Kill and Die for “Credibility”?

There are good reasons for what we’re doing in Yugoslavia. This one isn’t.

At least Henry Kissinger is consistent. When he and Richard Nixon took over the Vietnam War in 1969, they didn’t make much of an effort to defend the original objectives of the enterprise. Instead, the emphasis was on “credibility”: having got in for whatever reason, wise or foolish, we couldn’t just change our minds and get out. In order to preserve credibility we needed victory, or (as time went on) “peace with honor” or (as more time went on) a “decent interval” between our withdrawal and the other side’s triumph.

Thirty years on, Kissinger and many others are saying a similar thing about Kosovo. Having got in, NATO must win or the alliance’s credibility–and possibly the alliance itself–will be destroyed. But for most who make it, the credibility argument serves a very different purpose this time. During Vietnam, it was a last-ditch appeal by people who generally had supported the war for years. With Kosovo, the credibility argument popped up after about five minutes, and mainly from people who say they oppose the original decision to get involved–or who avoid saying precisely where they stand on that basic question. “Credibility,” in short, used to be a cover-up; now it’s a cop-out.

During Vietnam, “credibility” did not persuade many who otherwise opposed the war. As a moral argument it seemed scandalously trivial, and as a debating point it seemed like moving the goal posts. You no longer have the stomach to pretend that the mission of young Americans killing and dying for freedom for the Vietnamese people can succeed, but you want them to kill and die for credibility? Even geostrategically it seemed wrong: Every extra day we spent blood and treasure on a war we no longer believed in made subsequent threats to use military force less credible, not more so. (And thus, more than a decade after that war ended, an overnight victory in Grenada was hailed, desperately, as the end of the Vietnam Syndrome.)

Credibility is still a slender reason to kill and die. What would President George W. Bush or President John McCain say to a grieving mother? “Your son died for credibility.” Al Gore and Bill Clinton have also invoked credibility in answer to the question of why we fight.

P erhaps credibility would be worth dying for if it actually deterred war. That is the argument: If the enemy believes that you’re not only willing but also certain to use enough force to defeat them, you won’t have to start a fight to get your way. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., echoes the arguments over Vietnam when he says that if we don’t persevere in Kosovo, “tyrants in Europe and Asia and the Middle East will run wild because there’s no one on the block to speak for the values and security that we hold dear.”

But consider the history of credibility since World War II. There have, of course, been occasions when the United States let its credibility founder. In the ‘60s, there was the Bay of Pigs; in the ‘70s, the fall of South Vietnam; in the ‘80s, the retreat from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks; in the ‘90s, Somalia. In each case, the United States committed force and then withdrew after the situation became intolerable.

Did these defeats irreparably harm our credibility and propel would-be aggressors to believe that the United States would never fight? Perhaps–although I don’t remember too many Republicans saying that the Gipper had irreparably jeopardized American security by pulling the Marines out of Beirut. (The line between a deft, strategic withdrawal and a collapse of credibility is in the eye of the beholder.) U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 didn’t prevent the United States from using its nuclear deterrent to keep the Russians out of the Yom Kippur war later that year.

Conversely, American wins haven’t dissuaded tyrants. As Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne have written: “Just as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was not deterred by U.S. action against Iraq; Saddam Hussein was not deterred by U.S. action in Panama, Manuel Antonio Noriega was not deterred by U.S. action in Grenada, Lebanon and Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh was not deterred by U.S. action against North Korea; and Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin were not deterred by U.S. action against Adolf Hitler.” Tyrants, it seems, act up whether the United States has been winning or losing.

Some have argued that because Kosovo represents such a huge commitment of U.S. power, it can’t be compared to, say, Lebanon or the Bay of Pigs. (Lieberman made this argument on Meet the Press recently.) And others have said that since this is a NATO operation, it’s different–although the principle is the same whether its one nation or 19 that are fighting. But neither of these arguments holds up. Vietnam represented a much larger commitment of U.S. force than we see now in Yugoslavia and yet the United States retreated from Indochina. Likewise, NATO’s credibility is said to be at stake in Kosovo. But who can doubt that NATO’s original mission as a defensive alliance would remain strong even if Milosevic managed to prevail in Kosovo? Would a crazed Russian dictator in 2020 really believe that he could roll tanks into Germany with impunity because NATO had failed to wrest a Yugoslavian province from Belgrade’s domination in 1999?

It’s telling that the credibilitists don’t apply their standards to all countries. Ironically, there’s a certain Blame America First quality to their argument. Cold Warriors like Kissinger hardly argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended Soviet credibility. If credibility were such a fragile commodity, we wouldn’t have needed the Reagan buildup after the Russians blinked during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or in 1973 when they made noises about helping the Arabs in the Yom Kippur war and then backed down.

P erhaps the better conceit than credibility is consistency. The consistent Israeli policy, for instance, of not giving concessions to terrorists is widely acknowledged to have stymied the once common hijackings and other acts of terror directed against Israel. The consistency of Israeli policy made the difference. But consider Israel in Lebanon. Today, the Jewish state maintains only a thin security zone in southern Lebanon; deeper in Lebanon, Hezbollah guerillas now operate openly in territory once policed by Israeli forces. But who thinks this retreat has eroded Israeli credibility? I doubt military planners in Damascus and Tripoli think of the Israelis as softies.

The difference between consistency and credibility is that consistency implies a reason. You will use force to defend some policy or principle. This is inherently more credible than a commitment to use force for no good reason except that you said you would. It’s more credible because it is more limited and because it’s more plausible that you’ll do something if it’s something you have a good reason to do, whether you’ve said you’ll do it or not.

For example, suppose NATO could establish a consistent principle that the Western nations will not permit genocide or near-genocidal ethnic cleansing to take place anywhere they are in a position to stop it (i.e., there would be no pretense of an obligation to invade Russia or China or far-flung regions like East Timor). By discouraging future ethnic slaughters, that would give an added moral justification to saving the Kosovars. That would be credibility worth fighting for. Unfortunately, most of today’s credibility mongers invoke credibility precisely to avoid such a moral commitment.