A bluff called

image001“Please don’t develop nuclear weapons, Ayatollah. I am not bluffing this time. Honest”. It is certainly possible to imagine a stronger and more credible policy than this for an American president.

At the time of writing, the Obama administration’s policy on Syria is unclear. Ambiguity in policy is not necessarily a problem. Sometimes it is deliberately cultivated. When a president has made a decision not to act to prevent X but would nonetheless like it if X didn’t happen, then ambiguity is wise. On other occasions ambiguity arises because the president has not made a firm decision in advance. Perhaps President Obama, for example, does not know whether or not he would be likely to order a strike on Iran if it was at the point of developing an offensive nuclear capacity. This column has previously written in defense of ambiguity, arguing that Secretary of Defense Hagel (then merely a nominee) was unwise to communicate that it would be wrong to attack Iran. Perhaps it would. But it is better to leave the Iranians unsure of the president’s intentions.

But sometimes, too, it is wise to lift the ambiguity. Sometimes a president should say, “if you do X, then I am certainly going to act”. It raises the stakes for both sides. It is a firmer deterrent than is strategic ambiguity. But it also means that a president who makes such a threat has an obligation to follow through. Making the threat and then, feebly, abandoning it later, is a gift to America’s enemies. A clear statement of the president’s intentions should clear up any ambiguity. It should not leave people thinking “I wonder what he meant by that”.

A year ago, the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line” for the president. It was a game changer. Deterring the Assad regime from using chemical weapons was worth the threat of American action. But was it worth actual American action? As of today, we do not know the president’s mind on this.

A year ago, using chemical weapons was sufficient to cause a change of policy. And now America’s credibility is on the line. Does an official and clearly worded warning from the Oval Office mean anything at all? Can the president’s word be trusted? In the past few weeks, the president has sown doubt where, he had previously assured us, there was once certainty.

In 2012, the use of chemical weapons was sufficient to justify American action. In 2013, the use of chemical weapons is no longer sufficient, even when combined with a devastating loss to American credibility. Does the president take America’s strength in the world so lightly that something that once justified action on its own now justifies inaction even when the credibility of his policy is added into the equation? Is trust in the word of the president now a negative quantity? The president would have acted, but since that would now involve keeping his promise he has decided not to? A promise to act now makes it less likely that the president will act.

Apparently the proof is not conclusive. It never will be. Apparently there are risks. There always will be. He wants international support. He has Britain and France. Is he really giving Russia a veto on US military deployments? If the president does not wish to act, he should not have promised that he would.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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