Afghanistan, Bay of Pigs, Biden, Central America, Cold War, communism, credibility, Cuba, Cuban Missile Crisis, Gideon Rachman, Grenada, John F. Kennedy, Laos, Lebanon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Reagan Doctrine, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Samuel Johnson, Southeast Asia, Soviet Union, Vietnam
Forgive me if this header makes it sound like I’m unusually ticked off. But I sort of am. Because I’ve been dealing for decades with the claim that the United States can’t set meaningful foreign policy priorities because tolerating any international setbacks of any kind would destroy its global credibility forever.
I haven’t heard this argument lately, no doubt because it’s rooted in the Cold War era, and the absence of a superpower adversary determined to engage in a full-fledged contest for global supremacy (and no, the Chinese aren’t there yet, especially when it comes to fighting proxy wars) drained it of lots of its…well…credibility as a rationale for sweeping American global activism.
Now, however, the seeming certainty of a Taliban takeover following the nearly completed U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan has brought it back (see, e.g., here and here), and it’s even less convincing than during its Cold War heyday.
As a review of U.S. Cold War history makes clear, there were actually several varieties of the credibility theory. For example, John F. Kennedy’s effort to halt the spread of Communism in Vietnam clearly was influenced by the acute need he felt to bolster his own credibility after the Bay of Pigs debacle, a performance at a summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that he himself viewed as a dangerous flop, and a widely criticized diplomatic settlement to a conflict in neighboring Laos. In other words, Kennedy perceived an urgent need to salvage a reputation for simple foreign policy competence.
Credibility throughout the early Cold War decades in particular had an ideological dimension, too. As this study handily summarizes, U.S. leaders strongly believed that prevailing against the Soviets and Chinese required that Americans help threatened countries demonstrate to the world at large that non-Communist systems had the vigor to repel subversion and outright revolt by adherents of that creed. So establishing credibility during that period was also an exercise in global morale building. (Interestingly, echoes of this idea permeate the rhetoric of the Biden administration and other globalists on the subject of China.)
But the main version of Cold War credibility theory held any U.S. failure to resist Communist expansionism the world over would convince friend and foe alike that American declarations of resolve were shams and that American security commitments were worthless whenever push came to shove. The resulting shift in the global balance of power and influence, as U.S. allies and neutrals alike scrambled to accommodate ascendant Communist forces as best they could, would leave an internationally isolated America much weaker and poorer.
They were behind Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnam-induced fear that “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
And they were explicitly behind Ronald Reagan’s case for his doctrine of resisting Moscow’s efforts to expand its influence in Central America, sub-Saharan Africa – and Afghanistan: “The U.S. must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its Allies and friends, and to support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy.”
Thankfully, today’s credibility-mongers are outside of power in Washington, not inside. But these members of the globalist foreign policy Blob concentrated in the Mainstream Media, the think tank world, and some factions in Congress, are hardly devoid of influence, especially if the optics coming out of Afghanistan are ugly, as can be counted on. So it’s worth reviewing the main reasons that this form of obsessing about U.S. credibility has no claim to be taken seriously both for that reason, and because their fatal flaws remain the same, too.
In the first place, credibility-mongering falls on its face because its main animating fears have simply not materialized over any stretch of time. The fall of Vietnam, most prominently, clearly led to Communist takeovers in Laos and Cambodia, too. But in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, no U.S. treaty allies defected into the Communist camp, or turned neutral. Even in Southeast Asia, no more dominoes topped – despite the clear lack of any American appetite to help with any resistance.
In fact, as (globalist) Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman just noted, “within fourteen years of the fall of Saigon, the cold war was over, and the west had won.”
A least as interesting, as I noted way back in 1985, successful American demonstrations of credibility have displayed little long-term value. For example, Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada was a clear-cut win for the United States. But for years afterwards, Soviet- and Cuban-backed leaders and insurgents in nearby Central America continued defying his administration’s will for years afterward. Outside the Western Hemisphere, the Grenada victory did nothing to stop deadly attacks on U.S. Marines stationed in civil war-torn Lebanon. Meanwhile, many American allies viewed Grenada as more evidence that Reagan was a dangerous cowboy. Even staunch Reagan ally and close personal friend Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, was unnerved.
More important, though, as I argued in that 1985 article, given inevitable limits on American power and will, the real measure of U.S. credibility isn’t a stated determination to respond strongly to every single foreign challenge that arises, or even to try doing so. In fact, because its post-Vietnam circumstances and behavior have made those limits obvious globally, such pretensions are likeliest to have the opposite effect – to fuel doubts about American judgment and wisdom.
Rather than depending on “convincing the rest of the world that the United States will respond to all instances of aggression,” I continued, building and preserving American credibility “must depend on convincing the world that the United States will respond to some instances of aggression” based on the identification of specific interests that are regarded as important enough to defend (or to advance, for that matter, when such opportunities appear). And operationally, “this translates into an ability to use finite assets efficiently and rationally – to convey a clear sense of priorities.”
Of course, adversaries might as a result view countries or regions left off an American definition of crucial interests as tempting targets. But precisely because these would be low priorities, by definition any adversary wins in these areas would pose few if any risks to the United States.
The 18th century British literary giant Samuel Johnson famously proclaimed that false, cynical expressions of patriotism are “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I wouldn’t go so far as to attach that label to the credibility-mongers. But resort to this ploy too often has been the last refuge of globalists who are completely out of any other reasons to insist on dubious forms of international activism, and the current hysteria over Afghanistan is clearly the latest example.