Despite widespread misgivings from all points of the political compass, the United States has decided to place the Stars and Stripes on 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers. The Administration's key argument for going forward with the re-flagging is that it is too late to back down, whatever the consequences--which could be severe. To renege on the decision would weaken U.S. credibility abroad, and that must not be done.
Indeed, it is valuable to be seen as a nation as good as its word. That reputation should be husbanded. There is little merit, however, in holding oneself to a promise to commit suicide for some trifle. For one thing, if a government made such a promise, it would not be believed. For another, the nation's leaders would be seen to have taken leave of their senses--another image that is not good to project.
Striking a balance is the art of statecraft. The first lesson is to recognize that backing down does not always carry the dire consequences foreseen by politicians at the moment of decision. Several U.S. administrations over many years refused to temper the American commitment to South Vietnam. U.S. leaders seemed to see less opprobrium in being unable to keep a promise than in being unwilling to do so. As a Chinese official said, tongue-in-cheek: "You Americans are too concerned about losing face." In the event, we did worse and lost a war. Yet even then, America's other friendships and alliances did not collapse.
The Middle East has seen its share of unredeemed promises. Most notable was the American expedition to Lebanon in 1982-84. After the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport was blown up in October, 1983, President Reagan declared Lebanon to be vital to the U.S. position throughout the region. Four months later the United States abruptly abandoned Lebanon to its fate. Arguably, American credibility suffered, but that did not stop others from looking to Washington for support the region's security matters. Indeed, it was after the retreat from Lebanon that Iraq began the tanker war in the Persian Gulf, precisely to try drawing the United States into the conflict in order to resolve it.
Credibility of commitments does matter in conveying a general impression of reliability and in proving the unprovable when interests are otherwise not self-evident. The United States takes pains to honor its various commitments to Israel because so much of the U.S.-Israeli relationship rests on moral, political and cultural factors, rather than on obvious U.S. strategic self-interest. If the United States were to violate any of its commitments, the argument runs, then Israel would have trouble believing any of them, especially the implicit commitment to Israel's security.
This case illustrates another principle: that being seen as reliable is important to achieve other purposes or to forestall other trouble. For example: Israel is unlikely to take any risks for peace unless it can trust that it will not be abandoned by the United States. Similarly, if Kuwait cannot trust America's word, it may turn to the Soviet Union. Here, however, the issue of striking a balance arises. Because of limits that it imposes on itself and pressures from Arab friends, Kuwait is unlikely to fall into the Soviet lap. If necessary, the United States could call this bluff without serious risk that the Persian Gulf would become "a Soviet lake."
The most important example of proving the unprovable is found in the Atlantic alliance. That relationship does contain a promise to commit suicide: that, if need be, the United States will initiate a nuclear holocaust in order to prevent Western Europe's succumbing to Warsaw Pact aggression. Thus the alliance has experienced frequent crises in which Washington tries to demonstrate that, in extremis, it would do something that seems insane. Periodically raising that possibility helps to prevent any war in Europe.
This example says something further about credibility: that it is best demonstrated over a period of time, in a number of separate acts, rather than in the crucible of a particular crisis. In fact, a test case that clearly exposes the United States to risks that are not matched by benefits can create a reputation for foolhardiness rather than good sense. This is especially true if, as in Lebanon or Vietnam, the United States inflates a commitment only later to abandon it.
This lesson applies to the re-flagging of the Kuwait tankers. U.S. credibility in the Persian Gulf is at stake primarily because of a series of miscues over several years, not because of this single request for help. Indeed, acceding to Kuwait's request can put the United States in worse straits, risking a conflict with Iran that can only benefit the Soviet Union.
Prudence is a virtue essential to statecraft. The United States should find other ways to prove that it remains a reliable friend and a power in the gulf.