Commentary Magazine


Statesmanship 101

There isn’t a lot more to say about the bizarre quality of President Obama’s reference this week to America remaining a dominant military power “whether we like it or not.”

But it is worth noting how far this formulation diverges from the customs of responsible statesmanship. Comments of this kind belong in seminar discussions and spitball sessions, not in the public addresses of national leaders.

A national leader’s job is to communicate his nation’s intentions and interests, and to reinforce, when necessary, what the nation can be relied on to do. There is no need even to use words like “dominant military power.” That’s a theoretical description; a wonk’s expression. What a president should be stating is what America’s policy is. Instead, Obama has offered an explanation for our interest in reducing conflict overseas that can only come across as cynical and gratuitously insulting. Such conflicts, he laments, inevitably draw us, the dominant military power, into them.

The urge to editorialize is something effective statesmen rigorously suppress; their least-scripted comments align with the policies they advocate in official settings. Obama shouldn’t even utter words that dilute and detract from his message about America’s intentions. In the end, no one cares whether this president “gets” the irony and ambivalence attendant on national greatness. What will matter is the effect his words produce in the lives of millions. Perpetual consciousness of that is indeed a strain. It means setting a guard on one’s tongue every waking moment. But as we say in the military: that’s what we pay him the big bucks for.

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