The Credibility Controversy


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 itssoldiers to win back the NATO credibility that was irresponsibly wagered inthe Balkans in the first place? And if so, how many American lives shouldwe be prepared to sacrifice to make up for NATO’s bad judgment?

Some analysts have suggested that if NATO doesn’t achieve its goals inKosovo, the alliance’s credibility will be irreparably damaged and NATO willcollapse. But that is an exaggeration. If NATO fails in Kosovo, it willsimply mean that the alliance’s credibility in carrying out ill‐​conceivedmissions will be lost. There is no reason to conclude that Russia or anyother country will suddenly start doubting NATO’s resolve to carry out itscore task: defending member states against foreign attack.

Moreover, the argument that NATO must escalate its war in Kosovo to preserveits credibility should make Americans nervous. In the past, bad policieshave been prolonged in the name of maintaining credibility. PresidentReagan, for example, argued that intervention in Lebanon was a matter ofU.S. credibility: “We cannot simply withdraw unilaterally without raisingquestions about the U.S. commitment to moderation and negotiations in theMiddle East.” To leave, he argued, would set back U.S. foreign policy anddiminish America’s standing in the world. Some 241 U.S. Marines perished inthe 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 cancount on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shakethe confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitmentand in the value of America’s word. The result would be increased unrestand instability, and even wider war.”

What’s more, the “credibility” argument undermines Congress’s constitutionalwar‐​making power. It in effect gives the president the authority toundertake military campaigns, however ill‐​conceived. Indeed, what member ofCongress is going to vote against preserving NATO credibility once thepresident has put it on the line? The “credibility” argument thusfunctionally transfers the nation’s war‐​making authority to the executivebranch by virtually ensuring congressional acquiescence after the fact.

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

To a great extent, such a predicament would be a logical consequence of theClinton administration’s six‐​year devotion to the mantra of “globalleadership,” which has repeatedly involved the United States in regionalmatters of secondary or tertiary importance. According to theadministration’s “global leadership” thinking, the United States has anobligation as “the sole remaining superpower” to exert its influence aroundthe world, otherwise it gives regional bullies a license to kill. But thatis a dubious formulation: it implies that the United States is somehowresponsible for emboldening violence wherever it does not get involved.

As a consequence of such reasoning, the United States now finds itself onthe 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 Clintonadministration’s national security strategy were based on the protection ofvital U.S. interests, politicians and foreign policy experts would not nowbe justifying the invasion of Yugoslavia to rescue NATO’s squanderedcredibility.

Gary Dempsey

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