At the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt famously advised statesmen to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt assumed that the antithesis of his advice—loud threats without commensurate consequences—might be more attractive for politically-minded leaders than often unpopular and difficult action. Also implicit in Roosevelt’s advice was the presumption that if bluster or impotence could be dangerous for a leader, each multiplied the other in combination.
We still quote Roosevelt’s warning over a century later because, given universal human nature, most Presidents and Prime Ministers prefer bluster to concrete consequences—believing they can achieve policy objectives on the cheap through words rather than deeds.
For instance, during the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, President Jimmy Carter, before both a domestic and world stage, lectured, coaxed, and appeased the Iranian theocrats. He sometimes threatened them, and sometimes ruled out the use of force. All the while, he could never quite decide whether the deposed Shah had been an ally, neutral, friend, enemy, or simple embarrassment. After April 1980, when Carter had finally dispatched an undermanned, poorly planned rescue mission that failed miserably, the Ayatollah Khomeini boasted to the world, “America can’t do a damn thing.” And it apparently could not. By 1980, an op-ed in the liberal Boston Globe criticized a Carter speech with the headline, “More Mush From the Wimp.”
In contrast, in August 1981, Ronald Reagan, without much flamboyance, carefully warned the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization that their union demands were unrealistic, their strike contrary to federal law, and that they would all be summarily dismissed unless they returned to the work. The union, which had endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election, thought the mild-mannered new president was bluffing. Most Americans did too. But he wasn’t. Over 11,000 union strikers were fired—and for years banned from working as government air traffic controllers. The union was decertified. Reagan was willing to face air travel disruption and furious criticism to establish the larger principle that public unions should not bully the federal government. Here or abroad, he was rarely again thought to be bluffing.
Most presidents are more resolute than Jimmy Carter and less firm than Reagan. George W. Bush, for example, meant what he said about the unpopular surge of troops into Iraq, which eventually quelled the violence of 2007-08. Yet in July 2003, when he taunted jihadists with, “Bring ’em on” at the start of the Iraqi insurgency, such braggadocio was not always followed by firm consequences. For example, the April 2004 abrupt pullback from the siege of Fallujah only fuelled greater violence.
Unfortunately, after nearly five years in office, both President Obama’s foreign rivals and his domestic critics bet that his often saber-rattling rhetoric is mostly show. The more animated it sounds, the more observers assume that presidential tough talk will yield to American indecisiveness.
Take the issue of Iranian nuclear proliferation. On five occasions, Obama has thundered that the Iranian effort to produce a nuclear weapon was unacceptable. He had announced deadlines for Iran to desist by September 2009, again by October, and then at year’s end in 2009. His fourth deadline for Iran to come clean was supposed to be January 2010. A fifth soon followed. Since then, Obama has repeatedly stated that Iran’s proliferation was “unacceptable.” One wonders why, and to whom?
By early 2012, Obama maintained that he doesn’t bluff, yet by September 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed troubled enough by the empty rhetoric to remind the world that, “The United States of America is not setting deadlines.” Almost immediately after, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added the qualifier that, “it is not useful to be… setting deadlines one way or the other [or] red lines.”
The same, predictable pattern followed with the unrest in Syria. In early April 2011, a month after an uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad began, Obama ordered Assad to stop the “abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters.” A few days later, Obama tried again, advising Assad to “change course now.”
By July, Obama had announced that the Syrian president had “lost legitimacy.” Later in August 2011, Obama talked of a transition to democracy in Syria. The same month, Obama upped his rhetoric even further by now demanding that Assad leave, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Then for most of the next year, Obama met with foreign leaders, and summarized his talks with demands that the Syrian government cease its violence, that Assad leave, and that any use of chemical weapons would earn a swift American response.
By March 2012, Obama gathered the Group of Eight at Camp David, where they collectively announced an ultimatum for political change in Syria. In July 2012, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice announced that the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria were both “dangerous and deplorable.”
The same month, Obama again threatened Assad, predicting that the dictator would be held accountable should he make the “tragic mistake” of using chemical weapons. For much of 2012, more redlines were drawn over the Syrian use of WMD. In a December 3 speech at the National Defense University, Obama summed up, “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
But by April 2013, in response to rumors of chemical weapons use, Obama was still warning that the Syrians use of WMD would be a “game changer.” Since then, Obama has further warned Syria about chemical weapons while debating whether the sporadic use of them constituted defiance of one of the redlines he drew.
The terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, like the Iranian nuclear program and the Assad regime, also earns frequent presidential tough talk. In January 22, 2009, the newly inaugurated President Obama promised to close Guantánamo Bay within one year: to “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism.”
Yet in the summer of 2009, Obama granted a six-month extension to his newly formed Guantánamo closing commission. That delay lasted for nearly two years, as the President signed various executive orders, creating new review processes for detainees, “to establish, as a discretionary matter, a process to review on a periodic basis the executive branch’s continued, discretionary exercise of existing detention authority in individual cases.”
By April 2011, Obama ordered terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed back to Guantanamo. In the words of The Washington Post, that decision marked “the effective abandonment of the president's promise to close the military detention center.” If, in January 2013, the State Department finally closed the office of the envoy for shutting down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Obama nonetheless reiterated in his recent Berlin speech that he would be “redoubling our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo.”
After years of such bluster about Guantanamo, Iran, and Syria, few are any longer listening. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, before a supposedly private audience, recently complained that the president risks appearing like “a total wuss” over his inaction in Syria. The president frequently adds familiar emphatics like “make no mistake about it,” “in point of fact,” and “let me be perfectly clear” that in paradoxical fashion serve as tip-offs that consequences will not follow his tough rhetoric.
More recently, both China and Russia feel comfortable ignoring American requests to extradite the 29-year-old leaker Edward Snowden, who fled to their respective jurisdictions after making public the National Security Agency’s most sensitive protocols. Apparently neither took seriously Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama when both blustered for his immediate return, and then, when rebuffed, downplayed Snowden’s significance.
It was not Neville Chamberlain alone who earned Winston Churchill’s disdain for empty talk. Much earlier in 1936, Churchill had found that the government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had proven impotent. As Churchill put it, “So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years—precious, perhaps, vital, to the greatness of Britain, for the locusts to eat.” His point was that empty bluster is worse even than silence, assuring the enemy of habitual inaction, while lulling domestic constituencies to believe that readiness is assured.
What accounts for the great divide between Obama’s version of Stanley Baldwin’s lion roars and his pussy-cat follow ups? Obama’s teleprompted eloquence is not the culprit. Jimmy Carter was a dismal speaker and yet gave the same empty moral sermons and serial threats to his perceived enemies. In contrast, Ronald Reagan was a stellar speaker who preferred action to talk.
Obama’s background as a long-time student, lawyer, law lecturer, and politician has led him to live in a world of words rather than of those concrete consequences found more often in the private sector or in the landscape of the self-employed. Obama also talks grandly of world citizenry and the primacy of the United Nations as global negotiator. Accordingly, his speeches do not appreciate that friction and disputes are innate to human character.
Nor does the president grasp that one party to an argument is usually more culpable than the other, and encouraged in its aggression by a perceived lack of consequences. In the world of Barack Obama, what the Nobel Committee says—awarding Obama with a Peace Prize for his good intentions rather than past diplomatic achievements—should have some currency with a Bashar Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Vladimir Putin.
For Obama, disagreement is a product of misunderstanding or miscommunication, and therefore resolved when reasonable people assemble to talk out and split their differences, particularly if encouraged by a sonorous megaphone. The president seems oblivious that the Iranian theocracy is a mostly evil regime that wishes to stockpile nuclear weapons to carve out a greater Middle East theocratic hegemony at the expense of Western allies, or that Bashar Assad assumes, perhaps rightly, that he can cling to power by killing tens of thousands of his opponents, or that foreign leaders are not so much concerned that Guantanamo Bay is shut down as they are observant of whether its continuance or closure follow immediately from Obama’s promises.
After five years of empty loquacity and procrastination, the world—in scary places like Iran, Syria, Russia, China, and North Korea—has caught on that when Obama pontificates about a redline or a deadline, these are mere suggestions for further discussion and hardly guaranteed by the power of an unpredictable and dangerous United States.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-three books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book is The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost - from Ancient Greece to Iraq (Bloomsbury 2013). He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.