Thursday, September 26, 2013


By Ronald Fox

Part II: America’s Diminished Credibility and the Decline of America’s Global Power

Foremost in the current debate over how the U.S. should respond, if at all, to the probable chemical weapons attack by the Bashir al-Assad regime, has been the question of U.S. credibility. It is said that America’s credibility is on the line, a matter made more acute by President Obama’s poorly thought-out drawing of a game-changing, red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. This idea suggests a connection between our national credibility and the use of force to back up a threat; only thusly will bad guys be deterred. For those disposed to this line of thinking, it is the use of overwhelming force rather than negotiation aiming at a peaceful settlement that best serves American national interests. America does indeed have a credibility problem, but it isn’t because we haven’t been sufficiently tough in deploying force; rather, just the opposite: Washington’s credibility problem stems precisely from its heavy military response to the war on terror.

Washington’s credibility in the eyes of other countries was dealt a serious blow when it made false weapons of mass destruction (WMD) claims to justify its war against Iraq. People elsewhere in the world were aware of inaccuracies in American claims about yellow cake deliveries from Sudan, aluminum tubes, mobile chemical weapon labs, and the alleged Mohamed Atta meeting in Prague, long before the American public. Whether the WMD debacle reflected poor intelligence, as is widely believed in the U.S., or if the intelligence information was manufactured to justify the war, as I tend to believe, the result was a loss of credulity in the word of American government officials, a loss that has been reinforced by revealing information leaked by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

If our governing elite cannot be trusted to tell the truth about American intentions, then what is one to believe? Clearly a growing number of countries, friend and foe alike, have come to see sinister, hegemonic motives driving U.S. actions. The message is that America’s real motivation for intervention is to remove regimes deemed unfriendly to U.S. interests, and that Washington is willing to pay almost any price to achieve this goal. The intervention disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were seen by many as evidence that Washington cares more about regime change than the well-being of local populations. Declining international trust in the truthfulness of what our national leaders say has made it increasingly difficult to build support for U.S. initiatives. Restoring this credibility gap is one of our greatest challenges.

U.S. credibility has been further tarnished by inconsistencies in Washington’s response to other Middle East issues. While President Obama has been justifiably loud in his condemnation of Assad for atrocities committed in the Syrian civil war, including the dastardly chemical weapons attack, why his relative silence in regard to the bloody coup in Egypt? Why doesn’t the overthrow of a democratically elected government, and the killing of over a thousand protestors, justify at least as strong a public condemnation as has been directed toward Syria? Why only a weak threat to cut off aid?  And why is Washington determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, whatever it takes, yet mum on Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which has inspired others in the region to go nuclear? Why do we condemn human rights abuses throughout the region, but remain silent on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights? Such double-standards undermine American credibility and engender much anti-American animosity in the Middle East.

It’s also hard for Muslims to fathom the righteousness of Washington’s red line on chemical weapons. As is well known, The U.S. has itself used chemical weapons: Agent Orange in the Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia, depleted uranium shells in Iraq, and white phosphorous in Fallujah in 2004. Washington also colluded with Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s by supplying vital targeting information Iraq used for its nerve gas attacks, which were far more devastating than anything seen in Syria. And what about America’s closest ally in the region, Israel, dropping white phosphorous on civilian areas in Gaza in 2008-2009, and the widely held belief that it still possesses chemical weapons it acquired decades ago? This hypocrisy has undermined the credibility of America’s moral outrage at the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Syria is not part of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Does this mean it can legally escape responsibility for the use of chemical weapons? Not according to a deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, who stated in an August 27 press briefing that when a treaty is recognized by the vast majority of the international community, as is the CWC, no state, including non-signatories, should be able to escape accountability for their actions. By this logic, the U.S., which is party to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), but has not signed Protocol III, which bans the use of all incendiary weapons, should not be able to use napalm, since the protocol came into force for the U.S. on July 21, 2009. America’s self-serving interpretation of international laws has also harmed U.S. credibility abroad.

Falsehoods, double-standards, hypocrisy, the Manning and Snowden revelations, and the disastrous outcomes of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which have left these countries plagued by sectarian and criminal violence, widespread corruption, shattered infrastructure, and dysfunctional governance, together with a deterioration of U.S. global economic strength, have diminished U.S. credibility and hence our ability to exert influence on the world stage. The crisis in Syria is but the latest sign of the waning of U.S. global power. While the U.S. was able to get Security Council authorization for its action in Afghanistan, and put together a “coalition of the willing” for the intervention in Iraq, its failure to build support for a military strike on Syria, including from the Arab League, close ally, Jordan, and our European friends, not to mention Iraq, which is refusing even to allow U.S. forces access to its airspace, underscores our current diminished international standing in the world. Even our closest allies remain skeptical of Obama’s claimed “slam dunk” evidence of Assad’s chemical attack. Uncertainty about the purpose of a possible limited U.S. military strike, and skepticism about whether such an action would be kept limited if undertaken, is widespread. Few want to be associated with yet another American military intervention, even if it is proven that the Syrian government did, in fact, use chemical weapons. (Why won’t the Obama administration reveal its evidence?). Should the Obama Administration use force unilaterally, as it says it will if necessary, this would accomplish little and, contrary to what American hawks would have us believe, worsen our crisis of credibility.

Summing up, Washington’s international overreach and questions about the country’s leadership, combined with the post-2008 economic collapse and lingering recession, have eroded the support of the American public for international engagement, even for humanitarian reasons and the noble ideal of promoting democratic values. The liberal internationalism that once brought respect and admiration to the United States is a faint memory of the past. Peoples of the world have grown tired of U.S. bullying, military muscle flexing, and foolish interventions that have brought so much suffering and destruction to the world. Countries that have been long dominated by the U.S. can no longer be counted on to submit to Washington’s will. More ominous from the U.S. perspective, upstart economic powers, most notably the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), have become aware of their collective economic power to cripple America financially. This profound change in power realities has dramatically lessened Washington’s ability to get its way. A nation that could once unhinge entire countries simply by shifting its weight, cannot garner support for what it says will be a limited missile attack on an enemy that probably committed a war crime and has few friends in the world. Americans may still see themselves as exceptional, and its leaders may still believe the country can be the world’s policeman, but history is telling a different story.


  1. As good a synopsis of the costs to the nation as any I've seen, or can conceive. (Thanks for Phronesis!)

    Looking back to the run-up to Iraq (and the subsequent years of securing the Homeland), is it not tempting to describe the process as pretext? The end result has been a wholesale transfer of treasure from our coffers to private industry, and then mortgaging the future to keep the pipeline full...Was this a natural consequence of a war with no clear exit strategy, or was it the goal?

    Dr. Fox's points (and my questions) are maybe illuminated by this context: remember that W's wars occurred at a time of tax-cutting for the wealthy AND a novel cost-reduction strategy for government called "privatization"; it suddenly came to pass that our military could not go to war without Halliburton feeding the troops, paid for with bonds sold in large part to China.

    In this light, it seems that the degradation of our rights at home (and economic power) under both Republican and Democratic administrations were not unintended consequences of our foreign policy, but the collateral damage of one of history's greatest cons. Just two years after Halliburton moved its headquarters out of the US (thus freeing itself from all kinds of pesky "logistical" problems, like laws and taxes), one has to wonder: does the nation-state exist today for any purpose other than to motivate and control the masses for the benefit of the multinationals? I suppose yes: the nation-state has to arm our kids, and it has to sign the loan docs.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful website, Fox and Snow! swainkg

  2. Our credibility took a huge hit over the false WMD assertions, where most outside observers were skeptical of the "intelligence." The fact that the Bush Administration created their own "intelligence" organization to examine / re-examine the data concerning WMD outside of regular intelligence channels tells us a great deal about their motivations. Cheney and Rumsfeld knew that the CIA was skeptical that Iraq had a current WMD program, or that there was any connection linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attack.
    This organization (Office of Special Plans) was headed inside the Pentagon by Douglas Feith, a well known neocon. The express purpose of this agency was to gather new intelligence about Iraq that was not vetted by our other intelligence services. The reason for this is obvious - they needed enough "evidence" to sell our Congress, media, and people on this war. They knew the bar would be low given the political environment after 9/11.
    This making up data to justify attacking Iraq cost us all sympathy in the Muslim world over 9/11. I think most Muslims saw our invasion of Afghanistan as justified self-defense. Any sympathy and goodwill we received in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was erased and they became skeptical of our intentions. I am sure most viewed this new "global war on terror" as a war against Muslims.
    If anything, many of our allies were even more skeptical. We quickly became a laughing stock in Europe. Bush was openly mocked and their news media immediately saw through the flimsy intelligence. This assuredly damaged our reputation.
    Our behavior during this new global war on terror further eroded our credibility. Drone strikes, renditions, special forces operations far outside of Afghanistan, enhanced interrogation (torture...), the lack of justice for Guantanamo detainees, and the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal all contributed to loss of credibility.
    Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that our allies, and the now more aware American people, are not so willing to go along with more military interventions.


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