Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

Bad Reputation

The Folly of Going to War for "Credibility"

U.S. President Barack Obama winks in the Oval Office, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, 2013. (Larry Downing / Courtesy Reuters)

The United States is poised to strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians and wounded thousands. U.S. President Barack Obama warned Assad not to use such weapons once before, saying that their use would cross a “red line.” Assad ignored the threat in June and Obama did nothing. So does Obama’s initial bluff explain Assad’s second chemical attack?

It might. If Assad concluded from the first episode that Obama was irresolute, then he would discount the threat of U.S. military action. Of course, that would make Assad a strategic simpleton unable to imagine the political pressure on the Obama administration to respond to the repeated use of poison gas.

Even if Assad were so simpleminded, the administration’s critics are wrong to suggest that the president should have acted sooner to protect U.S. credibility. After the red line was first crossed, Obama could have taken the United States to war to prevent Assad from concluding that an irresolute Obama would not respond to any further attacks -- a perception on Syria’s part that seems to have now made a U.S. military response all but certain. But going to war to prevent a possible misperception that might later cause a war is, to paraphrase Bismarck, like committing suicide out of fear that others might later wrongly think one is dead.

It is also possible that the United States did not factor into Assad’s calculations. A few months before the United States invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s primary concerns were avoiding a Shia rebellion and deterring Iran. Shortsighted, yes, but also a good reminder that although the United States is at the center of the universe for Americans, it is not for everyone else.  Assad has a regime to protect and he will commit any crime to win the war. Finally, it is possible that Assad never doubted Obama’s resolve -- he just expects that he can survive any American response. After all, if overthrowing Assad were easy, it would already have been done.

Instead of worrying about U.S. credibility or the president’s reputation, the administration should focus on what can be done to reinforce the longstanding norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction. 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE, May 13, 2013

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis