The Breakfast Table

The Phantom Credibility Gap

Dear Mary,

I’m curious to know what you make of this argument that says NATO must escalate the conflict until it wins–not for Kosovo’s sake so much as for the sake of the alliance’s credibility. I notice that in America many of those who were initially skeptical about intervening–Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, to name but two–are taking that line: Now that we have become involved, for good or ill, we must press on to a convincing victory. Kissinger has even warned (has he not?) that NATO will fall apart unless it trounces Milosevic.

I’m not convinced. I’d say you need to make a distinction between NATO’s credibility as a defensive alliance and its credibility as a moral champion acting beyond its borders (when vital national interests of its members are not at stake). I’m not sure it ever had, or can expect to have, much credibility of the second sort. You might say Kosovo is now suffering the consequences of that fact. Even if NATO goes on to secure a clear victory over Milosevic, perhaps at the cost of bombing Serbia and Kosovo to pieces, will this “out-of-area” credibility be improved? I doubt it. Almost whatever happens now, this venture is likely to be remembered as an experience not to be repeated. The next Milosevic is going to take that into account.

The question then is, how much does this matter for NATO’s credibility as a defensive alliance–in situations, that is, when vital interests of members are indeed under threat? The answer may be: not much. Perhaps the alliance’s credibility in the one sphere of operation has little or no bearing on its credibility in the other.

If that’s true, there’s a good implication and a bad implication. The good implication is that the cost of a concession or two to Milosevic, enough to speed the end of the repression in Kosovo, is tolerable: The credibility of NATO as a defensive alliance will not be much impaired. The bad implication is that NATO is never going to be able to conduct this kind of operation with much confidence of an inexpensive success–because next time, just like this time, its bluff is going to be called.