Swing and a Miss

The Sabermetric spat about whether it's important for a president to appear "credible."

MARK WILSON/Getty Images
MARK WILSON/Getty Images

If nothing else, Barack Obama’s Syria policy has succeeded in exposing the widening fissures in America’s foreign policy community. Even with what looks to be a brokered deal that, if implemented, would remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, the administration’s gyrations over Syria have generated significant consternation in the foreign policy community. The most intriguing divide, however, is over the question of whether President Obama must respond forcefully to Syria’s use of chemical weapons because of concerns about credibility. Administration officials have repeatedly argued that if the president fails to follow through on his "red line" comment about chemical weapons by keeping military options at the ready, other actors in the world like Iran and Russia will view the United States as a paper tiger. Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with Congress to authorize the use of force in order to preserve the "core to American credibility in foreign policy." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explicitly argued that acting on Syria was necessary to ensure U.S. credibility vis-à-vis Iran. And both Kerry and Hagel suggested in congressional testimony that a failure to act would embolden North Korea to use its chemical weapons stockpile. After rhetoric like this, it’s not shocking that GOP Sen. Bob Corker took to CNN to blast the president for not caring more about U.S. credibility in the region after Obama reversed course.  

Influential pundits have made similar points. The Council on Foreign Relations’s Richard Haass tweeted the importance of making the military option a credible one. Ross Douthat at the New York Times warned that there would be, "unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy" if Obama failed to rally congressional support for military action, while Roger Cohen reported that, "In Berlin … the change has been noted. It has also been noted in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and Jerusalem." Here at Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf argued that action in Syria was essential: "we must also consider what the ‘too little, too late’ message sends to others in the region who might consider violating the most important norms of international behavior." It is not hard to find other former policymakers or even straight news stories that articulate this thesis.

The odd thing about all of this emphasis on "credibility" is that the trend in international relations scholarship has moved in the opposite direction. The notion that a country or its leader has a single reputation for resolve or credibility has been pretty much dismissed. As one recent literature review by University of Alabama political scientist Douglas Gibler noted, "empirical support for the effects of reputation has been lacking." Dartmouth professor Daryl Press’s Calculating Credibility argues that the balance of forces on the ground matter far more in how leaders assess each other’s intentions than past reputation. To be sure, reputation and credibility do matter in some well-defined circumstances. Countries that perpetually default on their foreign debts face higher interest rates because of bad prior reputation. Nevertheless, credibility doesn’t matter nearly as much as policymakers claim.  

Why is there such a disconnect between academics and policymakers on this issue? And who’s right? Answering the first question goes part of the way towards answering the second.

One possible answer is that the last time policymakers or pundits thought deeply about these issues was back when they were in school decades ago — and the thinking about credibility has evolved since then. Back in the day, debates about credibility focused on the question of nuclear deterrence. Theorists like Thomas Schelling stressed the vital importance of credibility in convincing opponents that one was willing to launch a massive second strike of nuclear weapons if attacked. Indeed, Schelling analogized the situation to a game of chicken, in which one driver would benefit from throwing their steering wheel out the window. Schelling’s logic was generalized to all high-stakes international interactions.

It was only in the late 1990s, with the publication of Jonathan Mercer’s Reputation and International Relations, that the field began to move away from that consensus. As Mercer observed, the issue is that similar actions will be interpreted differently due to factors Schelling never discussed, such as whether the other actor is an ally or an adversary. Empirical studies of deterrence and reputation have also suggested that it is not as potent a factor beyond nuclear deterrence. Still, any policymaker whose formative experience was reading Schelling — or who watched the tractor scene from Footloose — would buy into the overwhelming importance of credibility. If this explanation is correct, then it would behoove policymakers to listen to the academics.

Another explanation is that this divide is between theorists and practitioners. The latter could possess inside information and experiences that suggest credibility is a significant factor. That said, these experiences are hard to communicate to academics beyond the statement of "trust me, it matters." On the other hand, it is also possible that policymakers lack the wider view that academics possess when looking at a crisis. What’s unclear is whether the academics have a better perspective because of their detached view, or whether those inside the Beltway might actually possess some pertinent inside information.

The problem is akin to the one between front offices and sabermetricians in baseball that existed a decade ago. Sabermetric enthusiasts like Bill James and Nate Silver argued that scouts were looking at the wrong attributes in baseball players. Athleticism mattered less than a hitter’s ability to get on base, for example. Similarly, sabermetricians were far more dubious about the utility of sacrifice bunts than some managers. On a host of baseball strategies, the sabermetric argument turned out to have greater validity. On the other hand, as Silver acknowledged in The Signal and the Noise, it turns out that sabermetricians have not always been right either. Scouts turned out to be better in predicting which prospects would make it in the big leagues — in no small part because they usually possess more information than can be read in a stat sheet. The best ones have embraced the lessons from Sabermetrics and blended it with their own analyses.

It’s possible that policymakers possess some kind of tacit knowledge from their own experiences that suggests issues of credibility do matter — in the case of Syria, for example, Secretary Hagel mentioned his conversations with his South Korea counterpart. If this explanation is correct, then maybe academics would be better served by listening more closely to current and former policymakers.

The final possible explanation is that policymakers and academics might be saying the same word but thinking about it differently. Academics have the advantage of thinking about the long term; for policymakers, the long term is two weeks (for the Middle East, it’s two days). Because of these different perspectives, they look at credibility differently. Academics usually make the country the unit of analysis: does the United States show resolve or not, for example. They care about the role that credibility plays over the span of years. For foreign policymakers, all politics is personal. As Heather Hurlburt intimated in this Bloggingheads conversation, they care about whether they or their boss is perceived by others inside the Beltway as credible or not immediately after a crisis. And even the most structural international relations theorist would likely acknowledge that the Obama administration has not had a great two weeks.

If this explanation is correct, then both academics and policymakers are correct. International relations academics might well be correct in observing that what happens in Syria now will not affect what happens in Iran a year from now. Still, policymakers might well be correct in noting that if Barack Obama fails to follow through on his Syria pledges, his personal credibility might take a short-term hit inside the corridors of power.

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