The United States boasts the most powerful military on Earth. We have 1.4 million active-duty personnel, thousands of tanks, ships and planes, and 5,000 nuclear warheads. We spend more on defense than the next 13 countries combined. Yet we are told we have to bomb Syria to preserve our credibility in world affairs.
Really? You'd think it would be every other country that would need to confirm its seriousness. Since 1991, notes University of Chicago security scholar John Mearsheimer, the U.S. has been at war in two out of every three years. If we haven't secured our reputation by now, it's hard to imagine we ever could.
On the surface, American credibility resembles a mammoth fortress, impervious to anything an enemy could inflict. But to crusading internationalists, both liberal and conservative, it's a house of cards: The tiniest wrong move, and it collapses.
In a sense, though, they're right. The U.S. government doesn't have to impress the rest of the world with its willingness to defend against actual attacks or direct threats. But it does have to continually persuade everyone that we will lavish blood and treasure for purposes that are irrelevant to our security.
Syria illustrates the problem. Most governments don't fight unless they are attacked or have dreams of conquest and expansion. War is often expensive and debilitating even for the winners, and it's usually catastrophic for losers. Most leaders do their best to avoid it.
So even though the Syrian government is a vicious, repressive dictatorship with a serious grudge against Israel, it has mostly steered clear of military conflict. Not since 1982 has it dared to challenge Israel on the battlefield. When Israeli warplanes vaporized a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Bashar al-Assad did nothing. The risks of responding were too dire.
But the U.S. never faces such sobering considerations. We are more secure than any country in the history of the world. What almost all of our recent military interventions have in common is that they involved countries that had not attacked us: Libya, Iraq, Serbia, Haiti, Somalia, Panama, Grenada and North Vietnam.
With the notable exception of the Afghanistan invasion, we don't fight wars of necessity. We fight wars of choice.
That's why we have such an insatiable hunger for credibility. In our case, it connotes an undisputed commitment to go into harm's way even when—especially when—we have no compelling need to do so. But it's a sale we can never quite close.
Using force in Iraq or Libya provides no guarantee we'll do the same in Syria or Iran or Lower Slobbovia. Because we always have the option of staying out, there's no way to make everyone totally believe we'll jump into the next crisis.
The parallel claim of Washington hawks is that we have to punish Assad for using nerve gas, because otherwise Iran will conclude it can acquire nuclear weapons. Again, our credibility is at stake. But how could the Tehran regime draw any certain conclusions based on what happens in Syria?
Two American presidents let a troublesome Saddam Hussein stay in power, but a third one decided to take him out. George W. Bush tolerated Moammar Gadhafi, but Barack Obama didn't. Ronald Reagan let us be chased out of Lebanon, only to turn around and invade Grenada. If you've seen one U.S. intervention, you've seen one.
What should be plain to Iran is that Washington sees nuclear proliferation as a unique threat to its security, which Syria's chemical weapons are not. Just because we might let Assad get away with gassing his people doesn't mean we will let Iran acquire weapons of mass destruction that would be used only against other countries. Heck, we not only let Saddam get away with using chemical weapons against Iran—we took his side.
Figuring out the U.S. government's future impulses is hard even for Americans. There's no real rhyme or reason. But because we're so powerful, other governments can ill afford to be wrong. What foreigners have to keep in the front of their minds is not our inclination to act but our capacity to act—which remains unparalleled whatever we do in Syria.
Credibility is overrated. Sure, it's possible for hostile governments to watch us squabble over Syria and conclude that they can safely do things we regard as dangerous. But there are graveyards full of people who made that bet.