Using force in Iraq or Libya provides no guarantee we'll do the same in Syria or Iran or Lower Slobbovia. Because we always have the option of staying out, there's no way to make everyone totally believe we'll jump into the next crisis.
The parallel claim of Washington hawks is that we have to punish Assad for using nerve gas, because otherwise Iran will conclude it can acquire nuclear weapons. Again, our credibility is at stake. But how could the Tehran regime draw any certain conclusions based on what happens in Syria?
Two American presidents let a troublesome Saddam Hussein stay in power, but a third one decided to take him out. George W. Bush tolerated Moammar Gadhafi, but Barack Obama didn't. Ronald Reagan let us be chased out of Lebanon, only to turn around and invade Grenada. If you've seen one U.S. intervention, you've seen one.
What should be plain to Iran is that Washington sees nuclear proliferation as a unique threat to its security, which Syria's chemical weapons are not. Just because we might let Assad get away with gassing his people doesn't mean we will let Iran acquire weapons of mass destruction that would be used only against other countries. Heck, we not only let Saddam get away with using chemical weapons against Iran -- we took his side.
Figuring out the U.S. government's future impulses is hard even for Americans. There's no real rhyme or reason. But because we're so powerful, other governments can ill afford to be wrong. What foreigners have to keep in the front of their minds is not our inclination to act but our capacity to act -- which remains unparalleled whatever we do in Syria.
Credibility is overrated. Sure, it's possible for hostile governments to watch us squabble over Syria and conclude that they can safely do things we regard as dangerous. But there are graveyards full of people who made that bet.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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