Why Credibility Matters

It’s not just a Washington fetish, as Obama suggests.

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

There’s no getting around it: Barack Obama is a phenomenal arguer. He’s got superb legal training; he’s got point-by-point debating skill; he’s got a feel for nuance; he’s got historical examples and counter-examples at the ready. And, as a politician who’s been around the track a few times, he’s not above a little sophistry or rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

All these tools are on dazzling display in Jeffrey Goldberg’s extraordinary cover story in this month’s Atlantic. “The Obama Doctrine” gives us the best picture we may ever have of how this president thinks and talks about foreign policy. It will leave many readers wondering which candidate to succeed him could be half so persuasive.

And yet, for all his talents, Obama does not exactly make the sale. To my mind, he doesn’t even fully acknowledge the nature of the problem he faces. He claims to believe that the United States remains the “indispensable” global leader. But he also wants to make indispensability less expensive and risky, more focused and discriminating. He wants to discipline American policy by defining the country’s interests more narrowly and acting more deliberately. He’d like, aides say, to leave his successor a nice “clean barn.”

Now, does the resulting U.S. role feel a little downsized? Do America’s allies feel a little less sure of our support? Are adversaries emboldened? Does the foreign-policy “establishment” (of which Obama has such a low opinion) feel the United States is not really going to be leading at all? The president waves aside these concerns. Credibility—in the form of pressure to act when no real interest is threatened—must not become a fetish, he suggests. Friends and allies need to do more to defend their own interests. The U.S. can’t lead if it keeps doing “stupid shit.”

Obama is not wrong about any of this. Yet turning his sensible principles into an effective foreign policy is harder than he admits. The president is so locked into an angry debate with Washington conventional wisdom that he may not understand how unthoughtful some of his explanations sound.

Take his comments about credibility—what he ridicules as “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” It’s a good line, but Obama’s reason for treating credibility as an empty concept is not so good. He wants to persuade us that, when he retreated from the famous “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, nothing much was at stake and nothing bad happened as a result.

Alas, something was—and something did. Just hours before he changed course, Obama himself said that if you do nothing when a major international norm is violated, the norm becomes meaningless. A great power values credibility so opponents know not to challenge its interests. That’s why Susan Rice, his own national-security adviser, said the damage done by backtracking on the “red line” would be severe.

Has it been? Obama says no, but surely he understands that if he had taken out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force in 2013, as many were urging him to do (and as he clearly could have done), Vladimir Putin would never have intervened in Syria in 2015. Obama may not ask himself why Putin would have held back, but the answer is very clear. He would have worried about taking on the United States. Now he doesn’t. Putin has taught us that credibility means something.

Obama, of course, has a different view. Putin, he tells Goldberg, has gained nothing from intervening in Syria. To think he has “is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally.” Propping up Assad, Obama claims, “doesn’t suddenly make [Putin] a player.” Why, he says, “there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.” (You have to wonder what Putin will make of this passage when he reads it: The president of the United States really believes setting the agenda of the next totally forgettable G20 meeting matters more than deciding who wins the civil war in Syria?)

There’s some of the same self-justification in the way Obama talks about “free riders”—the small and medium countries that count on the U.S. to provide for their security, without ponying up much on their own. “Free riders aggravate me” is already one of the most quoted lines of “The Obama Doctrine.” Virtually all American presidents have probably felt the same way, and future ones will too. They have wanted—and will want—allies who actually contribute to the common defense.

Obama has good reason to be unhappy with America’s friends. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and others have undercut his policies. In Europe he sees institutional dysfunction rivaling that of Washington. Yet the president plays the blame game in part because he too resists doing more. I recently heard a reporter ask a senior administration official whether the U.S. has ever told its Middle Eastern partners that it would be ready to commit a limited contingent of military personnel in Syria as long as they would do the same—an increased and coordinated effort. The (commendably honest) answer: “No.”

“Free-rider” problems preoccupy social scientists for the same reason they exasperate policymakers: They’re hard to fix. So hard that American presidents have often concluded that there was only one viable solution. To bring wrong-headed allies along—and limit their worst impulses—the U.S. itself had to do more, not less. Sure, doing less might force some allies to exert themselves more, but not necessarily in a way that served U.S. interests. Obama is probably right that the Turks and Saudis have made things worse in Syria. He seems not to ask himself whether a more determined U.S. role might have kept them in line.

The debate about Syria, now five years old, will outlast this administration. But it’s not the only example of Obama’s alliance management that undermines his complaints about “free riders.” There is, as Goldberg tells us, just about no foreign leader the president respects more than Angela Merkel. Nor is there one who has done more to help him. (Were it not for Merkel’s support on sanctions against Russia, Obama’s Ukraine policy would barely exist.) No European leader has tried harder to articulate a tolerant, Obama-style approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Nor has anyone paid a greater price for doing so. Merkel faces both the possible end of her political career and the possible collapse of the European Union.

White House aides acknowledge the problem. “If Europe has a 2016 anything like 2015,” one of them has told me, “there won’t be much of Europe left to talk about.” So what has the leader whom Obama respects most, who has done the most for him, who has set out a vision most like his, and who has had the most trouble implementing it, gotten from him in return? The U.S. has admitted a trickle of refugees, NATO-member navies have begun to regulate the migrant flow in Greek and Turkish waters, the Pentagon continues to study the problem of a “safe zone” in Syria—and the White House continues to express doubts about it. Measured against the “existential” crisis facing America’s most important allies, this isn’t much. It may well be what Obama means by American “leadership,” but he shouldn’t be surprised if others—just as careful and thoughtful as he—consider it too little too late.

The president has been criticized for treating “don’t do stupid shit” (a phrase first shared with reporters by his aides) as a useful statement of American foreign-policy strategy. Hillary Clinton mocked the phrase—to none other than Jeffrey Goldberg—as “not an organizing principle.” Yet the formula has real meaning. “Don’t do stupid shit” is a kind of strategy—if you have a clear enough idea of what’s stupid and real determination not to do it. Obama has both of these, and he has made them the organizing framework of a downsized, less expensive, more risk-averse foreign policy. For better or worse, this is his “doctrine.” It is helping him to clean the barn. What it may not do is sustain the American role in the world that he himself claims to want.

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