‘The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts': Syria and the ‘Credibility’ Fallacy

John Glaser, August 29, 2013

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“You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.” -Bill the Butcher, Gangs of New York

In Martin Scorsese’s fictional historical drama of mid-19th century New York gang violence, the main antagonist, played by Daniel Day Lewis, is called Bill the Butcher. He is a ruthless gang leader who spouts nativist racial denigrations and uses sensational displays of extreme violence to gain power, territorial control, and obedience. In one scene, draped in a tattered American flag, Bill describes how he has kept his power all this time by instilling fear into all his subjects and adversaries – fear from credible threats of violence.

That is essentially a microcosm of how the United States behaves in the international sphere. This principle of ruling by fear and violence, a time-honored tactic of every spiteful thug and mafia don, is one of the primary drivers of the push for President Obama to attack Syria.

In Pentagon-ese, this principle is called “credibility,” but it’s true meaning is much darker than its Orwellian formulation. The Syrian regime has crossed Obama’s “red-line” and so America must prove to Bashar al-Assad and to the world that our threats of aggression and violence are credible, or so the argument goes.

There is a perfect example of this line of thinking in yesterday’s Washington Post. David Ignatius, in a column entitled “In Syria, U.S. credibility is at stake,” asks, “What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power? Unfortunately, we’re finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price.”

If other nations learn they can “defy” their ruler – us – then “the coherence of the global system begins to dissolve,” Ignatius writes. Actually, the technical political science literature has largely put the “credibility” argument to rest. “There’s little evidence that supports the view that countries’ record for keeping commitments determines their credibility,” write two scholars who have studied the concept.

Never mind, this argument for going to war is alive and well in the media punditry and insular foreign policy elite in Washington, D.C.

Here’s what frustrates Ignatius: If Assad thinks America won’t attack him for ordering the use of chemical weapons – an allegation, by the way, that the U.S. admits it hasn’t confirmed – then he’ll violate international law, and American dictates, with impunity.

“What did Assad and his generals think would happen in response to this blatant violation of international norms?” Ignatius asks. “Apparently, not much…”

Consider how hypocritical this position is. He is insisting that the U.S. deal with Assad’s “blatant violation of international norms” by committing another “blatant violation of international norms.” The Obama administration is planning on bombing Syria without the approval of Congress or the United Nations Security Council. That would make the attacks blatantly illegal.

Does America need to be reigned in from flouting international law by a fear of violent retribution? What sort of “credible” consequences does America face for committing criminal acts?

What Ignatius and others really think is that it is the weaker nations that must fear repercussions for criminal acts. The Exceptional Nation, however, needn’t harbor such fears. The law is for us to break with impunity and and for others to obey.

The credibility issue goes beyond just the Assad regime, for Ignatius. America is also sending signals to Iran that we won’t bomb them when we say we will.

“Unfortunately, history tells us that an ambitious, revolutionary nation such as Iran makes compromises only under duress,” Ignatius writes. “U.S. action against Assad may not deter the Iranians, but it will at least make them think twice about crossing Obama’s ‘red line’ against their acquiring nuclear weapons.”

As effective as Bill the Butcher has been in sticking heads on pikes for all to see, the exact opposite is true here. The Iranians have shown that “under duress,” – that is, when they are militarily surrounded, sanctioned, and threatened with daily ultimatums, they are more incentivized to have nuclear weapons capability, in order to deter an attack from the U.S. or Israel.

Where does the U.S. government get this authority to rule the world by force and fear? It’s not in any of the founding documents, and certainly violates the twin national myths that we have traditionally avoided entangling ourselves in the business of other nations and that we spread democracy and freedom. Is this what American voters elect their leaders for, to act like Bill the Butcher?

The United States has neither the legal or the moral authority to enforce alleged violations of international law. It has no business intervening in Syria and certainly not to preserve the mafia thugs’ principle of “credibility.”




36 Responses to “‘The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts': Syria and the ‘Credibility’ Fallacy”

  1. Doesn't Israel defy the US all the time, indeed, thumbing her nose at us? What of our credibility there?

  2. [...] Print This | Share This | Send a letter to the editor | Letters | Antiwar Forum [...]

  3. This sums it up very well. I think there is a lot more to it though. There are “games” being played in the shadows by spy agency’s and the government’s of country’s that are allied with the US, and Syria. The fact is that no one can really concretely point their finger at the “rebels” or Assad (or the US gov’t through the CIA or spec. ops.) at who exactly did the chemical attacks. I think that there are plenty of people in numerous countries that question the chemical attacks origin, and don’t want the US gov’t to indiscriminately place blame and bomb. This sentiment is growing by the day. Which is hopefully the reason that the reigns are being pulled tight on Obama’s loose trigger finger. Though I have my own doubts. We just need to stay the hell out of it and so do these other countries.

  4. Glaser…

    It's not entirely clear to me how "credibility" is being interpreted now…and where the "red lines" are being drawn…and who is "drawing" them…

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/08/

  5. > Iran …more incentivized (let's use "encouraged" ) to have nuclear weapons capability"

    That's not what I hear.

  6. Well, they can insult the ambassadors, do what ever they want in spit of all international decisions and still get 3 billion per annum. Clearly they have crossed the "blue line".

    The thing is that the "credibility" spoken of here is far less the INTERNATIONAL credibility (which is very low indeed), but the NATIONAL credibility of this or that politician i.r.t. this or that power group. The world is a chessboard for internal politics. Trying to explain or even find a coherent line in US international policy is a lost cause, as these are mainly the shadows on the wall, projected by DC powerplay kabuki.

  7. “The law is for us to break with impunity and and for others to obey.”

    no silly. the law is whatever we say it is. it is the
    responsibility of lesser nations to submit (aka make concessions)
    according to the dictates of our aipac overlords.

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  19. This is another scary thing for the world. I'm an anti-war type of person. Hopefully Syria isn't a part of something that's bad such as terrorists who just wants to conquer places or make war. Please promote peace.

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  22. syria is one of the most dangerous places for me. about fallacy and credibility, they should work more on fixing their own country for them to gain more positive reputation. just saying

  23. the spectacle of fearsome acts is nothing but a racial thing. nobody should ever judge anyone without knowing the deeper purposes of that person

  24. us and syria should fix things. they have affected a lot of lives especially the terrorists. i don't know what is syria's goal and why they are doing such as violence as well as the us but this is really BAD

  25. this is an eye opener for me. didn't notice that us has done more than enough violence but this is just because of what syria is doing. this post may be racial but it's just right.

  26. im not a politician nor am i good when it comes to government stuff but US and Syria needs help. they might handle things and finish it faster and easier if there's another helping hand

  27. is this going to lead to a war again? hope not i really hate war and based on this post, most things about syria and US is not good

  28. for me US can have that authority of intervening especially if Syria don't handle their country in the proper way. this is just right because terrorists need to be disciplined

  29. all those people who don't know how to abide the law needs to be in prison. but the post is quite right, the US may not have the authoritative right to intervene but it's right that they get the situation fixed because it might affect innocent people

  30. Assad must be punished due to the violent doings that he has done. and US is the only government that can stop him and his team

  31. syria can't defy their ruler and US is just doing the right thing here for the community. who else is brave enough to face these violent people?

  32. intervene but it's right that they get the situation fixed because it might affect innocent people

  33. n't know how to abide the law needs to be in prison. but the post is quite right, the US may not have

  34. if Syria don't handle their country in the proper way. this is just right because terrorists need to

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