What remedy does justice prescribe for a "moral obscenity"?
That's the term Secretary of State John Kerry used to describe the Syrian regime's use of chemical arms last week. Few would quarrel with it. Government forces are reportedly culpable for an August 21 assault that, by some estimates, claimed some 1,300 lives. Still, the Obama administration must map out its next steps carefully. Words as strong as Kerry's demand strong deeds to match.
Punishing a moral obscenity flaccidly, with token military action, would constitute a diplomatic mistake of the first order. That's Negotiations Theory 101. Once you commit yourself publicly to some action, you have to keep that commitment or risk becoming a laughingstock. Failing to follow through disheartens your constituents and allies. And what adversary, present or future, will take you seriously the next time you want to coerce or deter? That's a reputation no political leadership should want.
Presidents from both parties have broken this simple rule. President Harry S. Truman, one of my favorite chief executives, was given to statements akin to Secretary Kerry's. For instance, Truman cast the Korean War as another great crusade to reverse aggression and stare down a totalitarian foe. But having portrayed the North Koreans and Chinese as communist equivalents of Adolf Hitler, he allowed the war to bog down in military stalemate and protracted armistice negotiations.
What kind of leader (asked Americans in effect) commits the nation to bloody combat against totalitarianism, then turns around and cuts a deal with the totalitarians? Small wonder the war, and Truman himself, hemorrhaged popular support by the time the 1952 elections rolled around.
Or, President Bush the Elder depicted Saddam Hussein as a latter-day Hitler. (I'm sensing a theme here.) Like Truman, Bush was able to marshal an international coalition to battle cross-border aggression. Repulsing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was wildly popular among the electorate, as was Bush himself. Until, that is, he let the latter-day Hitler survive with his regime intact, along with fighting forces sufficient to quash the rebellion that erupted in the closing days of Desert Storm. Folks back home soon wondered why the president hadn't "finished the job" he had begun.
You get the idea. Savvy diplomats and elected leaders are very sparing with absolute rhetoric. Not just the enemy but allies, friends, and bystanders around the world — not to mention ordinary citizens — measure their deeds by their words. No one wants to be known as the leader who fought for justice halfheartedly. Take it from Truman and Bush.