From Past Presidents, the Language of Certainty in an Uncertain World

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Marco Werman: As we near the time tonight when President Obama will speak directly to Americans about Syria, let's hear the words of three previous presidents, all of them making the case for engagement abroad.

Ronald Reagan: While it's true Lebanon is a small country more than five and a half thousand miles from our shores, on the edge of what we call the Middle East. But every president who has occupied this office in recent years has recognized that peace in the Middle East is of vital concern to our nation.

Bill Clinton: We have to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive. We act to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results.

George W. Bush: US intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Inspectors recently turned up 16 of them, despite Iraq's recent declaration denying their existence. Saddam Hussein has not accounted for the remaining 29,984 of these prohibited munitions. He's given no evidence that he has destroyed them.

Werman: President George W. Bush there, and before him Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. The World's language editor Patrick Cox is here, and Patrick, what do you hear in those presidential pitches?

Patrick Cox: Well, above all I hear a rhetoric of certainty in the face of uncertainty. The problem for Obama is two-fold, it seems to me. One is that the narrative of Syria keeps shifting, as we've heard, and secondly, the most recent precedent of that rhetoric of certainty is George W. Bush and Iraq, and we all know what happened to the certainty that Iraq was harboring all of those weapons of mass destruction. So the Obama foreign policy team has been trying to airbrush George W. Bush and Iraq out of the debate. In fact, they've been citing Reagan and Clinton in particular as presidents who oversaw very limited attacks against foreign powers. Here's national security advisor Susan Rice making that argument.

Susan Rice: President Reagan conducted air strikes measured in hours against Libya in 1986. President Clinton conducted several days of cruise missile strikes against Iraq in 1998. No two military actions are identical, but these previous engagements are proof that the United States is fully capable of conducting limited, defined, and proportional military actions without getting enmeshed in a drawn-out conflict.

Werman: Susan Rice. And I guess that's always the hope ahead of time, right, Patrick, not getting enmeshed? Who wants to hear the words either enmeshed or quagmire at this point?

Cox: Right, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It didn't always work for Presidents Reagan or Clinton. The term "mission creep" meaning the broadening of a mission beyond the original intent, well, it started being used to describe the US mission in Somalia in 1991, just a year before Clinton became president. And when Clinton expanded that mission, mission creep was used a whole lot more. Today it's almost a clice it's used so much. Let me leave you with just one more piece of audio. This one is back to Ronald Reagan after the US invasion of Grenada in the Caribbean. It's the kind of speech, again, with this tone of certainty that perhaps Barack Obama would hope to be making a few weeks from now.

Reagan: In these last few days, I have been more sure than I have ever been that we Americans of today will keep freedom and maintain peace. I have been made to feel that by the magnificent spirit of our young men and women in uniform, and by something here in our nation's capital. In this city where political strife is so much a part of our lives, I've seen Democratic leaders in the Congress join their Republican colleagues to send a message to the world that we're all Americans before we're anything else, and when our country is threatened, we stand shoulder to shoulder in support of our men and women in the armed forces.

Werman: President Ronald Reagan speaking to the nation in 1983. And thanks to The World's language editor Patrick Cox. That's our program today. This special edition of The World focused entirely on Syria came to you from the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH in Boston. I'm Marco Werman. Thank you for being with us.