Nikolas Gvosdev comments on the continuing mismatch between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and its actions:
Part of the problem is the whiplash that is generated when U.S. statements are considered together in their entirety. A crisis in some part of the world is first described as a present or future major threat to the U.S. requiring decisive action. But then all sorts of limitations on what the U.S. is prepared to do are loudly trumpeted to the American people: no direct U.S. involvement or “boots on the ground,” only indirect support and “leading from behind.” Meanwhile someone else is expected to take to the front lines to deal with the impending crisis.
However, we no longer live in a media world strictly segmented into “domestic” and “international” messages. Senior U.S. officials often use platforms to make statements intended for internal consumption, yet these messages can be just as easily accessed and processed by non-American audiences. When a sound bite is made that suggests that a particular policy is about increasing exports and keeping American workers employed, or that the U.S. has no intention of putting its own ground forces in harm’s way to deal with a particular security challenge, it generally finds its way into the international media environment. Foreign governments then question why U.S. leaders insist that a particular problem is so urgent, yet seem unwilling to commit American blood or treasure to the enterprise. This, in turn, leads to reluctance on the part of allies or partners to make large commitments of their own.
Some of this confusion results from the administration’s attempts to placate the people in Washington demanding “action” while simultaneously reassuring a much more skeptical public that the “action” will have some well-defined limits. The public doesn’t believe these assurances for good reason, and the attempt to place even temporary limits on an intervention encourages politicians and pundits in Washington to start agitating for more aggressive measures. Allies and clients will choose to give more weight to one or the other of these messages, but they will also be ready to use the message intended for the Washington crowd to try to extract a larger U.S. commitment than the administration is prepared to make. Hawkish members of Congress will be only too glad to cooperate in pressuring the administration into a larger commitment, and thanks to careless rhetoric from Obama and his officials the administration will find itself gradually being trapped into making that larger commitment.
This is why it is especially unfortunate that Obama feels compelled to reiterate how indispensable the U.S. is. He may really believe this or not, but he keeps saying it so often because he knows that is what interventionists in D.C. and allied and client governments want to hear him say. Whenever he says something like this, as he did again in his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, he is telling hawkish critics at home that he accepts their assumptions about the necessity and desirability of U.S. “leadership” expressed through military action, and he is confirming to allies and clients that the U.S. will be doing most or all of the heavy lifting. That doesn’t happen because the U.S. has to do these things, but because the administration keeps choosing to do them, and it chooses to do them at least partly to stop allies and clients from whining and to deprive hawkish critics of a talking point.
Gvosdev offers some suggestions on how to avoid falling into this trap. Here is one that I fully endorse:
First, the Obama team must become much more comfortable with “not commenting” on developments, accepting the inevitable short-term slings of pundits and political opponents in the domestic media as a price for retaining greater maneuverability on the world stage.
Obama would like have saved himself an enormous amount of grief over the years if he and his officials didn’t quickly respond to foreign events and crises with statements that seem to commit the U.S. to a certain outcome or that pass judgment on the legitimacy of foreign governments. Obama and other U.S. officials need to get out of the habit of issuing imperatives and ultimatums in their public statements, which have been casually thrown around in many of the more significant crises of the last few years. If the U.S. has no real intention of trying to compel another government to do certain things (and it is often wise not to try), the president and other officials shouldn’t be declaring publicly what that government “must” do. More often than not, the other government will correctly view this as a demand that won’t be backed up by anything and will act as it likes. That then puts the administration in the ridiculous position of trying to play catch up and to make good on an implied threat that it should never have made. This is all the more indefensible when the administration seems to be making these demands largely to prove to its domestic hawkish critics that it is responding to a crisis with “strength.” Inevitably, the hawkish critics are never satisfied, and then the U.S. is stuck with rhetorical commitments that no one in the administration seriously thought through because they were intended as throwaway lines for the benefit of domestic consumption.