Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Memo to the President: Words Matter

Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.

The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”

If President Obama had spent more than two years in the Senate before taking a leave of absence to run for president, he might have come to understand just how important “nuance” is in diplomacy, how every word spoken by the president is parsed and weighed in chancelleries around the world. He might know how small slips can have big consequences. George Bush was savagely criticized after 9/11 for using the word “crusade,” without regard for how sensitive Muslims are about that word. In 1962 President Kennedy was very careful to call his deployment of the navy to prevent more missiles being delivered to Cuba a “quarantine,” rather than a “blockade,” for the latter is, explicitly, an act of war.

This would seem to be more evidence that the Obama presidency is in trouble. That “senior officials” in the White House are willing to talk under a cloak of anonymity about how the president blew it diplomatically and for the most liberal major newspaper in the country to make a big deal of it is not good news for the president.