There’s a word we’ve heard a lot about lately, one that enters our political vernacular as quickly as it leaves, coming and going according to how politically expedient it is at any given moment. It was all the rage during the Cold War, when U.S. politicians campaigned hard to prove how much tougher on communism they were than their opponents were. It resurfaced a few years ago, when President Barack Obama failed to honor his pledge to bomb Syria if its government attacked rebels with chemical weapons – which allegedly it did. The word found its way back into the zeitgeist in December, where it has remained ever since President Donald Trump announced without warning that the U.S. would withdraw its forces from Syria. That word, of course, is credibility.
Trump’s sudden policy change rankled security officials in his administration, prompting the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, but more important for our purposes here, it supposedly called into question Washington’s worth as an ally. After all, the Syrian Kurds had put their lives on the line, bearing the bulk of the weight of the fight against the Islamic State. And now that the Islamic State has been dislodged, Washington seems to be saying “thanks for the help, see you later, oh, and whatever retribution you face is your problem.”
In truth, the situation isn’t quite so stark. Since Trump’s announcement, National Security Adviser John Bolton has made the withdrawal conditional, saying the U.S. will not leave until Turkey guarantees the safety of its erstwhile Kurdish allies and that its departure will take longer than Trump made it seem. (Trump himself has since backtracked on the speed of the drawdown and has even said there will be more soldiers in Syria before there are fewer.) But the question of credibility remains. When push comes to shove, can the U.S. be trusted to watch its allies’ backs? Is Washington a reliable security partner? Does it even matter?
Credibility means different things in different contexts. In social relations, a credible partner (of any kind) is someone whose dependability encourages repeated interaction. Economists and game theoreticians have diagrammed the mutual gains to be had from repeated reciprocal cooperation by highlighting the distinction between a single “game” – or interaction – and multiple games. If you know you need to interact with someone over a period of time, rather than only once, you’re less likely to screw them over, since screwing them over would only increase the chances that they screw you back another time – if there is another time.
But this type of credibility can’t be developed if there are no grounds for cooperation in the first place. In this sense, credibility means something simpler: believability, a realistic expectation that someone or something will behave a certain way. In international relations, when faced with a unique circumstance that may not repeat itself in the future, it’s unreasonable to expect a country to act in a way that goes against its interests – even when the ethereal notion of trustworthiness is at stake. Countries just don’t sacrifice their own security willingly.
States will act credibly – that is, predictably – when they share common goals. China and the U.S. famously reconciled in the 1970s, but they didn’t come to terms because they magically started to trust each other. They came to terms because they shared an enemy in the Soviet Union. In the 1850s, Britain allied with France, its longtime adversary, not because it saw the merits of Napoleon III’s revanchist policies but because it feared the intentions of the Russian Empire. Engagements such as these may well lay the groundwork for continued teamwork, but promises of future cooperation are irrelevant if present cooperation isn’t mutually beneficial.
The stakes are no different in northern Syria. The Syrian Kurds were instrumental in helping the U.S. achieve an immediate objective – defeating the Islamic State – but they can’t help with Washington’s longer-term objective – containing Russia. Turkey, with which the Syrian Kurds are diametrically opposed, is essential in that regard. As the incident at the Kerch Strait showed, Russia is once again angling for greater control of the Sea of Azov so that it can build an unobstructed path to the Black Sea and, it hopes, the Mediterranean. The underlying geopolitical interests that drove Russia’s Sea of Azov campaign during the Great Turkish War of 1683-99, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1735-39, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74, during the Crimean War of 1853-56, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, during World War I, during the Cold War (at least in terms of Turkey’s participation in the NATO containment line), and during the 2014 annexation of Crimea, are all the same. They inexorably compel Russia to try to control the Black Sea. Turkey and the U.S. have had their fair share of differences of late, but Turkey, the steward of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, is skeptical of Russia and, therefore, a natural U.S. ally.
The Kurds may have been able to stop the Islamic State, but they can’t stop Russia, and even if they could, they don’t control the geographic areas necessary to block it. Turkey does. Turkey and Russia are simply higher on Washington’s list of priorities than the Syrian Kurds are. Siding with the Kurds will necessarily cost Washington its relationship with Turkey, its most useful tool against Russia. It’s not going to let that happen.
Consigned to Fight
Credibility, then, may not be as important as it’s made out to be. If it were, you would expect instances of perceived betrayal or policy reversals or failures to honor promises to discourage cooperation. But history suggests that’s not the case.
For the sake of convenience, let’s stick with the Kurds. In the early 1970s, Iraq appeared to be cozying up to the Soviet Union, so the U.S. attempted to supplant the government there by supporting a Kurdish rebellion – a rebellion aided by Iran, an ally of Washington at the time. Iran and Iraq came to terms in 1975, at which point the U.S. ended its support and the government in Baghdad crushed the rebellion, sending more than 100,000 Kurds fleeing to Iran and Turkey.
But then the Iraqi government, led by Saddam Hussein, cracked down on the Soviet-supported communists in the country. Around the same time, the Iranian Revolution was in full swing, eventually resulting in the ouster of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who headed Washington’s puppet regime in Tehran. And so, in 1980, when the Iran-Iraq War broke out, the U.S. and the Soviet Union both changed sides, with Washington throwing its weight behind Iraq and Moscow throwing its behind Iran. Worried that Iran would again use Iraqi Kurds as a weapon in the war, Saddam killed thousands of Kurds in a gas attack in Halabja in 1988. The Kurds received no support from the U.S. Three years later, the U.S. again called on the people of Iraq, including the Kurds, to rebel against the government during the first Gulf War.
A day after the war ended, President George H.W. Bush appealed to the people of Iraq to remove Saddam from power, inciting several uprisings throughout the country, including a Kurdish one in the north. But he didn’t support them. Washington wanted to prevent Saddam from overtaking Kuwait. It didn’t want the responsibility of regime change, nor did it want to destabilize the region. The Kurds were on their own, and though they achieved a degree of autonomy in the aftermath, Saddam all but nullified their gains by blockading Iraqi Kurdistan, which would subsequently break out into civil war. At no point did the U.S. intervene in the conflict because it surmised there was nothing to be gained strategically from doing so.
So if they knew the U.S. supported them only when it suited Washington, why would the Syrian Kurds agree decades later to be the vanguard against the Islamic State? Partly because the Islamic State threatened them every bit as much as it threatened the U.S., and they needed all the help they could get against such a formidable enemy. Partly because the fight, and the concurrent Syrian civil war, gave them an opportunity, however remote, to gain more autonomy. So they consigned themselves to bear the brunt of the fight, knowing that abstaining from it would go against their interests. Simply put, U.S.-Kurdish cooperation was a matter of mutual benefit. Anyone who believed the U.S. would remain steadfast, consequences be damned, wasn’t paying attention to history.
This is neither a condemnation of U.S. policy nor a justification for its actions. This is just to say states pursue their security interests, and when those interests change, so too does their behavior.
The Lessons of Vietnam
In fact, a state’s failure to alter its behavior for the sake of credibility can lead to disaster. If you need proof, look no further than the Vietnam War.
Though Vietnam fit into a larger policy of Soviet containment, the U.S. had no real strategy there, and it certainly had no exit strategy. Once it became clear that the North Vietnamese would not simply give up through fear of U.S. presence, the purpose of U.S. involvement was lost. Preventing the spread of communism through the use of force turned into counterinsurgency that escalated into a war that the U.S. wasn’t willing to admit was a war. The metric for success was not a definable strategic objective or a political outcome but a superior kill ratio. What was really a political conflict wrapped up in Vietnamese independence, French colonialism and Cold War policy was treated by the U.S. as a military problem. Militaries tend to be good at winning wars but bad at building viable governments that have the support of the people.
The gradual escalation of U.S. efforts in Vietnam meant the conflict was never really treated as a conventional war. Even by the late 1960s, when the U.S. had more than half a million soldiers in Vietnam, the war effort was basically a counterinsurgency effort. One way to counter insurgent attacks is to deploy a permanent occupying force, stationed indefinitely to control things on the ground as best as possible. But permanent occupation comes at a cost, material and human, that the occupying country must be willing to bear indefinitely if it is to succeed. This isn’t undoable or even novel – the Romans did it, as did the British, sometimes with their own forces, sometimes by co-opting local forces. The U.S. either couldn’t or wouldn’t.
But then that was never the point. The reason the U.S. waged a war in Vietnam was to demonstrate to its allies its commitment to the global fight against communism. If the U.S. wouldn’t come to the aid of a “backwater” like Vietnam, how could it be expected to defend Western Europe? In defense of its own credibility, the U.S. put itself in a position in which no desired outcome could realistically be achieved. A war to demonstrate credibility lacked credible outcomes and was therefore unwinnable.
When the Need for Cooperation Disappears
More than anything, the mistakes of the Vietnam War reveal what can happen when a nation sanctifies the notion of credibility, and in some ways, they validate more pragmatic approaches to foreign policy. At the height of its power, the British Empire pursued a strategy similar to the one the U.S. is currently pursuing. Powerful as it was, especially at sea, the British Empire wasn’t omnipotent, so it was forced to intervene selectively to ensure that no state could dominate Europe or threaten its economic interests. (The morality of imperial foreign policy, mercantilism and captive markets is certainly debatable – insofar as it benefits the few at the expense of many. But the efficacy of the strategy, in its cold execution, isn’t.)
Securing its interests meant constantly changing alliances. Consider Britain’s wars throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. It allied with Russia and Prussia against France during the Napoleonic Wars, save for a period when Russia signed a treaty with France to prevent an invasion. Then it allied with France and the Ottoman Empire against Russia during the Crimean War. In 1877, it seemed as though Britain would hang the Ottomans out to dry as they went to war with Russia again – after all, the Suez Canal had been built, so London didn’t need the land routes through modern Turkey quite so badly – but ended up intervening when Istanbul appeared on the verge of collapse, which would have given too much territory to Russia and perhaps even threatened Britain’s control of India. Britain even invaded Afghanistan in 1878 to ensure that a buffer space remained between Russia and the British Raj. Then, in 1914, Britain flipped sides, allying with Russia to oppose the Ottoman Empire and its erstwhile ally Germany in World War I.
Circumstances dictated alliances. At no time did Britain’s history of shifting alliances prevent other states from cooperating with it, so long as that cooperation benefited both states at that moment in time.
All this is to say that credibility, as it’s popularly conceived in international relations, doesn’t really exist. It’s just a word that’s used to describe relationships that have already been created by necessity. It tends to disappear when the need for cooperation disappears. Whether two states can act “credibly” with each other is a consequence of shared interests, not the cause.
Washington’s credibility among its allies is, therefore, beside the point, regardless of whether it withdraws from Syria as it claims it will. The real question is: Will other states (or non-state actors) find a mutually beneficial reason to seek Washington’s support? Considering the U.S. is the world’s only superpower, we suspect they will. So, too, will the U.S. find an excuse to partner with those it may consider its adversaries now. The U.S. has no shortage of enemies, so it will need the help of local allies to advance its cause. Those allies may remember how Washington abandoned the Kurds, but the more immediate risk to their own security is just as likely to outweigh the pain of their memories. Even with the knowledge that U.S. support is ephemeral, the alternative – going it alone – is usually worse.