Advancing a Free Society

What we must do

Thursday, May 19, 2011

One striking characteristic of the President’s middle east speech was the prevalence of flat declarative statements of what “must” be done.  I counted thirty one instances of the President stating something must be done, or choices that must be made.  So “the Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators,” and “it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.”

If these demands sound contradictory, they are. Worse, though, is the degree to which the leader of the free world is making demands that he has outlined no means to achieve.  It’s generally bad policy to state such demands without giving a sense of the consequences for governments that choose to defy the action we are seeking to foster or coerce.  Vague threats tend not to compel compliance, can be misunderstood by both allies and enemies, and are much easier to disregard as vapid platitudes.  This is especially true across linguistic, cultural, and religious differences, say, in the case where an American president was trying to recast our foreign relations with the so-called Arab world.

To be fair to President Obama, thirteen of the instances in which he demanded something must be done applied to the United States government of which he is the Executive.  For instance, he said “I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions,” (although it must also be said that the President provided very little such translation in his speech).

In a speech purporting to “mark a new chapter in American diplomacy,” the President embraced the language of universal values championed so assertively by his predecessor.  What he did not embrace was the clarity of consequences for those who would defy him.

As the President really did say in his speech this morning, “we must proceed with a sense of humility.”  Not only did President Obama’s speech not convey humility, it also did not convey the consequences to those who use violence to repress values we hold to be self-evidently universal.  The many things he insists must be done are less likely to be done as a result.

(photo credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza)