Syria and credible threats

I’m not sure exactly what to think about Syria so I revert to my default position–we shouldn’t go in. Whatever side you take though, this type of argument should be ignored:

By punishing Syria for their use, the United States and other countries would be enforcing an eminently worthwhile provision of international law. By not punishing Syria, the U.S. would indicate to Assad and other dictators in peril that they need not fear reprisals for using these weapons. That’s why it’s important to do something.

The idea is that we have to back up the threat or the next time we make a threat, we’ll be ignored (the ‘cry wolf’ idea). This seems right but it doesn’t seem to be true:

What Press found in his research is that leaders are very concerned about their own perceived credibility, but rarely pay attention to others’ histories of follow-through. Reading through thousands of pages of archived documents, he said, “I might have found two about what adversaries had done in the past and what [policy makers] should infer from that.” Yet those same policy makers were convinced that their own credibility was at stake with each major decision.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy might have looked back at Khrushchev’s blustering over Berlin and decided that his threats were not credible.

These historic cases are consistent with Todd Sechser’s findings. Sechser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has undertaken careful quantitative studies of threat-making, has found that following through on threats “seems to carry few reputation benefits; to the contrary, it seems to carry considerable reputation costs.”

Sechser compiled a list of 210 instances of “compellent threats” made by nations between 1918 and 2001 in order to evaluate whether and under what circumstances states that make threats tend to get what they want. He also looked at what happened to states after they issued threats. He found that when a state followed through on a threat, its next threat succeeded in only 19 percent of cases, whereas when it did not follow through, its next threat succeeded 31 percent of the time.

So, when listening to arguments for a strike or war in Syria, ignore any argument that says we need to strike to retain our credibility.

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