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Henningsen: Preserving Credibility

If American action in Syria is about preserving “credibility”, making sure the U.S. honors its commitments, we should ask: What credibility? Many question America’s faithfulness.

It’s not hard to understand. In 1919, world hopes were dashed by the bartering away of Wilsonian idealism at the Versailles conference and America’s refusal to join the League of Nations. During World War II American anti-colonial rhetoric thrilled millions. One Asian revolutionary leader was so inspired that he borrowed Jefferson’s words for his country’s declaration of independence, only to feel betrayed when the U.S. backed French attempts to restore its empire. His name was Ho Chi Minh.

Cold War realities led the U.S. to support repressive regimes and to order CIA -backed coups in nations like Iran and Guatemala that seemed to be leaning Communist.

This isn’t surprising – it’s typical. George Washington warned Americans about making promises. Nations, he argued, had permanent interests, not permanent friends. American credibility should be gauged by what’s good for us. If it’s in our interest to keep promises, we will; otherwise, don’t hold your breath.

There’s a difference, however, between “won’t” and “can’t.” America’s experience in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan suggests that the world’s largest military power cannot necessarily translate that power into influence. Scholars argue this is particularly true when the US tries to change another nation’s internal behavior, rather than guide its external actions. There’s been much analysis of the failure of American nation-building efforts in Iraq and newer work shows similar problems ensuring failure of American policies in Afghanistan. Taken together these studies suggest that it doesn’t matter who’s president or which party is in power – cultural ignorance, bureaucratic infighting, misuse of funds, and incompetent management, are universal and make it almost impossible to translate policy into success on the ground.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks devastatingly critiques the current situation. The American Century is over, she argues; few people care what America thinks; and recent American actions suggest that the US is only effective at breaking things. International support for the US is declining and a recent Pew Research Center study revealed that Americans themselves are more isolationist than at any time in the last half-century.

In 1963 President Kennedy noted that “4% of the world’s population can’t tell the other 96% what to do”, an observation made while he pursued policies attempting to do just that. But Kennedy understood the truth. It seems President Obama, too, is well aware of just how limited America’s influence is, in spite of its awesome power. Whether he can act on that knowledge remains to be seen.

But there’s an increasing swell of public opinion demanding that American credibility requires living up to our own values rather than trying to force others to do so.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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