Twenty-one years ago this summer, Bill Clinton was criss-crossing the United States, campaigning for president and denouncing the White House for its failure to stop the Bosnian war. In July 1992 he spoke of the "renegade regime" in Serbia, called on the United Nations to tighten sanctions and, after the publication of particularly harrowing photographs from a Serbian concentration camp, declared that Americans must do "whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians." If elected, he declared, he would begin "with air power against the Serbs."
Alas, Clinton had not, at that point, learned about the power of language or about the ways in which an American president's words can be interpreted around the world. What seemed like mere campaign rhetoric to him—"renegade regime," "whatever it takes"—seemed like a promise to those who were fighting. Croats and Muslims took heart, remained wary of peace talks and kept fighting—on the assumption that the new American administration would come to their rescue.
They were to be disappointed: What was useful to Candidate Clinton was problematic to President Clinton, who spent the next several years delaying and postponing until major diplomatic and then military intervention became clumsily inevitable. One analyst of the war described the Clinton administration's early policy in Bosnia as: "to pronounce on principle, prevaricate in practice and pre-empt the policies and plans of others."
Fast-forward two decades, and another American administration is in a remarkably similar position. To be clear: The central problem of the Obama administration's Syria policy is not that the president has failed to use military force but that both the president and his top officials have implied that they might use force, then backed away, then once again picked up the rhetoric. To put it bluntly, President Obama has also failed to understand the ways in which an American president's words will be interpreted around the world.
For example, in August 2011 Obama declared: "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." To Syrians fighting on the ground, that may have sounded like a promise that U.S. military support, or at least substantial military aid, was imminent. Neither was forthcoming. This past June, the White House authorized the CIA to begin arming some of the Syrian rebels. This sounded even more like a promise, but as of last week that aid also had yet to arrive.
The president famously declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons constituted a "red line" in Syria. But now that the red line has been crossed, the president has decided he needs congressional support before he can respond. This is perfectly legitimate—but shouldn't it have been obtained earlier, at the time the promise was made? Certainly the Syrian regime interpreted the U.S. president's sudden and unexpected desire for congressional support as a "historic American retreat." Its media gloated accordingly.
If you wanted to do so, you could read something sinister into these tactics. Perhaps, some unnamed officials suggested to the Wall Street Journal this week, these delays and sudden changes are intentional: Perhaps the administration's point is to "tilt" the fighting away from Assad but to prevent an outright rebel victory—in other words, to prolong the war. If so, this administration is even more ruthlessly cynical than its critics have maintained, and Syrian conspiracy theorists are right on the mark.
But whether or not that is true hardly matters because the effect is the same: As happened in Bosnia, American pontification, prevarication and postponement in Syria have pre-empted the policies of others and delayed negotiations. The civil war continues. With every month the devastation increases, the refugees multiply and the levels of political extremism rise. Back in June, the Group of 8 called for "urgent" peace talks. But there are no negotiations to speak of, in part because the Syrian rebels continue to hang on for Western military support that always seems to be just around the corner and never quite materializes.
Two decades ago, five years ago and today, the source of the problem is the same: The president of the United States wishes to represent things— justice, fairness, international norms—that he cannot, or will not, or doesn't know how to defend in practice. In the future, it would be far more just, and far less cruel, for the president, and the rest of us, simply to say nothing at all.