President Ronald Reagan's speeches regarding the Soviet Union were stark and clear. He declared the Soviet empire "evil," and demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down" the Berlin Wall. Given that that the Soviet empire in one form or another had been in existence for more than six decades at the time of Reagan's speeches, one could argue that his rhetoric was extreme. For in international affairs, with longevity usually comes legitimacy. But because his speeches were simple, they carried the benefit of being impossible to misinterpret. And because they were impossible to misinterpret, the Washington bureaucracy -- State Department and otherwise -- could find no subtleties inside his speeches that they could willfully twist to serve their own varied agendas. Thus, a rarity occurred in Washington: The administration down to the lowest level often spoke in one voice. And because it spoke in one voice, the effect of Reagan's foreign policy was magnified -- and was, therefore, a factor in the collapse of the Soviet empire that began only a year after Reagan left office.
Of course, most administrations in recent American history do not meet the rhetorical standard of the Reagan White House's stringent chain-of-command approach. But they came close. George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker III, was a model of tight-lipped control and restraint in his public utterances. Listening to Baker you knew that there was little distance between the State Department and the White House. And while the elder Bush's Defense Department under Dick Cheney and his undersecretary for policy, Paul Wolfowitz, was more hawkish than Baker's team at State, the distance between the two was still reasonably measured. The elder Bush ran a disciplined operation. And the rhetoric demonstrated that.
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.