Entry from September 4, 2013

In the debate — and for once it really is a debate — over Western intervention in the Syrian civil war, we are hearing an awful lot about “credibility,” especially American credibility. Indeed, both pros and cons seem to agree that what we would be fighting for there, assuming we do fight, is pretty much limited to our credibility. The pros merely put a higher value on that commodity than the cons, who tend to see it as Falstaff saw “honor,” for which “credibility” is the latest socially acceptable substitute: “What is honor? A word.” Yes, but it is a word of singular potency, which is one reason why it is rarely heard anymore, at least not in the theatre of international relations. Ever since Richard Nixon promised us “peace with honor” in Vietnam, those who hold the consensus view of that war — including virtually the whole of the media — have had a stake in regarding “honor” as a word that can only be used ironically. Honor, in effect, means dishonor, which is why we have since had to rely on “credibility” instead.

The debate, therefore, is in one sense about how much of the meaning of “honor,” in the old sense, is carried over into “credibility.” In today’s Washington Post, for instance, Kathleen Parker writes bemusedly that our credibility was not at stake when Bashir Assad committed all those other atrocities:

We may have turned a blind eye, but at least our credibility remained intact. Why? Primarily, one supposes, because our president didn’t draw a line. If your mind has wandered to the playground, where little boys get in fights over taunts and fragile pride, welcome to the sandbox. . . Let’s hope that whatever the outcome, our best efforts have been directed by an abundance of caution rather than a prideful attachment to credibility. This is not to say that credibility isn’t important, but the measure of one’s credibility isn’t only whether a nation is willing to stand its ground. It is also whether a nation is willing to be wise.

Like certain other female journalists (Maureen Dowd comes instantly to mind), Miss Parker appears to believe that any plausible comparison between international actors and schoolboys on a playground is instantly discrediting to the former. That belief, in turn, is built on the assumption that international relations should be carried on in a more mature fashion, just as “credibility” should be based on wisdom rather than strength. If that was never true of honor, perhaps we may hope for it to be true of honor’s successor as the principle on which war and diplomacy are based.

I’m afraid it is but a vain hope. As Hobbes pointed out, princes always exist in the state of nature with respect to each other, and so do schoolboys, out of sight of their parents and masters — which is why it is so easy to make comparisons between them. The invitation to ridicule, however, does not change the fact that now as always, so far as we have any records, nations routinely do behave like schoolboys, however many shoulds the girls may hurl at them in an attempt to make them behave more like, well, girls. It’s one reason why, after half a century of second wave feminism, international leaders still tend overwhelmingly to be male. Men instinctively grasp the rules according to which the game is and always has been played, while women do not. Like it or not, on the international playground what matters more than anything else is strength, not wisdom.

Yet it is not so much strength itself as the fear and respect that the reputation for strength inspires in potential enemies. That’s why “credibility” came to substitute for “honor” in the first place: because it carries within it honor’s essence of believability. And that’s what people mean when they talk about credibility. The world must believe that our leaders mean what they say, and that they are prepared to back up their words with force. If the world doesn’t believe that, as the world (and not just Bashir Assad) assuredly will not, should we fail to back up our leader’s words with action, our credibility will be gone along with our honor. The real question is how far our leader himself understands this. President Obama is now reaping what his allies and friends in the anti-war movement of a decade ago sowed when, like Kathleen Parker today, they ignored or dismissed ideas of honor or credibility in Iraq. In fact, those ideas always apply in matters of war and peace. If the President has now learned that lesson, the test will be that he is henceforth more careful about making threats he will later have to back up.

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