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Our Afghanistan exit won't shatter U.S. credibility the way ditching the Iran deal has

Exaggerated credibility panic is a deep-rooted tradition in Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
Image: tattered and torn American flag.
David Crockett / Getty Images

As the possibility of war looms in Ukraine and Taiwan, a recognizable cry can be heard all over Washington: TheUnited States’ alleged loss of credibility following President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan pullout has emboldened Russia and China. But this predictable panic is only voiced when the U.S. fails to bomb a country; the U.S. breaking international agreements rarely provokes the same hysteria. Our expectations of American reliability have become so debased that we now presume that the U.S. will renege on international agreements when a new party comes to power. Yet, Washington’s so-called credibility mob says little or nothing when we betray our signature.

Washington’s so-called credibility mob says little or nothing when we betray our signature.

Exaggerated credibility panic is a deep-rooted tradition in Washington’s foreign policy establishment. When North Korea crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, President Harry Truman worried about European allies' confidence in America’s commitment to protecting Western Europe. President Lyndon Johnson believed that retreat in Vietnam would embolden the then-Soviet Union and even undermine his domestic policy agenda. From Lebanon to Iraq to the former Yugoslavia to Syria, the credibility argument has been applied in the attempt to ensure that America always errs on the side of war.

President Barack Obama’s decision to forgo war after the Syrian regime crossed his ill-conceived “red line” purportedly begota whole series of adverse developments around the globe: from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Iran’s regional confidence. "Backing away from reacting once the red line was crossed impacted American credibility not just in the Middle East, but I think it was being watched in Moscow and Tehran and Beijing and Pyongyang and elsewhere,"Obama’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, said. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel concurred, saying the decision “hurt the credibility of the president’s word.”

President Donald Trump found himself in a similar situation when he announced that the U.S. would leave Syria and, as a result, not protect Syrian Kurds against Turkish attacks. The U.S. had partnered with the Kurds to fight the Islamic State terrorist group, but beyond that, it did not have any formal defense agreement with them. The U.S. does, however, have an obligation to defend NATO member Turkey. Still, Washington was unforgiving. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, Trump’s special envoy in the fight against ISIS, resigned over the president’s decision.

"The Russians are listening to this. The Iranians are listening to this. This Assad regime is listening to this,"McGurk complained, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "The value of an American handshake really depreciates when you make decisions like this." Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "Every part of this decision has weakened the U.S. Most importantly, it has undercut our credibility in the world." Many progressive leaders, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., agreed. "We're a laughing stock,” he added. “We're the butt of jokes. Nobody is going to want to partner with us now.”

The academic literature on military credibility does not back up Washington’s predictable panic. According to Dartmouth College associate professor Daryl Press’ book,"Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats," political leaders tend to overvalue the importance of military credibility. Credibility tends to be context-specific. How much we should believe the U.S. if it vows to defend Taiwan depends primarily on how valuable Taiwan is to U.S. national security and not on how the U.S. exited Afghanistan.

In the words ofHarvard University professor Joshua Kertzer, “The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect these calculations the next time the United States commits to an extraordinarily costly venture in a place not vital to the country’s core security interests, but it is unlikely to sabotage U.S. credibility writ large.”

Where credibility matters most is in diplomacy, but Washington rarely exhibits the same level of concern when U.S. leaders diminish the value of America’s word. As American diplomat par excellence, William Burns,explains in The Atlantic, credibility in diplomacy is vital since “America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial” in a world where the U.S. no longer can get its way through diktats. He asks, “If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.?”

When Mattis was asked during his confirmation hearing in 2017 whether the U.S. should stay in the Iran nuclear deal, he said that “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it.” Even though he contradicted the president he would soon serve, his answer raised no eyebrows because the norm was that the U.S. respects its signature.

After four years of the Trump presidency, expectations regarding the United States’ diplomatic reliability have fallen.

But after four years of the Trump presidency, expectations regarding the U.S.’ diplomatic reliability have fallen, and the norm appears to have flipped. When Tehran demanded assurances that the U.S. would honor its signature on the nuclear agreement beyond his presidency, Biden dismissed it as an impossibility.

In a democracy,Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted, there is no way to tie the hands of a future president. Essentially, he argued that America is inherently untrustworthy because it is a democracy, and that, contrary to what Mattis asserted, the U.S. does not have to honor its word. One would expect an authoritarian to make such a charge against a democracy and not the democracy to freely admit to it.

Blinken’s statement not only serves as perhaps the worst argument made for democracy, but it alsocontradicts liberal theories about the superiority of democratic governance in international relations. Democracies are considered more stable and pursue a more consistent foreign policy, whereas the abrupt leadership changes in autocracies also give rise to massive swings in policy. Moreover, because of the many domestic constraints leaders face, making promises that they do not intend to keep is more politically costly and thus less common, scholars of international relations conclude. This makes democracies more credible.

Four years of Trump appear to have changed all of this. The Biden administration’s claim that America’s agreements only can be expected to last for the duration of the administration that signs them is to concede that Trump was not an aberration but the new norm and that going forward, this is how America will conduct itself.

Blinken should perhaps get credit for his honesty. Still, it is utterly arrogant to expect the rest of the world to simply resign itself to the idea that the world’s most powerful nation is perhaps its most unreliable. On top of that, we expect the rest of the world — and not ourselves — to pay the tab for our new ethos of dishonor.

But we are the ones who will pay the cost. American untrustworthiness — courtesy of intense polarization at home — is not just undermining U.S. credibility, but it is also undercutting U.S. leverage within negotiations by diminishing the value of American promises. The Iran nuclear talks are partly stuck because Tehran fears Biden’s sanctions relief will not deliver economic benefit in practice since the U.S. may exit the deal again in 2025. Thus, America’s core leverage is losing its bargaining value due to legitimate doubts over its ability to keep its word.

Unreliability throws a country’s influence and leverage to the winds. How we have allowed this to become our new normal bewilders the mind.