Can the U.S. make credible threats or promises?

President Trump reportedly hopes that cruise missile attack Syria and the 11-ton MOAB bomb dropped on Afghanistan will make American threats more credible when he deals with North Korea and other hostile countries.

But it is not enough for a leader of a great nation to be able to make credible threats.  He also has to be able to make credible promises.

It is not enough for foreign heads of state to feel in danger if they oppose the United States.  They have to be able to feel safe from U.S. wrath if they cooperate with the United States.

Otherwise the threats will make them redouble their efforts to be able to strike back.

Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad all found that appeasing the United States was more dangerous than defiance.

Unfortunately for President Trump, he—for reasons not of his own making—is in a situation in which neither his threats nor his promises are credible.

The attacks in Syria and Afghanistan are evidence that Trump is more willing to take military action than President Obama.   The strong support for his actions in the press and in Washington indicate that he has no reason not to take such actions again.   These seem to make him more fearsome/

But these actions may have less significance than meets the eye.  The attack on the Syrian airport was so restrained as to be military theater rather than military action.   There were few casualties and the airport was back in operation in a day.

The bomb dropped on Afghanistan was enormously destructive—its blast radius extended a mile—but, because the bomb weighed 11 tons, it had to be carried by a cargo plane, not a bomber.  This means such a bomb is only usable against enemies that don’t have air defenses.   A cargo plane would be quickly shot down over North Korea or Iran.

The real problem with Presidential threats is that we Americans applaud military action, but only a few of us are willing to go fight in distant lands for unclear reasons.  Foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping understand this very well.  I personally think this reluctance is a good thing, not a bad thing, but it makes it hard for any President to carry out a belligerent foreign policy.

The other part of President Trump’s credibility problem is convincing foreign foes that complying with U.S. demands is enough to guarantee their safety.

Remember that Saddam Hussein was an ally of the United States in the 1980s.   Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush had no objection to his use of poison gas in Iraq’s war against Iran or its suppression of its Kurdish minority.   He evidently was unaware that the U.S. would oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  Later on he stopped producing chemical weapons and gave up his plan to develop nuclear weapons.  None of this saved him from being executed by hanging.

Muammar Qaddafi also gave up his nuclear weapons plans, such as they were, and attempted to make friends with the United States.  This didn’t save him from an ignominious death.   Bashar al Assad also attempted to befriend the United States, but that didn’t stop the U.S. government from backing his overthrow.

What holds back the United States from attacking North Korea as it did Syria and Afghanistan is that Kim Jong Un’s government possesses missiles and nuclear weapons.  Even if Kim Jong Un thinks the Trump administration poses a credible threat, he may think it safer to defy the United States than to disarm.

All of these things are problems not of President Trump’s making.  They are the legacy of previous failures.  But it is up to him to deal with them.  He had better think carefully about what he threatens and what he promises.


MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used by the U.S. military, explained by Zack Beauchamp for Vox

Pence warns North Korea of US resolve shown in Syria, Afghan strikes by Reuters.

What Does an ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Actually Mean? by William J. Astore for TomDispatch.

The World Is Getting a Taste of the Trump Doctrine by Robert Dreyfuss for Rolling Stone.

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