US ‘credibility’ still intact a year after Afghanistan withdrawal

Daniel Larison

Hawks denounced the withdrawal from Afghanistan for many reasons, but one of their recurring complaints was that it threatened to wreck U.S. credibility in the world.
According to the standard hawkish view, withdrawing from a failed war signals weakness and a lack of resolve, which in turn causes allies to lose confidence in U.S. commitments to protect them and encourages adversaries to become aggressive on the assumption that the U.S. is unwilling or unable to oppose them. Hawks hold to a quasi-mystical view of credibility where a withdrawal anywhere invites aggression everywhere, and they then try to blame the withdrawal for causing whatever goes wrong anywhere else in the world afterwards.
In the year since the last U.S. forces departed Afgha-nistan, the record clearly shows that the hawks were panicking over nothing, and that the hawkish credibility argument is nothing more than an ideological fantasy. Policymakers should remember this the next time they are inclined to heed blood-curdling warnings about the need to maintain credibility by going to war or staying bogged down in one.
Leaving Afghanistan was supposed to deal a fatal blow to U.S. credibility with global consequences. But today, one looks in vain for the adverse effects that they predicted. U.S. alliances are no weaker, and allies are arguably more reliant on the U.S. and more trusting of its promises than before. Adversaries have acted much as they were acting before the withdrawal, and any changes in their activities are much more reasonably explained by factors specific to them and their regions.
Credibility hawks strain to link disparate events around the world to a single U.S. policy in a different region unrelated to any of the others, but this is irrational. Simply put, no government makes its policy decisions in its own region based on what the U.S. does or doesn’t do in a distant war in another part of the world. Hawks rely on the fallacy that everything that happens after a withdrawal has happened because of it.
Their argument requires us to assume an absurdly American-centric view of the world in which other states’ actions are governed by whether the U.S. maintains a military presence in an entirely different part of the world.
One need only consider the counterfactuals to realize how silly the argument is. Would keeping a residual U.S. force in Afghanistan have somehow prevented a Russian invasion of Ukraine? How would that possibly have worked? Maintaining a U.S. military presence isn’t a magical ward against misfortune. Withdrawing that presence doesn’t trigger global disaster. The U.S. should not fear quitting a lost war because of credibility concerns, and it should not choose to wage an unnecessary one for that reason, either.
If allied governments were unhappy about the way that the United States withdrew, this did not weaken their belief in U.S. commitments to them. Leaving a 20-year war in a country where America has no vital interests has no implications for Washington’s willingness to fight on behalf of treaty allies. Just as choosing not to bomb Syria had no discernible negative effects on U.S. alliances, the decision to pull out of a failed war after two decades did not diminish allies’ trust in U.S. security guarantees.
Hawks are compelled to exaggerate the significance of “inaction” or withdrawal because they cannot provide good arguments for their preferred policies. Their alarmist claims are a tacit admission on their part that these hawkish policies have nothing to do with making the United States more secure.
Predictions of the disasters that are supposed to follow lost credibility don’t come true. If you listened to credibility hawks during the Afghanistan withdrawal, you would have expected U.S. alliances to weaken and crumble as America’s security dependents began hedging and then abandoning the United States.
Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said that the U.S. would suffer “severe political consequences, in connection with our credibility with our allies and partners.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “this debacle will certainly harm America’s credibility with its friends and allies.” AEI’s Kori Schake said, “It is hard to overstate the damage to U.S. credibility wreaked by this fiasco,” but grossly overstate it she did. She also made a specific prediction that the “disastrous withdrawal will make it harder for Washington to put together such coalitions in the future,” but within half a year of the war’s end the U.S. had rallied NATO and other allies into a formidable coalition in support of Ukraine and in opposition to the Russian invasion.
As it turned out, none of the predicted setbacks happened. Allied governments recognize that U.S. commitments are rooted in shared interests, and they understand that those commitments were not compromised at all by the decision to leave Afghanistan. Insofar as ending the war freed up resources and attention for other parts of the world, allied governments likely welcomed the long overdue conclusion to an unsuccessful war.
We need to remember that treaty allies were relieved by the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and in practice we are seeing much the same thing today. Far from losing credibility, Ben Friedman pointed out earlier this week that “the U.S. has too much credibility among its allies.” If the U.S. wants its allies to take up a larger share of responsibility for their own security, it should reassure them much less than it has done.
In order to believe that ending a failed policy in one place would have devastating consequences for U.S. credibility elsewhere, one must assume that international events are all closely linked together and depend on each other. As Christopher Fettweis explained in The Pathologies of Power, “All the evidence that does exist actually points in the opposite direction, suggesting that international events are generally independent.”
Despite the strong evidence that other states do not judge credibility as hawks think they do, the credibility argument flourishes because it is a convenient crutch for advocates of aggressive and militaristic policies. It is no accident that hawks shriek about credibility only when the U.S. is considering ending a war or when it might choose not to start or join one. It is an argument ready-made to justify perpetual war, no matter how divorced from national interests it is, and it is the hawkish fallback when they want to get the US into a new war in places where U.S. interests do not warrant military action.
As Fettweis observes, “Most of the time, when arguments for action are based on credibility, nothing of importance is likely at stake.”
The U.S. has blundered disastrously when it has chosen to shore up its credibility through war. Dedicating countless lives and fortunes to preserving credibility is inherently wasteful. Any war in which credibility is one of the main justifications is not worth fighting. The more that hawks emphasize credibility as a reason for doing something, the more likely it is that policymakers should hasten to do the opposite of what the hawks want.
If credibility hawks had gotten their way in blocking withdrawals from desultory wars, U.S. troops would have been dying in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan for many more years than they already had. As abstract as the debate over credibility may sometimes seem, the consequences of buying into credibility nonsense are serious and impose real costs on the U.S. military and the country.
Courtesy: Responsible Statecraft