Walter Russell Mead thinks Obama misunderstands “what rhetoric is and what it can do,” but then includes this complaint that Obama didn’t offer up even more useless rhetoric in response to Iranian election protests:
Eight days later, on the night of June 12, demonstrations broke out in a major Islamic country in protest against the blatant vote-rigging of a presidential election. From the White House: first several days of silence, then on June 17 came this less-than-inspirational remark from the president: “It is not productive, given the history of U.S. and Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling in Iranian elections.” In other words, never mind: U.S. policy toward democracy in the Islamic world is still driven solely by national interest.
Mead is contrasting the rhetoric of Obama’s Cairo speech with his handling of the protests in Iran to say that Obama doesn’t take his own words seriously enough, but this is not very persuasive. Mead must realize that no administration is going to pursue a consistent, ideologically democratist line in response to foreign protests, and he would probably fault them for doing so if they did, so what we have here is little more than a generic complaint that political leaders engage in hyperbole. The reference to the Iran protests is an interesting one for Mead to make, since it has been a standard line from Iran hawks that Obama’s failure in 2009 was that he did not “speak out” more “forcefully” in support of the protesters. In that case, it has been critics of Obama’s response to the protests that have invested presidential rhetoric with magical powers that it couldn’t possibly possess, and they have been the ones to indulge in a fantasy that if only Obama had lent them more rhetorical backing the outcome might have been significantly different. Since there were no constructive actions that Obama could take in support of the protesters, Iran hawks were openly calling for Obama to substitute rhetoric for action, and they became incensed because he didn’t.
Obama has erred in making statements on foreign events that he didn’t need to make, thereby committing himself in public to supporting certain outcomes that would require significantly different policies from the ones that he apparently wanted to pursue. On Syria, he reportedly declared the “red line” on chemical weapons as something of a throwaway line, and he issued the statement that Assad “must go” on the assumption that the U.S. would never be expected to make good on the implied threat he had just made. The problem with Obama’s use of rhetoric isn’t that he has tried to substitute rhetoric for action in most cases, but that he has been rather careless with how he has used language. As a result, he has ended up trapping himself with public statements whose implications he didn’t seem to consider fully before making them.