PARIS – On August 30, 2013, the United States was about to launch air strikes on Syria, where more than a thousand civilians had died in a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the army of President Bashar al-Assad. But a few hours before the strikes were to commence, US President Barack Obama canceled them, surprising America’s allies. Instead, US diplomats engineered a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whereby Russia would take responsibility for removing chemical weapons from Syria. The Syrian civil war went on, without the US becoming directly involved.
According to his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine, Obama is “very proud” of the moment when he considered, pondered, and, bucking his advisers, decided not to follow the “Washington playbook.” Not everybody applauded. According to Goldberg, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately complained that “if you say that you are going to strike, you have to strike.” But Obama refused to give priority to credibility: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone,” he said, “is just about the worst reason to use force.”
Obama’s stance was in keeping with his now-famous foreign and security-policy mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.” That dictum obviously alludes to his predecessor’s ill-judged decision to intervene in Iraq; but, more fundamentally, it expresses the way Obama approaches the balance of risks involved in major policy choices. Evidently, he does not hold concerns about credibility in high enough regard to let his hands be tied. The adequacy of the ultimate decision matters more to him than consistency with previous statements. Preserving freedom of choice in addressing a problem is more important than sending the right message. Judgment should not be obfuscated.
One thing that security policy and economic policy have in common is that they force governments to choose between minimizing immediate damages and safeguarding credibility. Economic debates also frequently place in opposition to one another those who emphasize unconstrained judgment and those who regard consistency as the gold standard of good policy.