Questioning Credibility

What the Middle East really thinks about chemical weapons and U.S. intervention in Syria.


A nation’s credibility is of course important in the conduct of foreign policy, but as a goal of military action, it has a troubled history. Focus on defending U.S. credibility in the mid-20th century blurred the difference between vital and non-vital interests, ultimately leading to American intervention in remote places like Korea and Vietnam. These experiences show that a state cannot act militarily based simply on fear of a threat to credibility without stating what immediate, objective interests are at stake or worrying that the need to protect credibility might require further action. At least ask: Is the interest at stake today worth the price of the next possible escalation?

Moreover, protecting credibility requires a full understanding of the reputation in question — something neither the White House nor its critics have displayed. Despite the talk of not being taken seriously, America remains a feared superpower in the Middle East, and Washington’s hand is seen in almost everything big and small. For Arabs in Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere, the problem is not American credibility on the use of force; rather, they have a deep mistrust of U.S. aims.

Regional attitudes toward chemical weapons (CW) use are also misunderstood. What most Arabs think needs to be done in the Syrian conflict, including by the United States, has not been shaped or changed by the use of CW. In reality, three issue areas, none of them driven by the CW question, determine Arab attitudes on Syria: humanitarian, sectarian, and strategic.

The humanitarian concern arose at the outset of the Syrian uprisings, as Bashar al-Assad used the might of his army to brutally attack civilians. CW use was another example of brutality, but not the main force behind regional perceptions.

The strategic side of Arab attitudes has of course many dimensions, but at the core is Saudi-Iranian competition that has drawn allies on each side. This is also independent of CW concerns. Saudi rulers have been privately lobbying the West to intervene since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings, long before the use of CW. Iran, too, sees the American role in Syria as part of a bigger strategic picture involving U.S. and Israeli interests, not CW as such. 

The sectarian dimension is also complex, but at the core is a Sunni-Shiite/Alawite divide that had intensified before the recent reports of CW. The rise of the Sunni jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra, the entry of Shiite Hezbollah into the conflict, and statements by influential Sunni religious figures like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi framing the conflict in religious terms have fueled this divide, not CW.

The common denominators of regional perceptions of CW use and U.S. intervention are the mistrust of American policy and the ranking of the United States and Israel as the two "biggest threats" facing the Middle East. These sentiments already dictate Arab public attitudes toward the general proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Namely, despite popular unease with Iran and outright animosity toward Tehran by some rulers, the majority of Arabs have consistently opposed international pressure to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Only a minority has said that a nuclear Iran would be bad for the region. And the angrier Arabs are toward the United States (and Israel), the more permissive they are toward Iran and its nuclear program.

Similarly, most Arabs have opposed U.S. action in Syria in large part because they see every American move as intended to serve suspicious interests. (Indeed, Arab public attitudes toward the U.S. role in Syria have not coincided nicely with the region’s strong anti-Assad mood.) Even if the United States intervenes in Syria under humanitarian auspices, it will be seen as nefarious.

It is improbable, then, that people who don’t believe America is acting because of CW use will draw any new conclusions on CW norms. This is especially true given that the United States is acting without international support and, in the process, preparing to violate the strongest of international norms: not attacking another state without U.N. support, except in cases of self-defense.

It thus would be wise to instead consider another angle on credibility — that is, whether the United States can strike Syria and maintain the international high ground. This demands that our national conversation address difficult moral questions without easy answers.

Whether or not Americans want to be the world’s policemen, carrying most of the burden of enforcing norms, is one question to ask. But the questions should go far beyond that: It is one thing for other international players to refuse to pay their share, but another when they are not even applauding America for being prepared to pay the price nearly alone. If the moral case to intervene is so clear, how is it that we are not even able to get those in our moral universe, such as those in Western Europe, to at least say "thank you"?

International moral action, like any credible action, cannot be separated from the judgment of the international community. And we cannot defend international norms by breaking them.

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola