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Credibility over 'Red Lines' No Reason for War

August 26, 2013 in Economics

By Benjamin H. Friedman

Benjamin H. Friedman

Support is gathering in Washington for military action in Syria. The rationale is as follows: Evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons means President Obama’s “red line” has been crossed, and the U.S. must prove its credibility on the international stage by responding. In addition, we’re told, humanitarianism compels us to defend the rebels and their supporters from the Syrian government’s forces.

Neither argument is a good reason to launch cruise missiles, airstrikes or any other sort of war.

U.S. leaders obsess over credibility because of our many commitments to defend places where our interests are few. Because our forces are not infinite, the U.S. is like a bank vulnerable to a run. One failure can launch a self-fulfilling prophecy of doubt. Therefore the U.S. must always show resolve, otherwise the dominos might fall: allies will lose faith and enemies will be emboldened.

One problem with this logic is that it lacks limits. No conflict is so remote that no foreign policy pundit has called it a vital test of U.S. resolve. Take Libya, for instance, which the Obama administration justified bombing partly as a demonstration that it would help the Syrian resistance.

If our credibility was so fragile, its protectors would oppose military commitments where U.S. interests are shaky. If U.S. credibility to defend Berlin from the Soviets during the Cold War was vulnerable to failure elsewhere, we should have avoided imperiling it by fighting a useless war in Vietnam. Likewise, fighting in Syria might undermine the war weary public’s limited support for fighting somewhere else, harming credibility. The fact that credibility is always a pro-war argument shows that it is mainly a justification for war, not its motivation.

That is why airstrikes are unlikely to end the clamor about U.S. credibility. A volley of cruise missiles or conventional bombs will not win the war, but it will embroil us more deeply in it. Those that would fight now for credibility will then advocate the military escalation needed to achieve victory.

In this case, of course, it is too late to keep U.S. credibility out of it. You might agree that the president’s red-line comment was foolish — that willingness to protect civilians should not depend on the means of their murder — but still think that, once the President said what he did, proven chemical weapons use compels military action.

But foolish words do not justify foolish actions. The larger problem with …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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