Commentary

The Credibility Controversy

By Gary Dempsey
April 19, 1999

Citing the preservation of NATO credibility as a policy imperative, a growing number of political figures and foreign policy experts are calling upon the Clinton administration to dispatch U.S. ground troops to Kosovo. For example, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who originally opposed air strikes, now says that if Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic doesn’t give in, “there will be no alternative to continuing and intensifying the war, if necessary introducing NATO combat ground forces … to maintain NATO credibility.” Similarly, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) concludes, “now that we’re in, we must win.”

But should the United States really risk the lives of thousands of its soldiers to win back the NATO credibility that was irresponsibly wagered in the Balkans in the first place? And if so, how many American lives should we be prepared to sacrifice to make up for NATO’s bad judgment?

Some analysts have suggested that if NATO doesn’t achieve its goals in Kosovo, the alliance’s credibility will be irreparably damaged and NATO will collapse. But that is an exaggeration. If NATO fails in Kosovo, it will simply mean that the alliance’s credibility in carrying out ill-conceived missions will be lost. There is no reason to conclude that Russia or any other country will suddenly start doubting NATO’s resolve to carry out its core task: defending member states against foreign attack.

Moreover, the argument that NATO must escalate its war in Kosovo to preserve its credibility should make Americans nervous. In the past, bad policies have been prolonged in the name of maintaining credibility. President Reagan, for example, argued that intervention in Lebanon was a matter of U.S. credibility: “We cannot simply withdraw unilaterally without raising questions about the U.S. commitment to moderation and negotiations in the Middle East.” To leave, he argued, would set back U.S. foreign policy and diminish America’s standing in the world. Some 241 U.S. Marines perished in the rubble of their barracks as a result of that reasoning.

Similar arguments prolonged the Vietnam War. In 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson warned, “around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word. The result would be increased unrest and instability, and even wider war.”

What’s more, the “credibility” argument undermines Congress’s constitutional war-making power. It in effect gives the president the authority to undertake military campaigns, however ill-conceived. Indeed, what member of Congress is going to vote against preserving NATO credibility once the president has put it on the line? The “credibility” argument thus functionally transfers the nation’s war-making authority to the executive branch by virtually ensuring congressional acquiescence after the fact.

Instead of being persuasive, the “credibility” argument also raises serious questions about the prudence of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. Indeed, by involving the United States in Kosovo in the first place, the administration has transformed a conflict that posed no threat to the territorial integrity, national sovereignty or general welfare of the United States into a major test of American resolve. That means the administration has deliberately exposed the United States to the possibility that it will be dragged into a conflict in which there is neither a vital national security interest at stake nor the prospect of sustainable public tolerance for heavy casualties.

To a great extent, such a predicament would be a logical consequence of the Clinton administration’s six-year devotion to the mantra of “global leadership,” which has repeatedly involved the United States in regional matters of secondary or tertiary importance. According to the administration’s “global leadership” thinking, the United States has an obligation as “the sole remaining superpower” to exert its influence around the world, otherwise it gives regional bullies a license to kill. But that is a dubious formulation: it implies that the United States is somehow responsible for emboldening violence wherever it does not get involved.

As a consequence of such reasoning, the United States now finds itself on the verge of fighting a ground war in the Balkans, not for national defense, but for NATO credibility.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided. If the Clinton administration’s national security strategy were based on the protection of vital U.S. interests, politicians and foreign policy experts would not now be justifying the invasion of Yugoslavia to rescue NATO’s squandered credibility.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.