The president of the United States is supposed to describe the world as it should be. That’s one of the jobs of the No. 1 honcho in the No. 1 country. He has to denounce repression and violence by a regime against its own people. Small-d democrats in the Levant need to hear that the United States supports their aspirations and sympathizes with their predicament. Whether such words will change anything in a practical sense is beside the point. If they give democrats and protesters encouragement, that is, for now, good enough. ~Michael Tomasky

In fact, the President is under no obligation to describe the world as it should be. It would be welcome and an interesting change of pace if we could simply get the President to see the world as it is. Properly speaking, he is the chief magistrate of a federal republic. He is not a cheerleader or motivational speaker for the world’s dissidents. Giving protesters encouragement without any intention of lending them real support is a good way to keep getting protesters killed.

“Speaking out” in support of protesters is a phony pledge of solidarity that America is with them, when they know full well that America is not with them. For all we know, some of the Syrians who rose up against Assad may have been under the mistaken impression that the intervention in Libya was proof that an outgunned, oppressed opposition could win outside support and aid if it faced a brutal crackdown. It’s also possible that Libya had nothing to do with it, but that doesn’t make empty rhetorical support any better. Lending false hope to opposition movements in Syria and elsewhere is not admirable or principled. It is much more like a cruel trick.

It hasn’t even been two months since the Libyan war started, and already we have people agitating for starting the same process all over again. When it seemed that Obama had no intention of ordering military attacks on Libya, critics argued that he had to back up his demand that Gaddafi “must go” with action. Soon enough, Obama opted for intervention, and continues to insist that Gaddafi “must go.” If Obama addresses the Syrian crackdown in his speech on Thursday, will he refrain from making grandiose statements about the regime’s legitimacy, or will he issue another demand for an end to the current regime? All signs currently point to the administration’s unwillingness to make that demand, which is why it may be better if Obama says nothing or as little as possible about Syria.

What Tomasky doesn’t address here is that ill-considered policies always begin with “taking a stand” rhetorically in public against another government. Denunciations change nothing, so soon enough there will be agitation for “actions, not words,” and then there will be calls for “more decisive action” until people begin promoting the unthinkable and ridiculous option of launching attacks on government forces. As pressure builds, the government eventually adopts increasingly aggressive and confrontational policies. What everyone acknowledged to be “madness” yesterday soon becomes an unavoidable matter of preserving our “credibility.”