Of course under the younger Bush, the rhetorical distance between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell was vast, reflecting the utter lack of coherence in George W. Bush’s foreign policy team. Bush had one saving grace, though. He did speak with clarity and his words often enough matched his actions, for better or for worse.
Under President Bill Clinton there were certain rhetorical tensions. Defense Secretary William Cohen was more reticent about intervention in the Balkans than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But the two did not clash and overall worked well together. Albright warned Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic again and again to stop grossly violating the human rights of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo without taking action, so much so that she was criticized in the media for undermining the credibility of the United States. And yet, Albright eventually did convince the administration to act, backing up her words. The NATO-led war against Serbian transgressions in Kosovo in the spring of 1999 soon enough vindicated Albright’s rhetoric.
By any of the above standards of rhetoric, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have fallen short. Obama threatened to act militarily against Syrian President Bashar al Assad if the latter deployed chemical weapons against civilians, thus declaring a red line. When al Assad actually killed a substantial number of civilians with such weapons, Obama moved warships close to the Syrian coast and Kerry delivered a Sturm und Drang speech packed with illustrative detail about the chemical attack. It was the kind of speech you give hours before a significant number of American ground troops or a substantial volley of missiles is about to descend upon Syria. None did. Nor was a plane or a missile launched. Then Obama quickly backtracked, saying he needed congressional approval before taking action, even though he clearly didn’t. White House and State Department rhetoric had thus ascended the heights of indiscipline. To be sure, the Russian diplomatic intervention arrived only as it began to become clear that Obama and his top diplomat were never altogether serious in the first place about what they had, in fact, declared in public.