- Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats
Scholars have long been trying to drive a stake through the heart of one of the last century's most enduring legacies—Munich. The latest to grip the hammer is Daryl Press, and his well-argued (and commendably concise) book should be required reading for historians and policy wonks alike. Calculating Credibility compares two principal theories of crisis decisionmaking: "past actions" (i.e., Munich), and "current calculus." The first is reputational—does country X stand tall or fold when the chips are down? The second ignores this question and looks at whether country X has both vital interests at stake and sufficient military power to assure a successful outcome. Press acknowledges that he is following in the footsteps of other scholars who have attempted (without much success) to convince policymakers that potential adversaries will look well beyond past behavior when judging the degree of national resolve in a crisis. He is most indebted to—and therefore at pains to distance himself from—Jonathan Mercer, whose Reputation and International Politics (published in 1996) blended deterrence theory with social psychology to outline the bifurcated nature of crisis decisionmaking: while leaders fret about their own nation's reputation, they usually take a broader view of their potential adversaries that encompasses geopolitical interests and military power. Mercer's case studies were from the pre–World War I period; Press tests his competing theories against the European crises of 1938–39 and a series of Cold War confrontations over Berlin in the late 1950s and early 1960s, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis. His research is exemplary and the footnotes contain a wealth of useful commentary, reflecting diligent mining of the prewar archives of the European powers as well as a vast array of Cold War documentary sources and the flood of recent memoirs and declassified transcripts of President Kennedy's famous "ExComm," debating U.S. options in the 1962 crisis.
Press (like Mercer) clearly wishes U.S. policymakers would disabuse themselves of the idea that our credibility is on the line each and every time we are provoked. But the problem with "current calculus" is that every now and then—perhaps more often of late—U.S. policymakers encounter foreign leaders who inexplicably miscalculate Washington's resolve, often bolstered by military estimates that are wildly off the mark. Press's well-researched case studies are too few and perhaps too distant in time. No one can question his conclusion that despite the rhetoric, Hitler was listening to his generals and making sound decisions about the balance of power during the 1938 crises and the 1939 showdown over Poland. (Press skillfully dismisses the significance of one of Hitler's most famous remarks: "Our enemies are worms. I saw them in Munich.") Moving beyond these cases we can further stipulate that the decision to invade the U.S.S.R. was not irrational—in 1941 Germany was in a "two-front war" in name only, given how little military force was needed to keep England at arm's length. But what calculus [End Page 565] accounts for Hitler's decision to declare war on the United States, whose belated entry into the last war had decisively tipped the balance against Germany? In the Far East, what was the reasoning of Tojo and the Japanese warlords in turning a successful regional hegemony-in-the-making into a direct challenge to the United States? Can these decisions reflect anything but judgments about American resolve that were far removed from reality, not to mention lacking any sober assessment of military potential?
More recently, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic were, to all appearances, influenced more by reputational thinking than military calculations. Both invoked Vietnam in their rhetoric, and Saddam also cited the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Perhaps one can excuse Saddam, who was, after all, not alone in believing that his army could inflict enough casualties on the...