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Conflict & the persistence of ‘credibility’ as justification

Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock is a western in the way The Godfather is a crime novel or The Road a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which is to say it belongs to its genre but also subverts it. The novel harnesses familiar ideas—in this case, violence, honor, and the limits of law—for fictional storytelling, while examining how they can influence, direct, and legitimize cultural, personal, and political activity in the real world.

It’s no Zane Grey, as Robert Stone—whose own work takes up questions of violence and political conflict—acknowledges in his introduction to the 2006 reissue of Warlock, which in its depiction of duels, massacres, vendettas, and assassinations reveals how deadly force so often springs from nothing more than a desire to project credibility. The characters in Warlock aren’t necessarily interested in killing one another; they’re worried what people will think if they don’t—whether it’s avenging this murder or that insult, or preemptively eliminating a perceived enemy, even when the lack of clear evidence would seem to demand restraint. Protecting one’s reputation proves a poor justification for violence, Hall makes clear in Warlock, even while (or by) acknowledging that his characters have no real choice but to act as if it’s the best one.

But that’s a novel, and Hall’s thematic intent precludes epiphanies of self-awareness and the throwing down of guns. Real-world actors operate under no such constraints, though, and so credibility would seem an even worse excuse in this realm, especially when it comes to war. Yet there were John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Monday using the word again, a couple of days after Barack Obama—sidling up to it himself because of his own unforced error with the rhetoric of red lines—brought Congress into the decision-making on Syria. (Tuesday, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Boehner and Eric Cantor employed its go-to variation: inaction will “embolden other regimes.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Mercer has twice made the case against using credibility as a cri de guerre—first in May, and then again last week to reflect developments since evidence of the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians came to light.

His argument was compelling the first time around, when he pointed to historic precedents and marshaled examples of logical recursion to illustrate the “folly” of engaging in hostilities for the sake of maintaining reputation; his update restates the position still more directly: 

It is not beyond the bounds of imagination … that Assad believes that U.S. President Barack Obama is feckless and irresolute. At least that has been the worry among many American circles since Obama backed down from earlier warnings that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line.” It is likely that the Assad regime or Syrian rebels crossed that line in late April and … nothing happened. Cue the strategists: American credibility is on the line! Not just with Syria, as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham put it at the end of April, “but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends.”

[T]the United States should not let concerns over credibility drive policymaking. Wars should be fought to protect interests and values, not to defend imaginary reputations from simpletons and illogical foes. In other words, the Obama administration should not … let fears that others might think it irresolute drive it to disaster. Instead, it should refocus on what U.S. interests really are in Syria, and how it can best obtain them.

“Simpletons and illogical foes” abound in Warlock, their taunts from windows and barstools fueling every dispute, the participants of which refuse to refocus on what the better interests might be (the one who dares such contemplativeness is meagerly rewarded for his efforts). Stone in his introduction draws on Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation in discussing “the kinds of created mythologies America characteristically requires to ‘do what it has to do.’” He was writing in 2006, when the United States was immersed in two conflicts sustained in part by the need to appear resolute. Slotkin himself was writing in 1973, toward the end of Vietnam, at which time he observed that “no mythic system can be perfectly invulnerable to the rebuke of events.” That seems self-evident, given events before and since. Yet there remains no desire to acknowledge it. Is it because doing so would call our credibility into question? 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Neither the United States nor any other nation "let concern over credibility drive policymaking." Policies ought to aim to respond to the prevailing conditions that a state faces. It doesn't make binding commitments that have the moral force of promises that are to be kept no matter what. Individual persons can reasonably do so because the promiser will bear all the burdens that keeping the promise bring about. Political policymakers, as representatives of the citizenry, have to place3 conditions on the commitments they make that always allow them to act for the common good, rather than being concerned with their own credibility. Not to accept this constraint makes any claim that the policymakers are always servants of the citizenry not merely hollow, but absurd. See for example the Melian dialogues in Thucydides' Peloponesian Wars.

“' mythic system can be perfectly invulnerable to the rebuke of events.' That seems self-evident, given events before and since. Yet there remains no desire to acknowledge it. Is it because doing so would call our credibility into question?"

Since 9/11 the old calculus that US interests are determined in bilateral ways seems to be out the window. Look at all the years the we humored the Libyian dictator while waiting for the situation where the concensus of his own people was "time for a change." Today the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring in Cairo further illustrates that the measure "US interests in ____" has lost whatever traction it might have had.

Thus the message would seem to be: "who's mythic system" shall we humor today - and against what criteria. We are confronted by "simpletons and illogical foes" and not all of those are non-US citizens. We live in predicament times and the ongoing capacity of the Internet to greatly speed the "judgment" of those in the bleachers is a new phenomenon that this President is the first who must come to grips with.

Amidst the "simpletons and illogical foes" are the one group of enemies we can address directly - the pirates and crony capitalists for whom the old "mythic systems" provide cover to advance the reach of thier wealth and illicit powers. Unless were ready to abandon the Rule of Law in any quarter than the President's word means something - there is no more practical locus of choice on this planet.

On the point of credibility, Putin sat down with reporters to discuss a range of issues last June. It is a fascinating and wide ranging interview covering a myriad of topics. You can read the transcript and watch the translated video here.

In an almost prescient segment Putin said this:

Vladimir Putin: Any state pursues its national interests, and the US is no exception. What’s unique here is that the collapse of the Soviet Union left America as the world’s single leader. But there was a catch associated with it in that it began to view itself as an empire. But an empire is not only about foreign policy, it’s also about domestic policies. An empire cannot afford to display weakness, and any attempt to strike an agreement on equitable terms is often seen domestically as weakness. But the leadership cannot afford to display weakness due to domestic policy considerations. I think that the current administration realizes that it cannot solve the world’s major issues on its own. But first, they still want to do it, and second, they can only take steps that are fit for an empire. Domestic policy considerations play a huge role. Otherwise you would be accused of weakness. In order to act otherwise you either have to win overwhelming support or there must be a chance in mentality, when people will understand that it’s much more beneficial to look for compromises that to impose your will on everyone. But it certainly takes time to change those patterns of thinking in any country, in this case it’s the US. First and foremost, this change should take place in the minds of the ruling elite in the broad sense of this phrase. I don’t think that it’s impossible. I this we’ve almost come to that point. I very much hope we will reach it soon. 

A delegation of Russians are in Washington now and speaking to leaders. Let's hope it bears some fruit and their can be a co-operative and peaceful resolution to this quandry.


And how has Putin the Magnificant furthered the cause of peace?  What has he put on the table?  More bombs is all I see.


I am not a slavophile and while he is imperfect, Putin does have wisdom and experience. I think that he has a sharp analytic mind that combined with the practicality of the US could be put to good use in this, our "vale of tears".

But each side must own their own contributions and actually talk to each other respectfully as opposed to the president referring to him as "slouching" and looking like the bored kid in the classroom.

Between Putin and Obama, I think it is evident to any impartial observer who the adult in the room is right now. 

For starters, he actually supports and adheres to international law; a basic principle being that without UN security council resolutions, countries cannot wage war on other countries. Pesky matters like international principles governing conflict do not seem to bother Obama the Greater.


This piece in the Washington Post by retired General Robert Scales purports to speak for many senior military officers.  I've been astonished by the lack of deference to the President in much of the commentary I've seen the last few days.  I sense that many sectors of the American people are telling him, as directly as they can, "We don't want this war."

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