on the line. Insofar as a no vote will diminish presidential credibility, it will do so in this narrow sense: Obama, and perhaps future presidents, will be less able to credibly threaten unilateral wars of choice. Given how badly such wars have worked out that's no great loss, especially since a credible American threat would still always be a congressional vote away. As Kevin Drum puts it, "I doubt that this vote will be taken as much of a precedent. But if it were, the precedent it sets would be simple: the United States won't undertake military action unless it's so plainly justified that both parties are willing to support it. That would frankly be no bad thing. Unfortunately, once they get in office American presidents of both parties seem to find no end of wars to fight overseas. Reining them in a bit would be commendable."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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