During the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week on the Iran nuclear deal, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) addressed Secretary of State Kerry about the lack of enforcement of Iran sanctions since the election of Iranian President Rouhani. Sherman said there were “dozens and dozens” of companies sanctioned in the first half of this year, but only one designation since June; he said he hoped we were not “slow-walking things” on account of Rouhani. Two days later, the State Department sanctioned 19 new people or companies, with a press release saying this showed the administration will “relentlessly enforce” existing sanctions.
Relentlessly! The State Department was using the magic Obama codeword — the one that strikes fear in the hearts of foreign foes, domestic criminals, and opponents of the Miami Heat.
Two weeks after the U.S. ambassador (the personal representative of the president under the law) was murdered on 9/11/12, along with three other Americans, in an organized terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, President Obama appeared before the assembled representatives of the world at the UN. He called the attacks “an assault on America” and promised we would be “relentless in tracking down the killers.” This reflected a long-standing Obama principle: back in May 2011, a year-and-a-half before Benghazi, the president said “we will never…stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens.”
As for criminals, this year President Obama nominated Kenneth Polite, Jr. to be U.S. attorney in Louisiana. In a press release, the president said he was confident Mr. Polite “will be relentless in his pursuit of justice.” In 2012, Mr. Obama nominated John S. Leonardo as U.S. attorney for Arizona; the president said he was confident Judge Leonardo “will be relentless in his pursuit of justice.” In 2011, he nominated George L. Beck to be U.S. attorney for Alabama; Mr. Obama said it was because of Mr. Beck’s “diligence and relentless pursuit of justice.” In 2010, Mr. Obama nominated David Fein and Timothy Purdon and later Charles Oberley as U.S. attorneys. Can you guess what the President was confident of in all three cases, as well as seven others?
This past June, President Obama called the head coach of the Miami Heat to congratulate them on their second consecutive NBA championship. The White House issued a “Readout of the President’s Call with the Miami Heat,” stating the president told the coach he looked forward to congratulating the team at the White House, and had conveyed the following observation:
On the call, the President noted the Heat’s relentless determination in what was an historic season for the team and their MVP, LeBron James.
The relentless use of “relentless” began in 2009, when the president nominated John Kammerzell, Mark Martinez, and Stephen James Smith to be U.S. Marshals in Colorado, Nebraska and Georgia. The president noted all three had been “relentless in their pursuit of justice.” Later that year, he nominated John Gibbons and Robert Heun as U.S. marshals who, the president said, “will be relentless in their pursuit of justice.” In 2011, Robert Mueller was re-nominated as FBI director because of his “relentless commitment to the rule of law,” and in 2013 James Comey was nominated as Mueller’s successor, and was introduced by the president as a “relentless attorney.”
Perhaps the conclusion is clear enough without also citing the times President Obama has used “relentless” to describe his focus on job creation, or his efforts to stop the Gulf Coast oil spill, or in connection with numerous other situations. The word is a verbal tic, an adjective routinely applied to whatever the president is talking about, often used to persuade people of something that may be more rhetorical than real. Indeed, as in the case of Benghazi, it may be a lie.
President Obama established himself early on as the “words matter” presidential candidate (using borrowed words), and he has relentlessly employed unequivocal rhetorical statements: telling people they could keep their insurance if they liked it; establishing a “red line” in Syria that could not be crossed without “enormous consequences”; declaring two years ago that Assad “had to go”; repeatedly assuring everyone that “all options are on the table” regarding Iran.
But Americans who liked their insurance policies lost them anyway. The guy who had to go, got to stay. The red line was repeatedly crossed and the consequences for the guy who crossed it was he remained in power, free to keep killing more than 100,000 of his citizens as long as he used conventional means. Iran marched on towards its goal, while credulous commentators thought Obama must mean what he said about all options on the table, because he said it so many times. Relentless repetition was taken as a sign of credibility.
But the coin of presidential credibility has been debased, as relentless repetition has proven an unreliable indicator of the truth. Will the administration relentlessly enforce the existing Iran sanctions — even after Iran sent a shot across the bow in response to the State Department announcement, effectively warning the president that the slow-walking better resume if he wants to keep the Joint Plan of Action in Our Time going?
Who knows? It all depends on what the meaning of “relentless” is, assuming it has any meaning at all.