Secretary of State John Kerry is a master at it. In his opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, "Let me be clear: President Obama is not asking America to go to war."
Despite his reputation, Secretary Kerry is rigorously consistent he's anti-war when he's opposing a war and testifying against it in Congress, and he's anti-war when he's supporting a war and testifying for it in Congress.
All of this wordplay is profoundly unserious. The last time I checked, Jane's Defence Weekly doesn't set aside a special category for the BGM-109 Tomahawk as a "weapon of action." When you initiate hostilities against another country, when you blow up its buildings and military equipment and kill its officials and military personnel as will almost certainly happen here you are committing an act of war.
The unwillingness to admit as much speaks to the haze of ambivalence hanging over the proposed Syria strikes that goes to the very top. President Barack Obama can maintain an ironic detachment from almost everything: his own administration, his own country and now his own war. In Stockholm, he said: "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line." He further explained: "My credibility's not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line, and America and Congress' credibility is on the line."
You can understand what he's getting at there is an international norm against the use of chemical weapons that long predates President Obama, and the country's credibility is at stake, not just his own while still marveling at his evasiveness.
No one forced Obama to make his red-line warning to Syria; he did it all on his own. As for the international "community," quite a few of its members will be perfectly happy to see Bashar Assad suffer no consequences whatsoever.
Obama is clearly uncomfortable exercising American leadership. It forces him into all the same expedients that he once criticized, when it was George W. Bush resorting to them.
Leading means not letting balky allies define the limits of your actions. When Britain backed out of Syria, the president persisted. How times have changed. It used to be that if dozens of foreign countries signed onto a U.S. military intervention, but not France, we were "going it alone." Now, if we have a military coalition consisting exclusively of France, we are leading the world.
It means refusing to make a fetish of the United Nations. As soon as he took office, the president gave an achingly naive speech to the General Assembly in which he promised "a new chapter of international cooperation."
What did the president get for his good intentions? Nothing. He won't even bother trying to get the U.N.'s blessing for a Syria intervention.
It means, when necessary, turning to force. Not because you are a "cowboy." But because sometimes it is the only way to punish enemies and secure the nation's interests.
And it means communicating a sense of purpose and resolution. If Bush always did this, perhaps to a fault, Obama's mixed feelings are too flagrantly on display. His administration can't even call what it is proposing by its real name.