The Bad Faith Hawkish Credibility Argument Just Won't Die

The appeal to credibility here is disingenuous, and it is the last resort of war supporters that have no other arguments left.

If there’s one thing hawks enjoy, it is creating doubt about U.S. reliability:

Mr. Biden “knows from long experience that America’s actions abroad matter, but he is willingly ignoring the far-reaching consequences of America’s withdrawal in Afghanistan,” said Bradley Bowman, an Afghanistan veteran and senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Center on Military and Political Power, a hawkish think tank in Washington.

“We can expect Chinese and Russian diplomats to ramp up with new credibility a whisper campaign in capitals around the world that Washington is an unreliable partner who will abandon its friends sooner or later,” he said.

Maybe Chinese and Russian diplomats will make this claim, but why would anyone else take it seriously? The only people that seem to believe that U.S. credibility everywhere else hinges on prolonging an unwinnable war in Central Asia are the hawkish dead-enders that never wanted our involvement in the war to end. The appeal to credibility here is disingenuous, and it is the last resort of war supporters that have no other arguments left. As Mike Black put it on Twitter yesterday:

These hawks warn that the U.S. will lose credibility with all of its allies unless it does exactly what the hawks want in every crisis or conflict. They impute their own preferences to the allies to make them seem more important to U.S. interests than they are. It is remarkable how all of our allies are supposed to have exactly the same view of every issue as the most aggressive American hawks. Hawks said that the U.S. had to bomb the Syrian government’s forces in 2013 to maintain credibility with allies the world over, and then when the U.S. did not do that there were zero consequences for U.S. credibility. They insisted that the U.S. had to retaliate for the Abqaiq attack in 2019 or there would be dire consequences for U.S. credibility in the eyes of its partners. The U.S. did not retaliate, and U.S. credibility was unaffected. Now they tell us that the U.S. is proving itself an unreliable partner again by withdrawing from Afghanistan after almost twenty years. One wonders just how many decades the U.S. has to prop up a client state in order to be considered reliable.

Will U.S. allies and clients elsewhere look at Afghanistan and worry that the U.S. will abandon them? No, they won’t. For one thing, what the U.S. does or doesn’t do in Afghanistan tells us nothing about what the U.S. will or won’t do anywhere else. U.S. interests and commitments in other parts of the world are more important, and allies and clients will judge U.S. reliability by assessing our interests and capabilities in their regions.

I would say that the much bigger problem we have in our foreign policy is that it is very difficult to get clients to believe that the U.S. would ever cut them off and leave them to their own devices. The U.S. almost never does this and rarely follows through even when it says it will do this. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is notable for how unusual it is and how unlike the U.S. it is to cut its losses. I submit that one reason why the Afghan government is faring as poorly as it is right now is that their leaders never took seriously the possibility that the U.S. would really leave, and there was so much resistance to the idea in Washington when Trump talked about it that they can be forgiven for misreading the situation. When a client government assumes that the patron will always be there to bail them out, they don’t prepare for the possibility that the patron will one day be gone. The U.S. bears responsibility for making some of our clients so heavily dependent on U.S. backing that they can’t properly defend themselves even after decades of providing them with weapons, training, and support. That cultivation of dependence is what needs to change.

The U.S. has dozens of formal allies and many more clients and security partners all around the world, and this wouldn’t be the case if all these governments were inclined to buy into the hawks’ bogus credibility arguments. If those arguments were correct, the U.S. should have experienced a massive loss of credibility in the eyes of its allies after Vietnam, but it did not. The U.S. should have suffered another big loss after canceling the defense treaty with Taiwan, but that didn’t happen, either. Allies and clients can see that these decisions are not made lightly or frivolously, and they can also see how relatively rare they are. They are also capable of recognizing the important differences between these rare cases and their own relationships with the U.S. It is simply not credible to argue that these governments are going to conclude that the U.S. is unreliable because it finally chose to put an end to one unwinnable, peripheral war after twenty years. It is much more likely that they will marvel at how long it took for the U.S. to acknowledge the futility of what it was doing.