Swing and a Miss

The Sabermetric spat about whether it's important for a president to appear "credible."

If nothing else, Barack Obama's Syria policy has succeeded in exposing the widening fissures in America's foreign policy community. Even with what looks to be a brokered deal that, if implemented, would remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, the administration's gyrations over Syria have generated significant consternation in the foreign policy community. The most intriguing divide, however, is over the question of whether President Obama must respond forcefully to Syria's use of chemical weapons because of concerns about credibility. Administration officials have repeatedly argued that if the president fails to follow through on his "red line" comment about chemical weapons by keeping military options at the ready, other actors in the world like Iran and Russia will view the United States as a paper tiger. Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with Congress to authorize the use of force in order to preserve the "core to American credibility in foreign policy." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explicitly argued that acting on Syria was necessary to ensure U.S. credibility vis-à-vis Iran. And both Kerry and Hagel suggested in congressional testimony that a failure to act would embolden North Korea to use its chemical weapons stockpile. After rhetoric like this, it's not shocking that GOP Sen. Bob Corker took to CNN to blast the president for not caring more about U.S. credibility in the region after Obama reversed course.  

Influential pundits have made similar points. The Council on Foreign Relations's Richard Haass tweeted the importance of making the military option a credible one. Ross Douthat at the New York Times warned that there would be, "unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy" if Obama failed to rally congressional support for military action, while Roger Cohen reported that, "In Berlin ... the change has been noted. It has also been noted in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and Jerusalem." Here at Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf argued that action in Syria was essential: "we must also consider what the 'too little, too late' message sends to others in the region who might consider violating the most important norms of international behavior." It is not hard to find other former policymakers or even straight news stories that articulate this thesis.

The odd thing about all of this emphasis on "credibility" is that the trend in international relations scholarship has moved in the opposite direction. The notion that a country or its leader has a single reputation for resolve or credibility has been pretty much dismissed. As one recent literature review by University of Alabama political scientist Douglas Gibler noted, "empirical support for the effects of reputation has been lacking." Dartmouth professor Daryl Press's Calculating Credibility argues that the balance of forces on the ground matter far more in how leaders assess each other's intentions than past reputation. To be sure, reputation and credibility do matter in some well-defined circumstances. Countries that perpetually default on their foreign debts face higher interest rates because of bad prior reputation. Nevertheless, credibility doesn't matter nearly as much as policymakers claim.  

Why is there such a disconnect between academics and policymakers on this issue? And who's right? Answering the first question goes part of the way towards answering the second.

One possible answer is that the last time policymakers or pundits thought deeply about these issues was back when they were in school decades ago -- and the thinking about credibility has evolved since then. Back in the day, debates about credibility focused on the question of nuclear deterrence. Theorists like Thomas Schelling stressed the vital importance of credibility in convincing opponents that one was willing to launch a massive second strike of nuclear weapons if attacked. Indeed, Schelling analogized the situation to a game of chicken, in which one driver would benefit from throwing their steering wheel out the window. Schelling's logic was generalized to all high-stakes international interactions.

It was only in the late 1990s, with the publication of Jonathan Mercer's Reputation and International Relations, that the field began to move away from that consensus. As Mercer observed, the issue is that similar actions will be interpreted differently due to factors Schelling never discussed, such as whether the other actor is an ally or an adversary. Empirical studies of deterrence and reputation have also suggested that it is not as potent a factor beyond nuclear deterrence. Still, any policymaker whose formative experience was reading Schelling -- or who watched the tractor scene from Footloose -- would buy into the overwhelming importance of credibility. If this explanation is correct, then it would behoove policymakers to listen to the academics.

Another explanation is that this divide is between theorists and practitioners. The latter could possess inside information and experiences that suggest credibility is a significant factor. That said, these experiences are hard to communicate to academics beyond the statement of "trust me, it matters." On the other hand, it is also possible that policymakers lack the wider view that academics possess when looking at a crisis. What's unclear is whether the academics have a better perspective because of their detached view, or whether those inside the Beltway might actually possess some pertinent inside information.

The problem is akin to the one between front offices and sabermetricians in baseball that existed a decade ago. Sabermetric enthusiasts like Bill James and Nate Silver argued that scouts were looking at the wrong attributes in baseball players. Athleticism mattered less than a hitter's ability to get on base, for example. Similarly, sabermetricians were far more dubious about the utility of sacrifice bunts than some managers. On a host of baseball strategies, the sabermetric argument turned out to have greater validity. On the other hand, as Silver acknowledged in The Signal and the Noise, it turns out that sabermetricians have not always been right either. Scouts turned out to be better in predicting which prospects would make it in the big leagues -- in no small part because they usually possess more information than can be read in a stat sheet. The best ones have embraced the lessons from Sabermetrics and blended it with their own analyses.

It's possible that policymakers possess some kind of tacit knowledge from their own experiences that suggests issues of credibility do matter -- in the case of Syria, for example, Secretary Hagel mentioned his conversations with his South Korea counterpart. If this explanation is correct, then maybe academics would be better served by listening more closely to current and former policymakers.

The final possible explanation is that policymakers and academics might be saying the same word but thinking about it differently. Academics have the advantage of thinking about the long term; for policymakers, the long term is two weeks (for the Middle East, it's two days). Because of these different perspectives, they look at credibility differently. Academics usually make the country the unit of analysis: does the United States show resolve or not, for example. They care about the role that credibility plays over the span of years. For foreign policymakers, all politics is personal. As Heather Hurlburt intimated in this Bloggingheads conversation, they care about whether they or their boss is perceived by others inside the Beltway as credible or not immediately after a crisis. And even the most structural international relations theorist would likely acknowledge that the Obama administration has not had a great two weeks.

If this explanation is correct, then both academics and policymakers are correct. International relations academics might well be correct in observing that what happens in Syria now will not affect what happens in Iran a year from now. Still, policymakers might well be correct in noting that if Barack Obama fails to follow through on his Syria pledges, his personal credibility might take a short-term hit inside the corridors of power.

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Hollow Vengeance

Why four hangings won't change India's horrific culture of rape and torture.

Death penalty for sexual assault is reportedly a celebrated position in India right now. On Friday, in a case that has captured both national and international attention, a judge sentenced four men to execution for the December 2012 rape and murder of a student in Delhi. The announcement was met with cheers by hundreds of people gathered outside the court.

Considering research showing that one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in their lives, is India serious about pursuing bloody barters in still more cases? The answer is unclear, but the eye-for-an-eye sentiment that has permeated public discussion around the recently concluded case has allowed a great wrong to be addressed inadequately and perhaps unjustly. Indeed, it is unquestionable that at least three crucial learning moments are slipping through India's fingers.

First, the public, eager to focus gory details about this particular rape and the drama of the court proceedings that followed, are losing the opportunity to discuss the case as illustrative of the lived realities of women and girls across the country. Other recent cases, even ones equally as egregious, have not received the same sort of national attention. Not the 16-year-old who sought assistance from her teachers to report repeated rapes by her high-profile father in Delhi's satellite town of Gurgaon, nor the woman whose charred remains suggested she was burned alive after a possible rape in Sirsa, in Delhi's neighboring state of Haryana. Fueled by calls for violent retribution and an additional clamor surrounding whether India has become dangerous for female tourists -- a real, but not primary, concern -- the violent rape in Delhi has been rendered into a unique spectacle rather than being used as an impetus for discussions at dinner tables, in schools, in dining halls, and in community spaces about the need for zero tolerance of violence.

The loud responses have also diminished the voices of those at the helm of the gender justice movement in India -- people who were paying attention to sexual violence and other human rights violations long before this case. There have been vociferous calls for the death penalty, chemical castration, and some gleeful discussions about other savage punishments for those who commit sexual crimes. None of these penalties would provide a just, sustainable, or replicable solution, and some of them reinforce rape myths. (Castration, for instance, suggests that rape is all about sex.) Gender justice advocates have worked to dispel such myths and emphasize the need for more humane criminal penalties, but they have yet to receive the careful ear that they deserve.

Second, and relatedly, India is missing the opportunity to take a stand against custodial torture and to further define the contours of the amorphous rule of law. Originally, there were five adults accused in the case (in addition to one juvenile). Their lawyers reported that the accused were beaten, tortured, and sexually assaulted while in jail. The coverage of these reports was scant, and the defense lawyers were deemed shameless for worrying about the treatment of the accused. In March 2013, one of the five was found dead in his jail cell, hanging -- some reports said -- by his own clothes, having used his disabled hand to noose himself, a couple of feet higher than his frame, while cellmates were present.

The alleged rape of the now-convicted rapists, and a potential murder, should also be deep public concerns. The reports of mistreatment merited more attention and pause during the recent trial and continue to do so now. For, quite simply, to be against rape and violence should mean precisely that.

While nongovernmental estimates are often higher, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, out of the total number of prisoners who died in Indian jails during 2011, 1,244 were natural deaths and 88 were due to unnatural causes, 68 of those being suicides. Civil society groups consistently document the torture and other degrading treatment of Indian prisoners, and it is not unreasonable to conclude that this, too, leads to custodial deaths. Recently referring to the "public secret" that is torture, senior New Delhi lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, recounted to the Indian daily the Hindu what any Bollywood filmgoer accepts as unexceptional: "In Hindi movies, unless the cop hits the suspect, he doesn't talk. [Torture] is projected as a successful interrogation technique."

Among other possible effects, more robust investigation and dialogue about torture during the Delhi rape case could have helped advance the Prevention of Torture Bill, which has been stalled since 2010 and, if passed, would allow India to ratify the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT). Elusive and abstract as they might seem, international instruments do set clear social benchmarks. Ratifying CAT would assist in beginning to mainstream the idea that freedom from torture is a non-derogable human right -- rather than dependent on the proclivities of individual officers. But far from moving the conversation toward increased accountability, reactions to the Delhi rape simply labeled "alleged" as a mere formality, innocent until proven guilty as an optional guideline.

The third missed opportunity pertains to the law and its symbiotic relationship with society. Recognizing that violence against women takes place in various contexts, and in the face of many adversities, the Justice Verma Committee -- constituted days after the December assault and murder to propose revisions to India's rape laws -- made excellent, contextual recommendations to enhance safety and justice for women. This included reforms around responses to rape in police custody, rape in conflict zones, and rape in bedrooms. (India has yet to outlaw marital rape.) The committee also ruled against the death penalty as punishment for rape. However, the committee's extensive report that could have ushered in systemic changes was largely ignored, short-circuited by a lackluster ordinance signed by President Pranab Mukherjee on Feb. 3. Additionally, the government has not offered sufficient support for sexual violence prevention or bystander intervention resources.

On the heels of a tragedy, there was a chance, with media coverage, a high-profile trial, and the Justice Verma Committee report, to begin a national dialogue about sorely needed cultural change in addressing violence against both women and those accused of crimes. Instead, in a country where court proceedings and policy decisions notoriously move at a snail's pace, both the Delhi rape case and related legal reforms were rushed to conclusion. The expedience hasn't rendered complete justice to the victim or her family, to women or their advocates, and perhaps not even to the defendants. The cheers for the death sentences handed out on Friday were simply reminders of these failures.