I was thinking after I wrote this piece that there might be some ways that American Credibility could be strengthened that don’t involve us exploding things on people in the Middle East. I know that this makes me a hippy and thus instantly Unserious, but I figured I could throw a few things out there anyway.
- No more “pre-emptive” wars. The last one really wasn’t good for American Credibility, you know? We’re still paying for it, and we’ve got the next one staring us in the face, waiting for us to elect an administration who will start it (of course Michael O’Hanlon is co-authoring pieces that begin with the sentence “The United States is on the road to war with Iran”). Let’s just not do that, maybe?
- Solve the drone problem. I get it; drones are a useful tool for taking out terrorist leaders who mean to do us harm. But American drone strikes are really, really unpopular in all places that are not America, probably because they kill a whole lot of civilians and absolutely terrorize many more. Our use of so-called “signature strikes,” wherein a drone operator looks for patterns of behavior that correspond to other types of intel and can strike targets fitting suspect patterns (the alternative being that an operator could only strike when the presence of terrorists in the area is confirmed), is most likely a major contributor to the program’s unpopularity.
- Stop treating everything as some affront to American Leadership. This is the one that bothers me the most because it implicitly (and often not very implicitly at that) assumes that America is the Boss of Everybody Else, so when other countries do stuff that we don’t like it’s somehow a direct challenge to America itself. Iran wants to build a nuclear reactor? They’re thumbing their nose at us! Russia sends military aid to the Assad regime in Syria, a long-time Russian ally? Putin is challenging American leadership! Iraq’s government allies itself with Iran, a natural fit given both countries’ Shi’i majorities? They’re spitting right in America’s eye! NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT AMERICA OR AMERICAN LEADERSHIP, and when we make everything about us it elevates the otherwise trivial or local into an international incident.
- If we’re going to talk about the importance of democracy and self-government, then we ought to be consistent about it. We call for dictators to cede power to democratic institutions when we don’t like those dictators; the ayatollahs in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Kim Jong-Un in North Korea are/were all supposed to give power back to their people. I agree that this would be a good thing, but why don’t we demand the same of, say, Shaykh Tamim in Qatar, or King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, both just as autocratic? Why did we demand that the Palestinians hold free elections when Yasser Arafat was running the PLO and then, when free elections were finally held, punish the Palestinians with economic sanctions because we didn’t like who they voted for? Shouldn’t part of a commitment to the spread of democracy include respecting who people vote for once they do get the vote? Do we think people around the world don’t see our selective application of principles in this respect? (Note that I’m not including Egypt here; I think we’re doing OK just staying out of that situation for the most part)
- Related to the above: if we’re going to say we take human rights violations seriously, then let’s take human rights violations seriously. One of the (many, fluid, changing) rationales behind Iraq was Saddam’s lousy human rights record. We’re using similar rhetoric about Assad in Syria. But the rest of the world notices when we claim to be going to war with Iraq over human rights abuses, but human rights abuses in China get only the meekest of verbal comment. Where’s the bellicose action against Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, and Belarus? Why no comment about the awful human rights records of our strong allies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia? Why won’t you hear anyone in the US government offer any statement on France’s awful treatment of its Roma population? Why aren’t we putting more resources into defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, the worst non-state violator of human rights in the world? Do we think that other people around the world don’t notice the inconsistency between our general rhetoric and our specific actions?
- Maybe try helping people rather than amassing the largest military on the planet multiple times over. This one is totally Unserious, I know, but several years ago UNESCO estimated that it would cost $10 billion per year over 10 years to ensure that every person on the planet has access to enough clean water to meet his or her personal needs. That number has probably gone up since then. Let’s say it’s doubled, though I doubt it’s gone up that much. At $20 billion per year, America take $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget in next year’s budget, to pay for five years of a “clean water for everyone” program, AND STILL SPEND FIVE TIMES WHAT THE CHINESE WILL SPEND ON DEFENSE NEXT YEAR. Credibility? How much credibility would we earn by funding global access to clean water? Would it be more or less than the amount of credibility that an extra $20 billion per year in bombs buys us?
I don’t think any of these is outrageously Pollyannish; I’m not saying we should stop spying or disarm ourselves or anything like that. But it would be nice if our foreign policy establishment didn’t directly link “American Credibility” to “how scary is America’s military might?” There are positive ways of establishing credibility, you know?