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The Foreign Policy “Credibility” Argument Is, Well, Not Credible

The idea that Joe Biden squandered American credibility in the Afghan withdrawal is seductive, but it connects the wrong dots.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue boards a cargo plane at the Kabul airport
U.S. Central Command/Getty Images
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue boards a cargo plane at the Kabul airport on August 30. He was the final American service member to depart the country.

This summer, as U.S. troops beat a hasty and chaotic retreat from Afghanistan, the foreign policy community both here and abroad was near unanimous in its belief that President Biden had done grievous harm to America’s international credibility.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster declared there would be “severe political consequences in connection with our credibility with our allies and partners.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said events in Afghanistan “will certainly harm America’s credibility with its friends and allies.”

Such caustic words from former Trump administration officials are to be expected, but the criticism of Biden was near-universal. The chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Germany’s Bundestag bemoaned the “fundamental damage” done “to the political and moral credibility of the West.” In the U.K., Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, called Afghanistan “the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez,” while former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that “the world is now uncertain of where the West stands.”

According to The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, “The United States undermined its credibility with its allies” and “damaged its ability to earn the trust of future local partners.” The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman saw implications for Asia and Europe: “If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban, there will be a question mark over whether America would really be willing to go to war with China or Russia.”

These arguments are practically pro forma whenever the United States retreats from a battlefield. They were raised after U.S. withdrawals from Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, and Iraq, among others. They are trotted out when U.S. leaders refuse to use military force—in the early days of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and repeatedly with regard to the Syrian civil war.

Yet they are practically always wrong. Credibility is perhaps the most overinflated concept in international affairs. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, global leaders hardly obsess over America’s retreat from lost wars.

Perhaps the foremost international relations book on the question of credibility in foreign affairs is Daryl Press’s Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats. Press, a professor at Dartmouth University, argues that leaders consistently overvalue the importance of credibility in foreign policy decision-making. During the Cold War, the notion of American credibility was practically sacrosanct in the eyes of U.S. policymakers.

When North Korean forces stormed across the 38th Parallel in June 1950, President Harry Truman worried that a failure to stop Communist aggression on the Korean Peninsula would undermine confidence among America’s European allies about the country’s commitment to protect Western Europe.

More than a decade later, during the Cuban missile crisis, one of the most significant considerations for U.S. policymakers “was not the effect of Soviet missiles on the balance of power but their effect on American credibility.”

In Vietnam, credibility again drove U.S. policy to a dangerous and disproportionate degree. Early on in his presidency, Lyndon Johnson concluded that to back down in Vietnam would not only embolden the Soviet Union and other Communist movements but would even undermine LBJ’s credibility at home in pushing his domestic policy agenda.

An infamous March 1965 Pentagon memo on U.S. war aims in Vietnam broke them down as such:

10%—To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.

20%—To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

70% —To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)

Yet, as Press points out, while American leaders obsessed over how their actions would be perceived in Moscow, they almost never made the same calculations about Soviet actions. The fact that the Soviets backed down and removed their missiles from Cuba—and before that sought to defuse various crises over Berlin—never appeared to shape American thinking about what the Soviets might do in the future. American leaders obsessed over their credibility while largely ignoring the issue when it came to other countries.

Nonetheless, the cult of credibility continued to define American foreign policy for decades. The loss of Vietnam, it’s been argued, influenced the actions of everyone from Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein to the current Chinese leadership. Later, policy analysts argued that the American retreat from Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993 emboldened Osama bin Laden to attack America on 9/11.

In 2013, when President Obama refused to launch airstrikes against Syria over its use of chemical weapons, critics said that his decision inspired Vladimir Putin to seize Crimea.

Sometimes the argument even goes in the opposite direction. In 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker claimed on the presidential campaign trail that President Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking aircraft controllers was read by the Kremlin as a sign that the Gipper would maintain America’s international commitments at any cost. In other words, Reagan’s union-busting decision somehow strengthened America’s credibility.

Credibility theory, at first blush, makes perfect intuitive sense. If the U.S. signals a commitment to a particular foreign policy outcome—for example, preventing a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan—and then does nothing when that negative outcome occurs, it stands to reason that other countries, both allies and adversaries, will conclude that the U.S. will not adhere to its other international commitments.

But the historical record suggests that the opposite is the case. Instead, leaders calculate credibility not by past events, but by their interpretation of current ones. Quite often those interpretations are not as simplistic or binary as the credibility cabal would have us believe.

With respect to Korea, for example, as Jonathan Mercer, the author of Reputation and International Politics, notes, for all of the Truman administration’s concerns about how U.S. “weakness” in Korea would be perceived by its European allies, the view in Europe was quite different. French leaders, for example, were more concerned “that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory.”

As for Vietnam, Mercer highlights the work of Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, which suggests that the Soviet Union, rather than seeing weakness in the American retreat from Vietnam, was surprised that its rival would sacrifice so much in pursuit of a strategic objective tangential to direct U.S. interests.

Today, it’s certainly possible that Chinese leaders will conclude that the U.S. has undermined its credibility by withdrawing from Afghanistan, even after 20 years of war. But China’s calculus about a potential U.S. response if it invades Taiwan, for example, is based on a very different set of factors. The U.S. has maintained its commitment to Taiwan for more than four decades, and the only major variation in the policy has been to occasionally take steps that suggest openness to a Taiwanese declaration of independence, which is a red line for Beijing. Chinese leaders would have a difficult time looking at the historical evidence and concluding that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s territorial integrity is less than sincere.

Second, Chinese leaders could easily draw the opposite conclusion from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, Biden’s Afghanistan policy “might convince China that we are more serious about a shift to Asia or to Great Power competition.” In her view, the withdrawal is “unlikely to produce any concrete changes in their foreign policy approach, since they were already contesting U.S. hegemony.”

Then there is the larger issue of what happens to China if its leaders are wrong about diminished U.S. credibility. What if they conclude, wrongly, that the U.S. will not respond to a cross-strait attack again Taiwan? They could quickly find themselves in a shooting war with the world’s strongest military and one that has significantly more nuclear weapons. Is that truly a risk that Beijing wants to take?

War with China would hardly be a desirable outcome for the U.S., but considering America’s vast military power and its multiple global alliances, being wrong about U.S. intentions could have not just deadly consequences but existential ones for Beijing.

It is striking that foreign policy scholars have previously argued that leaders like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, and Osama bin Laden poked the American bear because of U.S. retreat in Vietnam, Beirut, or Somalia. How did that decision work out for them?

If Saddam concluded that he could invade Kuwait with impunity, if Milošević believed he could ethnically cleanse Kosovo and face no consequences, and if bin Laden assumed the U.S. was too meek to respond to a major terrorist attack, they were all proven badly wrong.

In all three situations, the U.S. concluded (wrongly, some would argue) that its national security interests required the use of military force. That the U.S. could reverse the invasion of Kuwait, stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, or punish Al Qaeda was not really in question. Clearly those military capabilities existed.

So the key factor is not past behavior but a rational and sober reading by other nations of the U.S. national interest. Will the U.S. use force based on the perceived interests at stake?

One useful case study is President Obama’s decision not to use force against Syria in 2013, after it crossed Obama’s stated “red line” and deployed chemical weapons against civilians.

As the argument goes, Obama’s weakness was emboldening not just for Bashar Al Assad but for other global despots. The very fact that Assad used chemical weapons suggests that he never took Obama’s threat seriously.

There is, of course, a major problem with this argument: After years of refusing to account for its chemical weapons program, and under the threat of U.S. military attack, in 2013, Syria turned over its entire stockpile of these banned weapons to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Clearly Assad believed that the threat of American military force was so credible that he had no choice but to give in to U.S. demands.

Nonetheless, Obama’s red line failure became a catch-all explanation for practically every bad thing that happened in the world over the following several years. When Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, some foreign policy pundits argued that it was a result of Obama’s refusal to use force against Syria in 2013. Since Obama hadn’t been willing to follow through on his so-called red line threat to Syria, Russia felt empowered to attack its neighbor Ukraine and annex territory from it.

Perhaps, but there is, of course, a simpler explanation. Russian leaders concluded that since Ukraine is not a member of NATO and not an ally of the U.S., Obama would not respond with the use of force. In other words, Russian leader Vladimir Putin made the strategic calculation that annexing Crimea, while it might upset American leaders, was not a provocative enough action to provoke America’s military fury. That calculation was correct, though as Putin soon enough found, it was not a consequence-free decision: The U.S. assembled a global coalition to impose crippling economic sanctions on Moscow.

But let’s take the credibility argument a step further. Shouldn’t Obama’s weakness in the face of first Syrian and then Russian aggression have led Putin to conclude he could keep pushing the envelope in regard to his near abroad? Shouldn’t the invasion of Crimea have led to a subsequent Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, or even a foray into the Baltic states? While Putin continued to subsidize the civil war in Eastern Ukraine, he didn’t use Russian military forces to seize more of Ukraine’s land. He certainly didn’t attempt to raise tensions with the Baltic states, all of which are NATO allies. Perhaps he refrained in those cases because he concluded that the U.S. response to such actions would be very different. Even with an arguably pro-Russian president in the White House after Obama, Putin didn’t test his luck.

In fact, according to a recent Rand Corporation study, Russian military interventions, since the end of the Cold War, hit their lowest point in 2018—several years after the seizure of Crimea and Obama’s back-down on using military force in Syria. If credibility is such a powerful force in international relations, one might expect that Putin would feel emboldened. Instead, it’s been the opposite.

As Press argues, “Blood and wealth spent to maintain a country’s record for keeping commitments are wasted: when push comes to shove, credibility is assessed on the basis of the current interests at stake and the balance of power, not on the basis of past sacrifices.”

There’s certainly an argument to be made about the efficacy of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan. But if one wants to argue that the U.S. should have kept troops fighting a 20-year civil war, they’ll need to come up with a more compelling argument than credibility.