American Credibility is Dangerously Low: Just Not for the Reasons You May Think

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This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on 31 July 2019.

In the field of international relations, a nation’s credibility is often thought to be calculated by evaluating its historical record of following through on threats of punishment issued to adversaries. In contrast, today, the larger challenge to U.S. global credibility arises not from questions about its ability to inflict pain on rivals, but rather from the demonstrated failure of U.S. policymakers to make good on incentives promised to rivals in exchange for constructive changes in their behaviors.

Credibility in International Relations & Recent Events in Syria and Iran

The traditional view of the essential role played by U.S. credibility was expressed clearly in a recent analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments asserting that when “America’s credibility is strong, then adversaries will be deterred, allies will be reassured, and relative geopolitical stability will prevail.” Alternatively, when “credibility is weak, then adversaries will be emboldened, allies will be unnerved, and . . . the international system will veer toward greater conflict and upheaval.” In fact, these prominent strategists and experienced foreign policy practitioners go so far as to conclude that U.S. credibility is “the very foundation of international peace and security.” It is no wonder, then, that analysts and senior U.S. policymakers alike are sensitive to charges that the actions they take or don’t take are either bolstering or undermining America’s credibility abroad.

Two recent cases illustrate the prevalent concern among many analysts and former policymakers that failures to take military action are the principle factors damaging U.S. credibility today. Former U.S. Defense Secretary and Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta who served in multiple Democratic administrations strongly criticized President Barack Obama’s failure to strike Syria after previously drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in 2013. He expressly said this failure to follow through on this threat was “damaging” to U.S. credibility and that “it was important for us to stand by our word and go in and do what a commander in chief should do.” Meanwhile, former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius decried Obama’s failure to strike as a more consequential damaging “turning point, not only for the crisis in the Middle East, but also for Ukraine, Crimea, and the world.”

Similar critiques were levied against President Donald Trump’s last minute decision in June 2019 to call off U.S. military strikes against Iran in apparent retaliation for the downing of an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over the Strait of Hormuz. In fact, a former advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign and well-regarded scholar Kori Schake excoriated President Trump’s decision as “much worse” than Obama’s while concluding that this record of making “empty threats that damage American credibility . . . will encourage other adversaries to challenge America in other theaters.”  In the wake of this decision, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board said that Iran had called “Trump’s Bluff” and warned the “more that adversaries think Mr. Trump’s threats of force aren’t credible, the more they will seek to exploit that knowledge.”

America’s Record of Carrying Through on Military Threats

There is certainly some substance to these criticisms. Leaders in Syria and Iran could miscalculate and interpret these events as signaling American hesitance to resort to military force in the specific and limited contexts of their resistance to U.S. policies. However, in the broader context of U.S. military engagements in the post-Cold War era, these distinct examples of American restraint—while salient because of their temporal proximity—are the exception rather than the rule. This broader historical record makes it clear that when the U.S. is sufficiently aroused to action it has been more than willing and capable of employing military force to vanquish foes and dismantle hostile regimes.

As just a brief recap, in the first major foreign crisis after the Cold War, the U.S. military routed Iraq’s army—the fourth largest Army in the world—from Kuwait in 1991 with a devastating air and ground campaign that rivaled Israel’s remarkable successes in the 1967 Six Day War. In this confrontation, the U.S. marshalled an international coalition of more than 40 allied nations, deployed 500,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, conducted the largest air campaign since the Vietnam War, and executed a brilliant operational ground campaign that liberated Kuwait in less than 100 hours.

In 1999, a 78-day sustained U.S.-led NATO air campaign in Kosovo successfully compelled Serbian President Slobodan Milošević to withdraw his military forces, end his violent repression of the Albanian civilians in this breakaway republic, and accept the presence of a NATO peacekeeping force. In relatively short order, Milosevic was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia with war crimes, resigned from his presidency, was arrested by Yugoslav federal authorities for domestic corruption, and was extradited to The Hague where he died in his prison cell.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, a U.S. military campaign in late 2001 with a minimal footprint emphasizing air power and special operational forces successfully ousted the ruling Taliban from power in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. The campaign decimated the ranks of al-Qaeda’s leadership crippling (although not eliminating entirely) its ability to conduct international terrorist attacks and ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul. In 2003, U.S. military forces destroyed Iraq’s vaunted Republican Guards Corps in a matter of weeks, successfully ousted Saddam Hussein from power, and brought him to justice where he was executed in an Iraqi prison.

Similarly, in response to the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the U.S. marshalled a broad political and military international coalition that has successfully destroyed the physical Islamic caliphate, which at its peak in 2014 controlled Syrian and Iraqi territories equal to the size of Great Britain and a population of eight million.

Why Credible Promises to Adversaries Are More Important Today Than Threats

Our strategic competitors are keenly aware of America’s ability to militarily dominate any foe in a conventional confrontation and therefore are deliberately pursuing strategies that avoid provoking an overwhelming U.S. military response. As President Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster once quipped, “There are two ways to fight the United States military: asymmetrically and stupid.” Our adversaries are quite sensibly keen to avoid becoming the victim of a major conventional U.S. military campaign. Consequently, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all explicitly adopted strategies that seek advantage in competition below the threshold of conventional conflict—the so-called gray zone.

Instead, the greater damage to American credibility has been the steady failure of U.S. policymakers to deliver incentives offered to adversaries to curb behaviors injurious to U.S interests. In a recent paper for RAND, scholar Michael J. Mazaar observed that particularly in contemporary cases aimed at resolving nonproliferation challenges, the most successful deterrence strategies combine threats of punishment with offers of rewards, concessions, and reassurances. The cases of North Korea, Libya, and Iran suggest that while military and economic pressures may be sufficient to compel adversaries to the negotiating table, successful and sustained implementation of any agreement is largely dependent on delivering agreed-upon rewards.

North Korea

In 1994, the Clinton administration reached an “Agreed Framework” in which North Korean leaders agreed to freeze and “eventually dismantle” its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions and pledges of U.S. support for building two light-water reactors and the provision of heavy fuel oil for a period of five years until these new reactors were built. Almost immediately, however, the agreement came under attack from critics in Congress and inadequate funding led to frequent delays in the deliveries of promised oil supplies. Meanwhile, the U.S.-led international consortium tasked to build the pledged light-water reactors was burdened by severe debt, and the reactors were never built. While not leaving the North Koreans blameless, the senior U.S. official who negotiated the deal, Robert Gallucci, assessed that while both sides largely complied with the fundamental “hard” terms of the deal, he also admitted that North Korean complaints about U.S. delays and reneging on the “soft” promises of enhanced political and economic rewards “have some validity.” Mike Chinoy, author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, put it more succinctly concluding that it was “Pyongyang’s growing conviction the US was not living up to its commitments” that pushed it to pursue other military options beginning in 1998. Ultimately, the framework agreement effectively collapsed in 2002 with President George W. Bush’s labelling of North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” and North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a year later.


The case of Libya’s decision to surrender its nuclear and chemical weapons programs in late 2003 offers another example of the negative impacts when U.S. policymakers fail to make good on commitments of rewards and reassurances. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi pledged to dismantle its nuclear and chemical weapons programs along with a significant portion of its ballistic missiles while submitting to a rigorous international arms control inspection regime in exchange for improved relations with the West and an implicit acceptance of Qaddafi’s continued rule. Over the next several years, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. State Department itself had repeatedly verified Libyan compliance with its obligations.

However, in March 2011, when Qaddafi threatened to show “no mercy” to rebels in Benghazi, President Obama announced the launch of U.S. airstrikes and a NATO campaign to forestall what he anticipated would be “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” Months later, Qaddafi himself would suffer a gruesome death at the hands of rebels during the battle for Sirte.

Rightly or wrongly, authoritarian leaders around the world have since decried the West’s military campaign against Qaddafi’s rule in Libya as yet another instance of the U.S. backtracking on promised rewards and reassurances once an adversary had agreed to disarm. North Korean media have explicitly cited Libya as an example of U.S. duplicity and as a cautionary tale warning against abandoning its nuclear deterrent. Similarly, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei observed that Qaddafi had “wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them in a ship, and delivered them to the West” while one of Iran’s most influential journalists and reformist concluded that because of these events “our leaders assess that compromise [with the West] is not helpful.”


Current and former policymakers and pundits alike are fond of touting the role that crippling multilateral sanctions regime played in compelling Iran to negotiations that in 2015 eventually culminated in the internationally sanctioned Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—the deal in which Iran accepted stringent limits on its civilian nuclear program, pledged to permanently forego nuclear weapons, and acceded to intrusive international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief). However, the top U.S. negotiators involved in these discussions themselves give equal or more credit to a critical incentive extended by the U.S. to the Iranians during secret negotiations in Oman—namely, formal acceptance of Iran’s ability to domestically enrich uranium.

Paul Pillar, a former top analyst on the Middle East at the Central Intelligence Agency, observes that despite the imposition of stringent sanctions, Iran over the years had consistently managed to advance its civilian nuclear program by adding centrifuges and enriching ever larger quantities of uranium. “This cycle,” he notes, “stopped only when the United States not only was willing to negotiate but also dropped its unfeasible demand for zero enrichment, leading to a detailed agreement that would ensure that the Iranian nuclear program stayed peaceful.” So while sanctions undoubtedly played an important role in generating the necessary pressure on Iran to accede to a negotiated settlement, it was the positive “reward” of international recognition of Iran’s ability to enrich uranium that arguably created the breakthrough opportunity leading to a negotiated settlement.

Almost immediately after concluding the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2015, Iranian officials began complaining that the continued imposition of U.S. non-nuclear related sanctions was inhibiting foreign investment in Iran and preventing Iran from reaping its promised economic rewards.  Meanwhile, from the vantage point of leaders in Tehran, President Trump’s decision in May 2018 to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal despite Iran’s verified compliance was simply further evidence that the United States could not be trusted to uphold its obligations.  These doubts about U.S. credibility as a negotiating partner are evidently spreading to the broader Iranian public as recent polling indicates over 70% have “very unfavorable” views of the U.S. and a nearly identical percentage lack confidence that “world powers will honor their side of an agreement.”

Applying These Insights to Today’s Challenges of North Korea and Iran

Adversaries will undoubtedly continue to weigh U.S. willingness to apply military force as one factor when considering the steps they are willing to take in advancing their own foreign policy objectives. U.S. policymakers would be foolish to wholly ignore these perceptions in developing U.S. policies, strategies, and responses to these challenges.

However, the capacity of the U.S. military to inflict intolerable damage on Pyongyang and Tehran is abundantly clear, and President Trump has not been shy about issuing public reminders (see here and here) to these leaders of this hard reality. Nonetheless, this obvious threat of overwhelming American military capabilities alone has not prevented North Korea from producing nuclear weapons or developing an intercontinental missile capability to deliver them to the U.S. homeland. Nor have U.S. military threats been sufficient to prevent Iran from growing its stocks of uranium at increasingly high levels of enrichment, from launching (suspected) attacks on international shipping in the vital Hormuz Strait, from downing unmanned U.S. military aircraft operating in the area, or from seizing British-owned tankers in international waters.

While pressures and threats may be one necessary ingredient in compelling these adversaries to making concessions and returning to the negotiating table, the tougher and more critical challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to convince leaders in North Korea and Iran that American pledges of promised rewards and reassurances made in future negotiations are credible and will be adhered to.

To be sure, President Trump and his senior officials have not been totally silent on offering reassurances and incentives to adversaries. President Trump has repeatedly said that his policies are not aimed at fostering regime change in North Korea or Iran. President Trump has promised that an agreement would allow North Korea to become “very rich.” He has promised to help the Iranian economy get “back to great shape.”

However, these authoritarian leaders already control the resources of their countries. Moreover, they aren’t genuinely interested in opening their economies to unbridled foreign investments that would require fiscal transparency, challenge state domination of the economy, provide a conduit for Western culture and ideals, and ultimately undermine their iron-clad grip on power.

Moreover, these (thus far) empty rhetorical promises of future rewards have been substantively undermined by a string of consequential U.S. decisions to withdraw from a range of existing international and multilateral agreements including the Kyoto Protocol and Paris agreement (climate change), Trans-Pacific Partnership (trade), the Iran nuclear deal, and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (arms control). Regardless of the substantive justifications offered for these decisions, these steps have sowed deep doubts about the ability and willingness of U.S. policymakers to make good on commitments.

As a result, leaders in Tehran and North Korea will likely demand concrete assurances that the U.S. will make good on any rewards or reassurances offered. This exact logic underscores the recent insistence by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that any future agreement lifting sanctions on Iran be formalized and institutionalized by an official act of Congress.

Overcoming this credibility gap should be the immediate focus of U.S. policy. Merely pointing to the potential for an amorphous grand bargain that will magically satisfy the multiple competing political, economic, and security needs of the United States, North Korea, and Iran will not be enough. Instead, U.S. policymakers should adopt a strategy aimed at implementing incremental approaches that demand discrete measureable steps be taken by the leaders of North Korea and Iran in exchange for comparably limited and targeted rewards and reassurances from the United States and its allies. A series of successful reciprocal steps along these lines would demonstrate the utility of cooperation, could begin to bridge the credibility gap on all sides, and would thereby reduce prospects for military confrontation.

Scholars and foreign policy practitioners have offered sensible proposals along these lines. In a blog for The National Interest, Henri Feron and Charles Knight suggest that the U.S. and North Korea begin to reduce tensions by starting “with small, low-risk, reciprocal moves” that could build trust over time and yield “an agenda that [has] real potential for a negotiated agreement.” On security matters, they admit that under current circumstances, it is highly unlikely that North Korea will surrender “the totality of its arsenal.” They recommend instead that the U.S. make smaller requests that would “seek to cap the nuclear arsenal, institute international monitoring of nuclear production facilities, limit missile ranges, and ban proliferation to other countries.” They also recognize that “the more Washington asks for, the more Pyongyang will request in exchange.” Some recent reporting suggests that President Trump’s senior North Korea negotiator, Stephen Biegun, may well be favoring an approach emphasizing a “step-by-step” approach along these general lines.

In a similar vein, Iran specialist Esfandyar Batmanghelidj in a recent Foreign Policy post suggests that positive momentum toward resuming U.S.-Iranian negotiations could be generated by taking one simple administrative step—namely, restoring oil waivers that would permit Iran to resume oil shipments to a limited number of countries. Such a gesture might be sufficient to prompt Iran to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal and end its harassment of international shipping in the Gulf. Reducing tensions could open a window for additional discussion on other incremental steps that might be taken to yield better outcomes for both sides.

President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea and Iran may well prove to be one necessary ingredient in compelling these countries to return to the negotiating table. America’s overwhelming advantages in terms of raw power and its ability to inflict both military and economic pain on adversaries are obvious to any observer. However, as this discussion illustrates, credible promises of rewards and reassurances will likely hold the more critical key to sustained implementation of any agreements reached with Pyongyang or Tehran.

About the Author

Dr. Christopher J. Bolan, a Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is Professor of Middle East Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.

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