On Credibility

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On year ago President Obama declared “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Chemical weapons have been used. Some suggest that America will lose “credibility” if she does not honor the president’s promise and respond with military force.

One wonders what kind of ‘credibility’ they are thinking of. 

You know,” he says,  “I think Americans are liars.”

She replied with a chortle. “How many have you met? I think I am honest enough.”

“You know I did not mean you. I was actually thinking about your government.”

If it makes you feel any better, I think most important people in the U.S. government are liars too. It comes with the job description. But if you don’t mind me asking, what brought you to the same conclusion?”

His was a hollow laugh. “That is just it. You all think your politicians are liars but then America turns around and lectures the rest of the world on how great America’s government is and how we should all be like you. I am no fan of my government, but at least I acknowledge what kind of government my people have.”

You are thinking about it the wrong way. If the American people want liars in charge, then liars there will be. The beauty of democracy is that if those liars don’t do what the people want then they get kicked out and new liars are put in.”

“Liars either way.”

Oh I don’t care what a politician says. I care about what a politician does. All politicians will say this thing or that thing to justify their actions. What matters is if those actions are for his people or against them. This is why I love the U.S. Constitution. By design it keeps power out of one man’s hands. It forces politicians to take normal citizens seriously. It makes it very hard for one clique or class to impose its rule on the rest.”

“That is it. That is the lie. This idea that the United States government is “of the people” and “by the people” – that is the lie every American repeats. I am tired of it.”

It cannot be a lie if most Americans believe it.”

“Do they? I cannot imagine them believing it. It seems so obviously false. There are too many examples….” he pauses, deep in thought. “No, they cannot believe it. It is just a veneer; a lie told to clothe naked ambition and greed.”

Nah, they believe it. I believe it. And I say that truthfully.”

“But why? American democracy lacks integrity. Americans say their institutions are sound, but those same Americans seem to disagree with what the government actually does. Take the way the government treats the big banks. Where is the will of the American people there? Truth is, America is run by a small ruling class who cares about nothing but themselves. Just like every other country.”

Look, our system is not perfect. More money is involved than ever should be. But I believe the structure is solid. This is is why we have grid-lock. The constitution balances power across many groups.

“A fiction. Do you really think a ruling minority couldn’t drag the United States into a war if they wanted to?  Why they might want to does not matter – maybe the president is worried about his personal prestige or something. Look at all of these drone strikes in Yemen. Did ‘the people’ decide that one?”

A majority of Americans support them. As long as terrorists are the ones targeted….

“Ok then, let’s make this conversation simpler and pretend the target is not a terrorist. Say it is the camp of a war lord, a dictator, or some land that just suffered a military coup. Most Americans couldn’t find this place on a map if they had to. Odds of oppression or violence there spilling over to American shores is next to nil. Most of ‘the people’ have never thought about fighting there. If the president and his team wanted a war there, would they get it?” 

Only if he could get a majority on his side.

“Ha! Which majority? A majority of the entire people? Or a majority of the people that matter? Face it: a majority could care less about punishing dictators, or saving the banks, enforcing the drug war, or whatever policy has captured the fancy of the powerful and it would still happen. The American government only listens to its people during election years.”

Well that is every other year. At least on the federal level.”

“On the international stage those elections don’t seem to matter. When it comes to America’s foreign policy that ‘separation of powers’ you talk about is long dead. In his party the president is the one who calls the shots; if his clique wants a war they could get it. They would probably even say they were waging war in the name of all humanity or something ridiculous like that.”

They would also probably believe it.” 

“Then they believe their own lies. Hubris! I am so tired of American arrogance. Every year some American official or NGO criticizes us because we are not a democratic country. But look at them! To fight in the name of democracy and ignore a majority at home? To claim you act in the name of universal values but then fail to get other nations to support your actions? All of those things Americans like to preach – a sham.”

You step too far. We get the kind of government we deserve. But let me propose my own counter-factual. Let us pretend, against the odds, the president actually went to Congress and asked them to authorize this war? Would that change how you see things?

Another long pause. “I don’t think so. All I can imagine is Congress rolling over and doing as the president asked. That is how power works. All of those claims that American democracy is different just don’t have any…. credibility.”

Credibility? The world now wonders if the American government does whatever its most powerful members wish it to or if the American people truly have the power to tell war-hungry leaders “NO.” 

Before the week is over they will know. 

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Chas Freeman speaks on a similar theme:

"In 1990, the world’s Muslims were solidly anti-communist and mostly well-disposed to the United States. Anti-communism is now an irrelevancy. The fallout from 9/11, the failed American pacification campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. identification with Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza have replaced Muslim goodwill with animosity. The appeal of American values has been tarnished by numerous abuses, and the worldwide credibility of U.S. intelligence is low. The British defection from the enterprise leaves our pretensions to speak and act for the “international community” in tatters. (The poodle has left the American lap and walked off the job. The French are halfheartedly applying for the position. They aren’t house-trained and will want too much to get it.)

Major actors in the international community, such as it is, value the institutions that embody it, the U.N., the U.N. Charter, and international law, to none of which the U.S. has deferred, except highly selectively, since our Kosovo intervention with NATO in October 1998. Fifteen years of selective adherence to treaties and laws greatly detract from the credibility of our claim now to be acting to enforce the Geneva Convention of 1929 in Syria, especially when the “international community” as well as the Arab League and our own allies have declined to authorize us to do so. Abroad, we are not seen as righteous vigilantes on behalf of humanitarian principles but as proponents of the theses that military might confers right, that military actions trump diplomacy (which is mostly just for show), and that political solutions are for wimps. There will be no international rally behind an essentially unilateral U.S. attack on Syria. On the contrary, if we carry out such an attack, it will further diminish our international standing and leadership. Illegal actions to enforce legality are the very definition of cynicism."

Chas Freeman. "Don't Just Sit There – Bomb Something!" Lobe Log. 1 September 2013.