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. 


People can believe extraordinary things. In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Block earlier this month, Susan Ahmad, the English spokesperson for the Syrian revolutionary council, claimed that last week’s Israeli strikes in Syria might have been the result of collusion between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Israelis. And it is well documented that Saddam Hussein believed that, in Hebrew, the name of the Japanese cartoon franchise Pokémon meant “I am Jewish.”

It is not beyond the bounds of imagination, then, that Assad believes that U.S. President Barack Obama is feckless and irresolute. At least that has been the worry among many American circles since Obama backed down from earlier warnings that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line.” It is likely that the Assad regime or Syrian rebels crossed that line in late April and … nothing happened. Cue the strategists: American credibility is on the line! Not just with Syria, as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham put it at the end of April, “but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends.”

Since then, the debate about what to do in Syria has been sidetracked by discussions of how central reputation is to deterrence, and whether protecting it is worth going to war.

There are two ways to answer those questions: through evidence and through logic. The first approach is easy. Do leaders assume that other leaders who have been irresolute in the past will be irresolute in the future and that, therefore, their threats are not credible? No; broad and deep evidence dispels that notion. In studies of the various political crises leading up to World War I and of those before and during the Korean War, I found that leaders did indeed worry about their reputations. But their worries were often mistaken.

For example, when North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was certain that America’s credibility was on the line. He believed that the United States’ allies in the West were in a state of “near-panic, as they watched to see whether the United States would act.” He was wrong. When one British cabinet secretary remarked to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee that Korea was “a rather distant obligation,” Attlee responded, “Distant -- yes, but nonetheless an obligation.” For their part, the French were indeed worried, but not because they doubted U.S. credibility. Instead, they feared that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory. Later, once the war was underway, Acheson feared that Chinese leaders thought the United States was “too feeble or hesitant to make a genuine stand,” as the CIA put it, and could therefore “be bullied or bluffed into backing down before Communist might.” In fact, Mao thought no such thing. He believed that the Americans intended to destroy his revolution, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

Similarly, Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, has found that the Soviet Union did not think the United States was irresolute for abandoning Vietnam; instead, Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests. And, in his study of Cold War showdowns, Dartmouth College professor Daryl Press found reputation to have been unimportant. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets threatened to attack Berlin in response to any American use of force against Cuba; despite a long record of Soviet bluff and bluster over Berlin, policymakers in the United States took these threats seriously. As the record shows, reputations do not matter.

Arguments never seem to be won on evidence alone, though, which is where the second approach comes in. Simply put, the logic behind the claim that reputation matters is self-invalidating; common knowledge of the claim changes behavior in ways that undermine it. For example, if I know that a specific signal makes my commitment seem credible, you know it too. You will discount my sending you that signal if you think I have reason to be deceptive. Logic kills strategy, in other words, because anything I can deduce, you can deduce as well. (And I can likely deduce your deduction.) This “he thinks that she thinks that he thinks” logic is part of how people strategize, and it is called recursion.

Recursive thinking can get complicated. In The Logic of Images, Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs at Columbia, wrote about a wonderful example of recursion in World War II. During the war, there was a French colonel who had been spying on the British and taking the secrets back to the Germans. The British flipped the Frenchman and started using him to pass bad information back to the Germans, who quickly became aware that the colonel was a double agent. After discovering that the Germans had found out about the Frenchman’s status, the British decided to inform the agent that the Normandy invasion was set for early June (it really was). The informant passed the information along, and it only served as proof to the Germans that the Allies were not invading Normandy in early June. All this is to illustrate how strategists use recursive thinking -- and how it quickly becomes nearly impossible to follow.

Recursion poses another strategic problem: When does the game stop? If you count on my going only one round but I go multiple rounds, you will incorrectly predict my behavior. Consider this simple guessing game: A large number of competitors is asked to pick a number between zero and 100 that will be half the average of the number that everyone else picks. Students with training in game theory reason through multiple rounds and know that the logical answer is zero. But few people think like game theorists. Most engage in only two or three iterations, which leads them to believe that the right answer is around 25.

And that brings us back to reputation. Say that Assad interprets Obama’s backing down on his red line remark as irresolute and that Assad’s reasoning stops there. He might decide that Obama will always be irresolute in the future and that Obama will play the second round of the game as if the first round had not happened. Neither the political context nor the interests at stake are important. In this case Assad, perhaps like McCain, is rather simple-minded when it comes to strategy.

Of course, it is plausible that Assad is capable of reasoning just as well as the public at large and will go through two rounds of reasoning. In this case, he might realize that Obama has taken heat at home for his red line comment. Assad might also reason that Obama knows that Assad no longer believes that Obama will follow through on his threats. And that changes Assad’s calculations entirely: in the second round of the game, he will think it unlikely that whatever Obama says is a bluff. In some ways, then, a called bluff makes Obama’s future threats more credible, not less.

Now, if Assad is a master strategist and game theory devotee, he might engage in three rounds of reasoning. In this case, Assad would believe that Obama is actually more likely to bluff because Obama thinks that Assad thinks that Obama is less likely to bluff. Keeping the logic straight is difficult, but it is also irrelevant: no one knows how many rounds the game will go on, for there is no logical place to stop.

Those who argue that reputation and credibility matter are depending on strategists to be simple-minded, illogical, and blissfully unaware of recursion. And if Assad is illogical, then calibrating U.S. foreign policy to elicit particular responses from him is pointless. The same goes for other adversaries. No one can know what the North Korean leadership will make of U.S. behavior in Syria. They might think that Obama has no credibility, that he is, in fact, resolute, or that he is driven by other U.S. interests. Whatever conclusion they come to will be driven by their own beliefs and interests.

As British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury once complained, studying maps “disturbed men’s reasoning powers.” His strategists, he thought, would have liked to “annex the moon in order to prevent its being appropriated by the planet Mars.” Just as Salisbury mocked his strategists’ fears, the United States should not let concerns over credibility drive policymaking. Wars should be fought to protect interests and values, not to defend imaginary reputations from simpletons and illogical foes. In other words, the Obama administration should not make Acheson’s mistake in Syria and let fears that others might think it irresolute drive it to disaster. Instead, it should refocus on what U.S. interests really are in Syria, and how it can best obtain them.

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