“Credibility” Isn’t the Issue

By Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz




As the U.S.-led NATO air war against Serbia is in its fifth week, a growing number of voices–in Congress, the media and the foreign policy establishment–urge that the U.S. escalate the conflict by introducing ground troops and seeking Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s overthrow. A common theme runs through these demands: The Clinton administration may have blundered in becoming involved in Kosovo, but that no longer matters. Now that the U.S. is at war, so the refrain goes, it must win. America’s and NATO’s credibility are at stake.

Washington’s obsessive concern with credibility highlights a paradox at the core of U.S. foreign policy: Because of formidable military, economic and technological capabilities and the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, not to mention geography, the United States today–as has been the case throughout the post-World War II era–is arguably more secure than any great power in history. Yet, both during the Cold War and after, the U.S. repeatedly has found itself involved in conflicts in strategically peripheral regions, ostensibly out of a need to maintain its “credibility.”

The scope of American ambitions, not a concern with national security, per se, explains Washington’s credibility concerns.

Rather than simply protecting the territorial integrity of the U.S., successive administrations have aimed at creating a world order based on America’s values, interests and overwhelming power. Rather than contenting itself with a degree of relative security that would be the envy of history’s other great powers, the U.S. has consistently sought absolute security–that is, a world in which it confronts no military or ideological rivals. For decades, as anyone familiar with the justifications for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War knows, policymakers have seen credibility as the key to world order, and if it is lost, Washington has feared a parade of horribles would follow: falling dominoes, insatiable dictators, defecting allies–in short, snowballing turmoil and instability.

But the pursuit of world order is taxing–even for the world’s self-proclaimed “sole remaining superpower.” Because it requires the United States to control the international system, a world order strategy means that America must enlarge the geographic scope of its responsibilities to maintain the security of its already-established interests. The result is the continual expansion of America’s frontiers of insecurity into peripheral areas like the Balkans. Thus U.S. involvement in Kosovo is justified by fear that instability there could affect more important U.S. interests in Western Europe.

This kind of thinking explains why Washington believes it must demonstrate its leadership and resolve by intervening in places that, in themselves, have no strategic importance to the U.S. But American policymakers have gotten it backward: Because peripheral areas like the Balkans are not strategically consequential, U.S. credibility is not engaged in them. When America’s intrinsic stakes in a specific crisis are high, neither adversaries nor others will question its resolve. Conversely, when the U.S. fails to intervene in peripheral areas, others will not draw adverse inferences about America’s willingness to defend vital interests.

A second fallacy underlying Washington’s credibility obsession is the assumption that global events are tightly interconnected, and that what the U.S. does in one crisis is a precedent for subsequent crises. Hence, Clinton argues that if Serbian aggression goes unpunished, leaders in other troubled regions will be encouraged to take dangerous actions. But stopping Serbian aggression is no more likely to deter future aggressors than U.S. action in the Persian Gulf–which, after all, was defended as part of a new world order that would punish aggressors–deterred Serbia.

In the world of statecraft, most crises are discrete, not tightly linked. The outcome of events in other potential hot spots (Taiwan, Korea, the Gulf) will be decided by local conditions, not by what the United States does in the Balkans. Put another way, just as Milosevic was not deterred by U.S. action against Iraq, Saddam Hussein was not deterred by U.S. action in Panama; Manuel Antonio Noreiga was not deterred by U.S. actions in Lebanon, Grenada or Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh was not deterred by U.S. action against North Korea, and Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin were not deterred by U.S. action against Adolf Hitler.

The U.S. miscalculated in becoming involved in Kosovo. If the Clinton administration succumbs to the mounting political pressure to commit ground forces to the war–to “win” and thus preserve U.S. credibility–it will only compound its initial mistake. After the loss of more than 200 U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, President Reagan terminated America’s commitment in Lebanon. Astute statesmen know when to cut their losses in peripheral conflicts, and they know they can do so, as Reagan did, without calling into question the credibility of their commitments to defend truly vital interests.

In the 19th century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck wisely declared that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, and, today, Kosovo is not worth a ground war. Clinton should not try to prove America’s will to defend its interests by squandering the lives of U.S. soldiers in a Balkan war in which those interests are not, in the end, at stake.

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