Politics in Practice

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The Credibility Trap

Richard Ned Lebow is Professor of International Political Theory in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, UK and James O. Freedman Presidential Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College, USA. He is the author (most recently) of A Democratic Foreign Policy. Read the introduction online, free until 19th November 2019. 

My earliest memories of foreign policy are reading in the newspapers about the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences at the end of World War II. I was transfixed by the Big Three remaking the map of Europe, and then, by the Cold War, when cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union broke down. I have been a junkie ever since, and a professional one since receiving my PhD in the 1960s. As a university professor for more than half a century, I have written widely about foreign policy, international relations, political psychology, and related subjects. I also served as the first scholar-in-residence in the CIA during the Carter administration and as professor of strategy at the Naval and National War Colleges. 

I was a critic of US foreign policy throughout the Cold War. I thought Democratic and Republican administrations alike overdosed on deterrence, and that their excessive arms buildup, provocative forward deployments, and threatening rhetoric provoked the very crises they were intended to prevent. Moscow did the same, and together they brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis. In an earlier book, We All Lost the Cold War, my coauthor and I made use of newly classified American and Soviet documents and extensive interviews in both capitals to document these claims and to show how willingness to compromise was more important than threats of force in resolving this crisis and the one arising from the October 1973 Middle East war. 

Since the Cold War a key concern of US foreign policy has been the perceived need to demonstrate resolve. This was the principal motive for intervening in Vietnam and risking war with China on at least two occasions in the Taiwan Straits. When scholars gained partial access to the Soviet archives at the end of the Cold War and interviewed former Soviet officials, it became apparent that American resolve was never questioned. Quite the reverse, Soviet and Chinese leaders believed American leaders to be risk prone, not risk averse, and even foolhardy in the willingness to put themselves in harm’s way.  

Misplaced concern for credibility was exploited by allies who deliberately sought to stoke this concern. By doing so they sought to commit the US to policies that may have benefitted them but not the US. Taiwan’s dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, German conservatives, the puppet regime Washington installed in Saigon, the Shah of Iran, all played this game—and with notable success. They dragged the US into confrontations it would have been in its interest to avoid, or public commitments to their security that allowed them to pursue provocative policies under the US security umbrella. Tails repeatedly wagged the dog.

Something similar is happening today with Saudi Arabia. Like many of the regimes the US supported during the Cold War, it is a corrupt dictatorship intent on achieving regional hegemony regardless of the human cost, and run by a prince prone to murder dissenters. Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for leadership in the Gulf, and Washington has been drawn into supporting Saudi Arabia’s brutal intervention in Yemen. It is now being asked to take military action against Iran on its behalf, which is not in the American interest. 

The Saudis have been working behind the scenes to mobilize support within America’s national security establishment, and with some success. At least some talking heads are claiming that America’s credibility is on the line. Wiser voices, many but not all of European, urge caution. On the face of it, we should not be pulling Saudi Arabia’s chestnuts out of the fire. Of equal importance, another war in the Middle East is almost certain to have the same kind of destabilizing consequences that followed the Bush administration’s foolhardy invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite years of fighting and many billions of dollars of aid, there is no end in sight and we are arguably less secure—at home and abroad—than we would have been by exercising self-restraint. Intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq damaged our credibility, limited our options, and was responsible for enormous suffering in the Middle East and at home, among families who lost loved ones in the military.

The perceived need to support right-wing dictators in the Cold War crusade against communism has been replaced by a similar struggle against Iran. Given their false concern for resolve, US leaders become vulnerable to exploitation by so-called allies. Those in power in Washington might ponder the irony of why Iran is so anti-American. Much of the answer has to do with how we became a major prop of the Pahlevi dictatorship in Iran, which we brought to power by the coup we staged in 1953 against a democratically elected regime. We overthrew Mossadegh because he was left-leaning and we feared he might seek improved relations with the Soviet Union. The closer we became allied with the increasingly dictatorial regime of the so-called Shah, the more we were hated by the opposition. We have been paying the price ever since the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. Our cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, motivated by the same concerns for security and oil, is likely to have the same result. It is time to learn appropriate lessons from history.

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