The Credibility Myth

One of the most frequent critiques leveled at President Obama is that he has diminished the United States’ international “credibility.”  For example, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has argued that Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria after the use of chemical weapons there in 2013 damaged U.S. credibility.  These critics argue that the United States must follow through on its commitments today so that its threats will be credible (and thus effective) tomorrow.

I have a new article published today at War on the Rocks explaining why these arguments about America’s credibility and reputation are misguided.  You can read the article here.

One Year of On Security; the Paris Climate Agreement Moves Forward

It has come to my attention that On Security is officially one year old this week. To celebrate, I’m throwing a party and you’re all invited! Just kidding. Instead, I thought I would shift gears a little bit and revisit one of my favorite posts from last year.

In this post from last December I discussed the Paris Climate Talks. I wrote about the basic goals of the conference (minimizing the rise in Earth’s temperature by limiting or reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and offered three explanations from international relations theory for why climate change is a uniquely difficult challenge for states to tackle. Although 180 countries have since signed the agreement that came out of the Paris talks, at the start of this month only 23 countries had ratified the agreement. (At least 55 states must ratify the agreement for it to go into effect.)

The good news is that last week the United States and China announced that they would be ratifying the Paris agreement.  Together, the United States and China account for nearly 40% of total world emissions, so it is hoped that their commitment to reducing emissions under the terms of the Paris agreement will both have a real impact on global temperatures and encourage other states to ratify the agreement.

The announcement raises some interesting issues related to U.S. domestic politics. In the United States, the Executive signs treaties but the Senate must ratify them. Sometimes this results in treaties that are signed but never ratified, like the Kyoto Protocol. In this case, President Obama has chosen to issue an executive order to ratify the Paris agreement, bypassing the need for Senate approval. Obama has turned to this policy tool frequently throughout his presidency.   Executive orders and agreements do not necessarily outlast the sitting president—although Hillary Clinton has voiced her support for the Paris agreement, Donald Trump has indicated that he would withdraw U.S. support if elected. To the many challenges hampering efforts to mitigate climate change, we must add the challenges of domestic politics.


Thanks to all of my readers for your support. Looking ahead to another productive year of writing about international security.

Taking Responsibility in Laos

Things have been a little quiet around here lately as I have been working on some longer articles that I hope to be able to share with you soon.   Today: a short post to highlight a stop on Obama’s current Asian tour. Yesterday in a visit to Vientiane, Laos, the President acknowledged the secret war that the United States waged there from 1964-1973 as part of its war in Vietnam. In an effort to interdict the flow of men and materiel along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to support the Lao government against the Pathet Lao, the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos—more than it dropped on Germany and Japan during the Second World War. This amounted to 580,000 bombing missions, or dropping a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, all day every day, for nine years. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Millions of the bombs dropped by the United States in this campaign did not explode immediately, leaving the country riddled with live bombs that continue to kill and maim people every year. The vast majority of these weapons have not been cleared. In his address this week, Obama pledged $30 million a year for three years to help clear the unexploded bombs; one source claims that the United States spent $130 million on ten days of bombing (in 2013 dollars). Needless to say, the clean-up funds are far from adequate, nor did Obama actually apologize for the bombing. He joined the Lao people in “acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.” Indeed.

It is never too late for the United States to take responsibility for the massive suffering it inflicted on the Lao (and Cambodian and Vietnamese) people as part of its war in Southeast Asia. Nor is it ever too late to hold the architects of this wasteful conflict accountable, but that does not seem to be something in which Americans are interested. We will prosecute the platoon leader who failed to prevent his troops from committing an atrocity, but we will continue to venerate Henry Kissinger, the man who orchestrated the campaigns in Laos and Cambodia, helped to prolong the war in Vietnam, supported heinous regimes in South America (and I could go on). Hillary Clinton has famously cited her admiration for Kissinger (and her satisfaction at his praise of her efforts as Secretary of State). This is deeply troubling. Kissinger helped orchestrate military campaigns and prop up corrupt regimes that killed millions of people without making the United States any safer in the process.

If Clinton is elected, what will be the new Laos? For what industrial-scale atrocities will the American president be apologizing in thirty years? My friends in the liberal camp tell me that we should not be criticizing Clinton at this critical juncture, lest we help to usher in the apocalypse. But if we care at all about justice and the lives of innocent people around the world (not to mention the lives of American troops), it is never too early to start criticizing someone who might become the most powerful person in the world and cites Henry Kissinger as an inspiration.