Syria and Obama's 'Credibility Spiral'

With no clear strategy or set of political objectives, President Obama had set red lines for chemical weapons use in Syria. This locked him into a credibility spiral that was difficult for him to free from, even after a resolution to the chemical weapons question.

The Russian proposal calling for Assad to hand over his stockpiles of chemical weapons may well diffuse the threat of a US strike against Syria, but it is instructive to examine the factors that helped contribute to a potential US strike in the first place.

Specifically, whilst a range of geopolitical interests are involved in the Syrian conflict, symbolic interests are also at stake. The US is the global hegemon, and a key part of that hegemony is the perception of US resolve, particularly when flagrant breaches of global norms occur. The use of chemical weapons in Syria, most probably by elements within Assad's regime, crossed President Obama's 'red line'. Their use thus created what we might call a 'credibility spiral' for Obama and his administration but also US hegemony more generally.

If he failed to act, Obama would not only appear weak and lacking in resolve but broader US global leadership would be called into question. If the US can tolerate the large scale and blatant use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians in a war as geopolitically significant as Syria's, what else would it tolerate?  The absence of action would further alter the perception of US global leadership; itself already weakened by the financial crisis and the rise of other powers such as China. In the words of one analyst, failure to act over Syria would mean 'profound conclusions will be drawn by a China ready to bully its neighbours, by a North Korea whose scruples are already minimal, and by an Iran that has already killed many Americans in a covert war waged against us in Iraq and Afghanistan'.

The Dangers of Being Locked into a Credibility Spiral

However, there are two key problems with credibility spirals. First, when credibility is linked to morality, the credibility spiral may continue to escalate even after the purported problem has been resolved. In the case of Syria for example, whilst the current proposal may indeed remove Assad's chemical stockpile, the broader moral issue of civilian suffering will continue.

Given the linkage of the potential US strike with a broader moral purpose, for example, with US Secretary of State John Kerry's castigation of the chemical attack as a 'moral obscenity', it is hard to see how the US can stand idly by whilst the civilian death toll continues without a further loss of credibility. The chemical weapons might disappear, but to put it bluntly, why is it acceptable for thousands of civilians to die under bombs and artillery, but not for thousands to die under a chemical cloud? Whilst it is unlikely that Western publics will be clamouring for intervention, equally they may not buy the qualitative distinction that it matters how thousands die, especially given the link between morality and US credibility in Syria. That moral confusion will remain, and as such, the US is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.   

Second, credibility spirals have an inherent tendency to escalate, especially when there is an absence of a clearly defined strategy to help check ever larger commitments to maintaining credibility. History is replete with examples of wars being initiated or dragging on well past their strategic sell by dates, merely to maintain the credibility of a warring state, with that credibility linked in some way to a signifier of an often fragile outcome (democratic elections, stability and so on). Moreover, if a powerful state gets caught in a credibility spiral that remains unchecked by strategic goals, it hands often much weaker adversaries a powerful weapon: the capacity to degrade credibility and thus set the rhythm of conflict or pace of negotiations. The current proposal on Syria ties US credibility into Russian leadership of the issue, itself a curious development. If the US were to bomb Syria however, it is very likely that  the Assad regime would survive an initial round of strikes. Then what? In the absence of significant diplomatic resolution, the credibility spiral would predict that the US would need to escalate, especially if Assad cocks a hoop at the US, itself quite possible given his international backers, all of whom have a stake in hastening a post-unipolar world order.

The Credibility Tail Wags the Strategic Dog

In sum, in the absence of a clear set of concrete political objectives attainable through the use of military power, the credibility tail can often wag the strategic dog. This is perhaps the greatest danger for US strategy in Syria, especially given the seeming absence of a viable alternative to Assad and the fifty shades of Islamist grey amongst the insurgents that may well preclude any viable, or at least desirable, post-Assad state.

As such, the US should be very wary of committing itself to a credibility spiral in the Syrian conflict and escalating its moral rhetoric, at least in the absence of a clear political strategy, set of objectives and a desired 'end state'. If it does stumble into Syria, it must not do so on the basis of credibility alone.   


Doug Stokes

Senior Associate Fellow

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