Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 8, 2004
POLITICS/WAR: A Word About Credibility
One of the major themes of the first two debates has been America's credibility in the world at large, and the corresponding ability of the nation to get other nations to follow us. John Kerry and John Edwards insist that America has "misled" the world, as far as the reasons for war and the progress in Iraq. Bush and Cheney have responded that Kerry has sent "mixed signals" that undermine our credibility. Now, far be it from me to suggest that it doesn't matter, particularly on the home front, if the president tells the truth. (I also don't agree with Kerry and Edwards that this administration has been misleading about why we are in Iraq and how we're doing there, but that's another day's argument). But Bush and Cheney are, fundamentally, talking about an entirely different type of credibility - the type that really matters in international affairs.
Because, in the end, most of the countries on this earth, and most of the large masses of people, aren't real big on believing what foreign governments tell them, and with good reason. Most of us on some level - and diplomats and heads of state most of all - recognize that governments speak self-interestedly, and don't take what they say at face value. Or, at a minimum, they make their own minds up - the justifications for war in England are viewed as an issue of Tony Blair's credibility, in Australia an issue of John Howard's credibility, not so much Bush's.
But where a nation's credibility is critical is when you ask whether it is believed that a country keeps its promises - and its threats - acts reliably in its own interests, finishes the jobs it starts, and the like. Did the Soviet Union care if the United States saw "the light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam, or whether the explosion in the Gulf of Tonkin was just a pretext? Of course not. But the Soviets watched very carefully when they saw that America didn't stay to finish the war and didn't stand behind the South Vietnamese when the resulting peace treaty was violated by the renewed invasion from the North. And they watched equally carefully when Reagan started fighting to back up our interests, even in places like Grenada where the direct US interests were relatively minor. Because Reagan understood that our credibility in the Hobbesian world of international affairs depended upon not taking slights lightly. And every new president faces, fairly early, tests of his credibility - that is, in some sense, what the Chinese did to Bush in early 2001. There have been other tests, too - and don't think the world hasn't noticed that from Kyoto to the ABM treaty to the International Criminal Court, Bush has stood for one thing and one thing only: protecting US interests against agreements that failed to adequately protect them. Next time someone wants to make a deal with us, they will remember that. In short, credibility in international affairs isn't about telling the truth - it's about being clear where you stand and following through, so your allies know you will keep your promises and your enemies know you will back up your threats. Does anybody seriously think Kerry has that kind of credibility?
The real problem of US credibility in the Middle East - and yes, it's been a bipartisan one - is the widespread belief that we don't have the guts to stick it out through tough times and that we will abandon our allies on the ground to the same old despots. Think Somalia, or the abandonment of the Kurds and Shi'ites in 1991. In a way, that's one of the most compelling reasons, if an unstated one - but one that any world leader immediately understood - why we went to war with Saddam. The guy was flouting the terms of the cease-fire, calling into question the credibility of our willingness to enforce agreements with the US. He was thumbing his nose at the US in myriad ways (including his public cheerleading for the September 11 attacks, something nearly none of even our declared enemies dared to do), calling into question the credibility of our willingness to respond to slights, insults and threats.
And now, we have found ourselves in a daily struggle to win over the Iraqi people - and the biggest obstacle is the fear that we will once again cut and run and abandon them to the same old forces of evil, as we did in 1991, as we did in Somalia, as we did in South Vietnam. It is critically essential to our credibility - and to the security of the situation of our troops in the field - that there be no doubt that the US can not be deterred from finishing the job in Iraq, no matter how long it takes, what the obstacles or the costs are or what political pressures are brought to bear on the president by the Howard Deans of the world. Can John Kerry say he has that kind of credibility, the kind that led the Iranians to conclude that they didn't want to be holding US hostages even a minute into the new Reagan Administration? Bush and Cheney are dead right, and deadly serious, about the fact that Kerry does not. Everything in his record and history suggest a guy who is consumed by fear of the quagmire, who hemmed and hawed and finally opposed the first Gulf War, who has grown gloomy and panicked about this war whenever things have gone badly in the field or in his own political campaign. In fact, Kerry has even argued that we should have threatened war with Saddam - but not been ready to back that threat up the minute he failed to cooperate.
Credibility matters. Lack of it gets people killed. The kind of credibility that counts is not the credibility to persuade people in argument or admit mistakes. It's the credibility to say, "this we will do," or "this we will not stand for," and then prove that you will not yield in that determination. That's the credibility that Bush has, and Kerry does not.