What's striking about the debate over President Obama's plan for a punitive strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad is the extent to which it centers on countries other than Syria. There's a reason for this. A concept that has had a long, significant though subtle influence on U.S. foreign policy is at work again: credibility.
In reality, the credibility gambit often combines sleight of hand with lazy thinking (historical parallels tend to be asserted, not demonstrated) and is a variation on the discredited domino theory. This becomes apparent if one examines how it is being deployed in the debate on Syria.
Obama made a bad decision by publicly, and needlessly, warning a brutal strongman that the United States would resort to military force were he to use chemical weapons. With the White House having announced that Assad had done just that, Obama appears tangled in his own red lines.
But he should not make another mistake now just because he made one earlier...They present credibility as an end in itself, not as a means to achieve a desired outcome, which is what it is.
Further, it's misleading to depict the president's plan as limited. Even a "tailored" attack against what is a chaotic, fragile and war-ridden country could have unanticipated and destabilizing consequences — ones that the United States would be unable to contain short of deeper involvement.
Although those who invoke credibility pretend otherwise, it's impossible to predict which outcome is most probable. Given this uncertainty, the logic for attacking one country in order to send a message to another is shaky.