Rhetorical Questions

Tough talk couldn't have saved Ambassador Stevens.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

One argument heard lately is that by "apologizing for America," President Obama projected a weak image of America, thereby emboldening radical forces in the Muslim world to target American interests — and specifically American diplomats in Benghazi. Setting aside the question of whether Obama actually apologized for America, one may ask whether it is plausible that administration rhetoric could have such a consequences. Do mere words matter so much?

National level communications designed to influence as well as inform are often labeled "strategic." The classic formula offered by President Theodore Roosevelt was to "walk softly but carry a big stick." TR felt that actually brandishing the stick could be unnecessary and even counterproductive. The very possession of power should be sufficient to garner respect, whereas overt threats might make it more difficult for one’s adversary to back down under pressure. Roosevelt’s iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove approach successfully resolved a mounting crisis with the United Kingdom and Germany over their blockade of Venezuela in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine, and later helped garner him the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese war.

There are counter examples, where weak rhetoric may have emboldened adversaries. In the weeks before the outbreak of the war in Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a speech identifying American security interests in East Asia but failed to mention South Korea. Ever since, historians have speculated that this omission encouraged the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin, to give North Korea a green light to attack the South.

Similarly, in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration, observing Iraq’s military buildup opposite Kuwait, failed to clearly warn Saddam Hussein, either publicly or privately, against such an attack. Again, there are many who believe that such a warning might have caused Saddam to pull back. Of course, Saddam later proved remarkably unresponsive to much more explicit American threats — first to expel him from Kuwait, and then a decade later to invade and overthrow his regime.

Two factors affect the impact of strategic communication. First is the choice of audience; second is the juxtaposition of word and deed.

One might imagine that the target audience for foreign policy pronouncements would be foreign audiences, but in reality the domestic public is usually considered far more important. White House and State Department communications on topics that Americans care deeply about and follow closely will thus largely be tailored to them, even at some considerable cost to their efficacy abroad.

American rhetoric following 9/11 is a good case in point. The "global war on terror" played well with domestic audiences, even as this phrase turned off audiences everywhere else. Arguing in support of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s explanation that "we are fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here" was clearly not a message designed to appeal to an Iraqi audience. President Bush’s "freedom agenda" provided a domestically appealing rationale for that war, particularly important once the original rationale, weapons of mass destruction, evaporated. This message had but faint resonance among the Iraqi population and antagonized every other regime in that region, all of which were anti-democratic. "Bring ’em on," Bush’s visceral response to the growth of an insurgency in Iraq, was not designed to reassure the Iraqi people or even deter the Iraqi resistance, but rather to inspire a vigorous American counteraction.

These themes had their desired effect domestically, at least for a while, at the cost of making it more difficult for the United States to rally support from allies and friends in Iraq and elsewhere.

On entering office President Obama chose to hew closer to TRs’ advice. He dropped mention of a global war on terror while actually increasing strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Softer voice, bigger stick.

However one characterizes the strategic communications of the early Obama administration, there can be little doubt that by calibrating his messages more to foreign audiences, he increased regard for America around the globe, as confirmed in numerous opinion polls. This effect was particularly pronounced among America’s closest and most powerful allies, in Europe, but there was also a more positive view of Americans in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Domestically, however, he was criticized for apologizing for America, demonstrating the divergences between foreign and domestic reactions to the same content.

The effectiveness of Obama’s Middle East rhetoric became hobbled by the second factor mentioned above: the disjunction between promise and delivery. Early on, Obama promised renewed American efforts to promote peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors and a more even-handed approach to the two parties.

This effort bore little fruit and has since been abandoned, disappointing audiences throughout the Muslim world. Obama still polls higher there than did Bush, but lower than he did three years ago. Indeed, by the time of the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya had become, according to opinion polling, the most pro-American society in the Arab Middle East. This was a result not of Obama’s somewhat tepid pro-democracy rhetoric, but rather his irreplaceable military support of their revolution.

The populations in Middle Eastern countries more closely allied with Washington, such as Egypt, Jordan or even Turkey, have much more negative views of the United States. Thus whatever positive effect Obama’s early communication directed to this region had upon public opinion had, by 2012, been largely dissipated as a result of his failure to follow through on hopes he had earlier inspired. Negative public opinions in this region are going to become increasingly damaging to U.S. interests as popular governments responsive to those opinions take over from the "presidents for life" who have ruled Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria until recently.

So words do matter, but they can only have the desired effect if directed toward the right audience, and if accompanied over a sustained period by comparable deeds. Foreign governments and populations listen to what we say, but they also watch what we do and adjust their own actions accordingly, for better or worse.

As regards to the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi, it is as naïve to think that tougher U.S. rhetoric would have protected them as it is to believe that Bush’s "bring ’em on" challenge (for which he later expressed regret) could have deterred the Iraqi insurgents. What failed in Benghazi was deeds, not words — specifically, security precautions equal to the threat. Yet if security were the overriding consideration, Ambassador Stevens would never even have gone into Libya in the midst of its civil war as he did. One can consider Stevens a hero or a fool for running such risks, but it is inconsistent to celebrate him for taking these chances and castigate others for allowing him to do so.

James Dobbins is a senior fellow and distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation. He has held State Department and White House posts including assistant secretary of state for Europe, special assistant to the president for the Western Hemisphere, special adviser to the president, secretary of state for the Balkans, and ambassador to the European community. Dobbins has served on numerous crisis management and diplomatic troubleshooting assignments as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia for the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. In 2013, he returned to the State Department to become the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, returning to RAND in 2014.

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