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Why the idea of "credibility" in foreign policy is nonsense, in one tweet

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

One of the oddest obsessions of Washington's foreign policy community is "credibility." According to this theory, countries only respect one another if they prove their "credibility" by following through on threats to use military force. If a country doesn't follow through, it loses its credibility, therefore inviting other countries to push it around and forfeiting whatever global power it once had.

It makes a certain kind of sense if you assume geopolitics are akin to schoolyard brawls. But the credibility theory has been repeatedly debunked by political scientists, and, more to the point, geopolitics are a bit more complicated than schoolyard brawls.

Credibility has been in frequent discussion this week due to the Atlantic's profile of President Obama, in which he dismisses the idea that he abandoned American credibility by refusing to bomb Syria in 2013 — which the credibility theorists say showed such weakness that it prompted Russia's seemingly unrelated invasion of Ukraine.

But also this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew from his own short-lived Syria intervention. This tweet, from Tufts professor Dan Drezner, applies the "credibility" theory to Putin and demonstrates just how silly it is:

Russia's withdrawal from Syria, despite Putin failing to accomplish his stated aim of defeating ISIS, projects weakness, right? Shouldn't that weaken Putin's credibility and embolden his enemies — namely, the United States — to exploit his weakness by invading a country he cares about?

The irony is that you'd expect credibility theorists to announce that Putin is showing weakness that must now be exploited. Instead, they're saying the exact opposite: that Putin withdrawing shows his strength and strategic brilliance.

"Russia was going to be bogged down in a 'quagmire' in Syria, the administration insisted," the Washington Post's Jen Rubin writes. "Actually, its mission has been accomplished (and not just written on a banner) as Russian troops prepare to withdraw."

This speaks to something important about the credibility theory: People only ever seem to apply it to their own side, out of a fear of looking weak. All it really describes is the feeling by which Americans feel weak if America doesn't follow through on bombing. The theory is supposed to describe how other countries perceive us, but it doesn't, because countries act out of their own perceived interests and capabilities, not based on whether or not Barack Obama strikes them as personally tough.

Indeed, when journalist Julia Ioffe asked a series of Russian foreign policy experts about the credibility theory — that Putin invaded Ukraine because he saw Obama's weakness in Syria — they called the idea ridiculous. And that's because it is.