A New Kind of ‘Credibility’ Gap


An accomplished American diplomat once said that there are two templates of American foreign-policy thinking. The first is Munich and the second is Vietnam.

When America does not move militarily as some people wish it to, they say, “This is another Munich”—appeasement that in the end will summon greater violence and broader war. When America moves militarily as some people do not wish it to, they say, “This is Vietnam”—jumping in where we do not belong and cannot win.

This is serviceable as a rough expression of where our foreign policy debates tend to go. But I suspect the past 12 years’ experience in the Mideast has left us with a new template: “It’s Chinatown,” from the classic movie. This is where you try to make it better and somehow make it worse, in spite of your best efforts. This is a place where the biggest consequences are always unintended.

Surely this is part of the reason for the clear and quick public opposition to a U.S. strike in Syria, and it echoed in the attention paid to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s statement this week that such a move “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.”

This week I spoke to a few U.S. senators about the meaning of the Syria drama. They were a mix—some had given supportive soundings early on; all had been taken aback by the public reaction, the wave of calls and emails. There was gossip. Apparently some White House staffers have a new nickname for the president: “Obam-me,” because it’s all about him and his big thoughts. I guess the second-term team is not quite as adoring as the first.

Two senators spoke of their worry about what the Syria mess—the threat, the climb down, the lunge at a lifeline, the face-saving interviews—signaled to the world about U.S. credibility. If an American president says there’s a red line and the red line is crossed, there can be no question: America must act. No one said this but I think I correctly inferred a suggestion that the American people may not be willing right now to appreciate the fact that in a world full of bad guys the indispensable nation must show it is serious.

The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

It seems to me U.S. credibility is a key issue in the Syria drama, but the problem is not that the U.S. public is newly unconcerned with it. The problem is that the public now sees the issue of U.S. credibility very differently from the way many lawmakers understand it.

For weeks I’ve been going back in my mind to a talk I had with a deeply accomplished, America-loving foreign policy expert. He too felt credibility was at issue. He said the other leaders of the world are no longer certain we are a great military power. I started to answer but someone joined us and the conversation turned. But I wanted to say no, the world thinks we are a great military power. They know all about the missiles and tanks and satellites, they’ve seen our soldiers. They know our might. The world is no longer certain we are a great nation, which is a different problem.

The world knows a lot about us, and in ways removed from specific military actions. Their elites come here, and increasingly their middle class. They know our unemployment problem—it’s not a secret. They take the train from New York to Washington and see the abandoned factories. They know about our budget problems, they know who holds our bonds. They read about the kids who are bored so they killed the visiting Australian baseball player, and the kids so bored they killed a World War II veteran. They read about the state legislator who became a hero for defending late-term abortions—they see the fawning interviews. They go home with the story of the guy who spent his time watching violent videos and then, amazingly, acted out his visions of violence at the Washington Navy Yard. They notice our mass killings are no more than two-day stories.

And of course it isn’t only “the world” that sees this—Americans see it. And they are worried about their country. Deep down they, too, wonder if we are still a great nation or will be able to remain one. They think our economy is in a shambles and our government incapable, at the moment, of creating the conditions that will allow it to come back. They fear our culture is rotting our children’s heads.

And so, asked to support a strike that could spark a response that could start a real war they say no, not now and not in Chinatown. But this is not a turning inward, it is not about fortress America. They do not think they are protecting an unsullied beacon of light from the machinations and manipulations of the cynical Old World. They have fewer illusions than their policy makers do!

They are not “armchair isolationists.” If you’ve ever taken a walk in one of our cities or suburbs—if you’ve ever taken a walk in America—you know we have all the people in the world here. You can barely get them off the phone back home with Islamabad, Galway and Lagos. Longtime Americans deal every day, in the office and the neighborhood, with immigrants and others from every culture and country. And so many of the new Americans are trying desperately to adhere to America, to find reasons to adhere. They are not unaware of the larger world. They came from the larger world. They’re trying to love where they are.

They know this place is in need of help and attention. They care about it. That impulse should be encouraged and lauded, not denigrated as narrow-minded or backward. They’re trying to be practical. They’re Americans trying to take stock in their nation and concluding: “We have got to get ourselves in order, we have got to turn our attention to getting stronger. Then we will be fully credible in the world.”

What I am saying is that the old, Washington definition of credibility, which involves the projection of force in pursuit of ends it thinks necessary, and the American people’s definition of credibility, which is to become stronger and allow the world, and the young, to understand you are getting stronger, are at variance. And that will have implications down the road.

The public’s sense of U.S. credibility, and how it is best secured and projected, probably began to vary more broadly from Washington’s when the Great Recession hit home, five years ago this week.

Political leaders have got to start twigging on to this. It’s not as if it just happened. They can argue for any foreign military action they think necessary, but the American people will not be of a mind to support it until they think someone is really trying to clean up America.

A diplomat might say, “But the world will not go on vacation while America gets its act together!” True enough, and that fact will demand real shrewdness from America’s leaders, who in the past few weeks got quite a lesson in how Americans on the ground view American priorities.