Stop me if you've heard this one before. Vladimir Putin only invaded Crimea because he knew President Obama wouldn't back up his threats with action. Hadn't the world seen Obama draw a bright red line in Syria only to meekly climb down after Assad brazenly crossed it? It's the Obama administration's lack of credibility that encouraged Putin's adventurism.
This argument has been rehashed numerous times since Russian forces made their move in Crimea. Indeed, it's been made countless times during every single international crisis during the Obama administration.
There's only one problem with this line of argument. It's not true.
Don't take my word for it. To the extent that such things can be studied, there is significant evidence suggesting that such "credibility" arguments have little basis in fact. Begin with Daryl Press who has a book-length take-down of the idea in Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Press also co-authored a shorter piece in Foreign Policy with Jennifer Lind exploring the argument). Jonathan Mercer also examined the issues in Reputation & International Politics and came to a similar conclusion. If you can't wade through the book, Mercer's piece in Foreign Affairs brings not only the relevant scholarship to bear on the question, but shows why the argument makes no sense logically. Writing in the Havard Law Review, Ganesh Sitaraman offers another fact-filled take-down.
Yet in the face of strong evidence and logic that the credibility argument is bogus it keeps turning up -- the foreign policy punditry version of a bad penny. Why? Having likely made this mistake myself (before acquainting myself with the above) I have a few theories. First, it's easy. Understanding why states behave the way they do requires at least some rudimentary understanding of their peculiar geopolitical situation and the relevant interests involved. Blaming "weakness" and "lack of resolve" on the part of a particular political figure requires none of this understanding and is more interesting to read about, since it quickly personalizes disputes.
Second, it's reinforces partisan and ideological narratives. For the GOP, blaming President Obama's weakness is not only easy but politically expedient. It's just too good an opportunity to pass up. But it's not only Democrats that suffer at the hands of this bogus narrative. When President Bush was in office, critics also retreated to this dubious argument.
Third, as Justin Logan noted, it makes "intuitive sense" to many people, even if there's little evidence for it.
.@GregScoblete Because the US foreign policy establishment doesn't have to care about social science and because it's intuitively plausible.— Justin Logan (@JustinTLogan) March 4, 2014
I don't hold out much hope that evidence and logic will win the day on this one, but here's hoping.