Russia is tightening its grip on Crimea. So Obama’s credibility and American foreign policy in general is being completely undermined, if you listen to the increasing chorus of criticism (like this.)
In this case I don’t agree – or at least, to it is not all Obama’s fault.
The first problem is capability matters as well as intentions. Obama might have made overoptimistic mistakes. But the biggest problem is American voters have tired of foreign intervention, after thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. That history can’t simply be forgotten or washed away rapidly. To put it in economic terms, there is hysteresis in this foreign policy system. It is bent out of shape, rather returning to a previous equilibrium. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Some Republicans I speak ferociously condemn the President. But it is very unlikely that Obama could have won a Congressional vote on intervention in Syria. Conservative leader David Cameron suffered a shock defeat in the UK Parliament on the matter, for example.
Any President would face deep skepticism from voters about deploying American forces abroad or similar forceful action at present. You could put Attila the Hun in the White House right now and he would have difficulty taking aggressive, “credible” action. It took Pearl Harbor for FDR himself to persuade America to enter World War 2. And no one remembers FDR as weak or vacillating.
It will take time – maybe decades – or another 9/11 or Pearl Harbor style attack to convince the American public to commit to foreign intervention in large scale again. Obama has to live with that legacy for now.
As I’ve said before, one primary blind spot afflicting decisions is the relative influence of the person and the situation. One of the most common findings in social psychology is people – and this means everyone, Democrat, Republican, American, Russian – tend to overstress the influence of personal attributes and qualities (“the President is weak”) in other people’s decisions , and pay far too little attention to situational factors. (“Congress will not vote for any strong response.”) Incidentally, we naturally do the opposite with our own decisions. It’s not our fault, it was the circumstances.
We’re also seeing the tendency of Western media to turn most issues into a horse race – who is up and who is down (Putin up, Obama down.) to the exclusion of most other angles, because it makes a good domestic story.
Another problem is people tend to use – and think about – “credibility” very loosely. In practice credibility varies with context. Take the doctrine of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. Some of the chilliest of cold warriors, like Hermann Kahn, in thinking through the likelihood of nuclear war, developed the notion of escalation dominance. As a crisis developed, one side or the other could have the advantage on the ladder of escalation. Soviet forces had overwhelming conventional dominance in Central Europe. No-one pretended otherwise. Hence the importance to US credibility of the presence of tactical nuclear weapons at the next stage of escalation.
In a similar way, there is no reason to think that US weakness on the borders of Crimea signals US weakness about the borders of Poland or California. The US may have complete credibility on some levels of escalation or different contexts, and none at all on others. That is normal. The advantage may shift at different levels of seriousness in a crisis.
If Obama can be faulted, it is in blurring the kind of US national interests which would justify a strong response. This is where universalistic notions of human rights or international legal norms cause problems. It may often be in the US interest to pay lip service to international norms, but much less so to expend blood and treasure on someone else’s behalf to defend particular violations. (Bill Clinton did not intervene in Rwanda. Lyndon Johnson did not intervene in Biafra.)
It simply invites situations where words and actions diverge radically, and thus causing people to doubt your words.
Liberals in particular want to defend international legal norms verbally, because that is what makes them norms. But there can be a temptation to overreach. The American public is more likely to want to focus on tangible immediate interests and the proportionate cost and benefit to the United States itself, rather than universal legal principle. Presidents have a little room to use the “bully pulpit” to try to persuade voters that important interests are at stake. But there are limits to what speeches alone can do.
That points to a need to contain the shrillness of American rhetoric when we are not actually going to do anything much. It may not feel good. But it may preserve the credibility of words for those times when a shooting war is a genuine risk. One of the prime contributions to credibility is to pick your battles, rather than let the battles pick you.