The Two Amigos’ ‘Credibility’ Crisis

Neocons across Official Washington equate “credibility” with taking military action against some country that won’t bend to America’s will. But true credibility for the U.S. government can come from taking measured and responsible approaches to international disagreements, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Lindsey Graham and John McCain, the two-thirds of the Three Amigos who are still in the U.S. Senate since the departure of Joe Lieberman, contributed to the opinion pages of the Washington Post this weekend a short reprise of their familiar positions on front-burner Middle Eastern issues: act forcefully to defeat the Assad regime in Syria, be obdurate toward Iran, etc.

Nothing new here, but it might be worth reflecting for a moment on one of their accusations: that the administration’s “failure in Syria” is part of broader “collapse of U.S. credibility in the Middle East.” Graham and McCain’s particular usage of the term credibility exemplifies something broader, too: a habit of associating the concept only with forceful actions, especially military actions, rather than with any other policy course.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

This restrictive concept of upholding a nation’s credibility does not flow from any dictionary definition of credibility (“the quality or power of inspiring belief”). Whether any given action or piece of inaction tends to inspire belief depends of course on context and on what else the state in question has said or done on the same subject. There is no reason to postulate an asymmetry in favor of forceful action or any other kind of action.

There are valid grounds for criticizing the Obama administration’s policies on Syria, especially the overemphasis on the issue of chemical weapons with insufficient advance thinking about what to do if a significant chemical incident were to occur.

But the administration’s subsequent seizing on the Russian initiative after the chemical incident in August was in a real sense a making good on its own word about viewing chemical weapons as the most important dimension of the Syrian conflict. That is an unjustifiably narrow way of viewing the conflict, but at least the administration was being consistent, and consistency is an important ingredient of credibility.

The Two Amigos write that the President “specifically committed” to them in the Oval Office “to degrade the Assad regime’s military capabilities, upgrade the capabilities of the moderate opposition and shift the momentum on the battlefield.” Those of us who have not been flies on the Oval Office wall cannot referee that one. But publicly the President has not made the sort of commitment that would warrant the Amigos’ accusation that he “abandoned” the Syrian opposition.

Another erroneous application of the concept of credibility is the senators’ equating loss of credibility with how “Israel and our Gulf Arab partners are losing all confidence” in the administration’s diplomacy, with references to recent indications of the Saudi regime’s displeasure. Displeasing other states, when there has been no failure to live up to a treaty commitment and when the other states, as is true of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, have major differences of interest with the United States as well as some shared interests, has nothing to do with a failure of credibility. Consistent pursuit of the United States’ own interests is much more of a foundation for maintaining credibility.

Graham and McCain do inadvertently give us an example in their piece of how U.S. credibility can be hurt. In referring to the Iranian nuclear issue they say, “We should be prepared to suspend the implementation of new sanctions, but only if Iran suspends its enrichment activities.” This formulation comes out of a letter that eight other senators also signed and that tries to portray this package as a balanced “suspension for suspension” deal. This is a ludicrous play on words.

There is nothing reasonable or proportionate about linking a demand for one side to stop completely an ongoing program in return for the other side not piling on still more new sanctions, which doesn’t really entail a suspension of anything. The wordplay is unbelievable. If we want the Iranians or anyone else to believe that the United States is serious about reaching an agreement, this sort of silliness damages U.S. credibility.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

4 comments for “The Two Amigos’ ‘Credibility’ Crisis

  1. Lisa Johnson
    October 29, 2013 at 09:57

    This piece on long on biased speculation and short on specifics. What exactly are they bellowing about? Afghanistan? Iraq? Those were started by the former Bush/Cheney administration. The so-called “moderates” that they refer to as “Syrian moderates” are scarcely that. Many of them are not having Syrian. There are Chechnyn rebels fighting there and factions of al Queda. Louie Gohmert was right to a certain degree when he said McCain was siding with al Queda. I remember seeing the pictures of McCain smiling and standing with a group of rebels..these are some of the same people who are alleged to have ripped out peoples hearts and eaten them, and beheading them. I have a friend who lives in Syria and she has told me about the devastation and destruction going on at the hands of the “rebels.” For god’s sake, we have enough of our own problems right here in our own backyard that we need to work on. We must certainly should NOT get involved in another Middle Eastern war — those plans never work out well for us. If Saudi Arabia and Israel want a war let them damned well start it. We need to cut both SA and Israel loose. They are nothing but warmongers and trouble.

    • Joseph Stans
      November 2, 2013 at 16:53

      Remember we are dealing with Conservatives and particularly vacuous Conservatives at that. They have never been long on Specifics, preferring to sit in the bleachers and throw things at the players. I doubt either can find France on a world map much less Chechnya.

      Completely agree with you about Saudi Arabia and Israel. Conservatives want the poor off the dole. Why not start with the two greatest parasites in our world?

  2. gregorylkruse
    October 29, 2013 at 08:46

    It should be called F*c* the Nation.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    October 29, 2013 at 01:43

    I read this article twice, then read the Menendez letter. Insane McCain and Graham Crackers are in good company. They insist that Iran must dismantle its non-existent nuclear weapons program, or face the same consequences as Saddam Hussein.

    Michael Scheuer recently gave Representative Peter King some sound advice in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee. King talks the same looney tunes game as Crackers and Insane. Scheuer (ex-CIA Operations Officer) said, and I quote loosely, “You’re presiding over a bankrupt economy and you’ve just lost two major regional wars”.

    Without getting into the economic realities, Russia and China have too many intersecting interests to allow this to happen. The Saudis or the Israelis could do it themselves, but they’d prefer to let the Americans confront Russia and China.

    Anybody reading the Menendez letter who follows the issues would have to conclude that it’s an irrational pack of lies written to please delusional constituents who don’t understand realpolitik. The eight signatories are from the top ten list of campaign contribution recipients from that other pack of crackers, AIPAC of crackers.

    Any fool should realize that Rouhani and his analysts have also read that letter. They must be laughing their asses off. Is our credibility compromised? Well, not unless C-SPAN shows these clowns on TV. They wouldn’t do that…would they?

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