One argument heard lately is that by "apologizing for America," President Obama projected a weak image of America, thereby emboldening radical forces in the Muslim world to target American interests -- and specifically American diplomats in Benghazi. Setting aside the question of whether Obama actually apologized for America, one may ask whether it is plausible that administration rhetoric could have such a consequences. Do mere words matter so much?
National level communications designed to influence as well as inform are often labeled "strategic." The classic formula offered by President Theodore Roosevelt was to "walk softly but carry a big stick." TR felt that actually brandishing the stick could be unnecessary and even counterproductive. The very possession of power should be sufficient to garner respect, whereas overt threats might make it more difficult for one's adversary to back down under pressure. Roosevelt's iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove approach successfully resolved a mounting crisis with the United Kingdom and Germany over their blockade of Venezuela in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine, and later helped garner him the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese war.
There are counter examples, where weak rhetoric may have emboldened adversaries. In the weeks before the outbreak of the war in Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a speech identifying American security interests in East Asia but failed to mention South Korea. Ever since, historians have speculated that this omission encouraged the Soviet Union's leader, Joseph Stalin, to give North Korea a green light to attack the South.
Similarly, in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration, observing Iraq's military buildup opposite Kuwait, failed to clearly warn Saddam Hussein, either publicly or privately, against such an attack. Again, there are many who believe that such a warning might have caused Saddam to pull back. Of course, Saddam later proved remarkably unresponsive to much more explicit American threats -- first to expel him from Kuwait, and then a decade later to invade and overthrow his regime.
Two factors affect the impact of strategic communication. First is the choice of audience; second is the juxtaposition of word and deed.
One might imagine that the target audience for foreign policy pronouncements would be foreign audiences, but in reality the domestic public is usually considered far more important. White House and State Department communications on topics that Americans care deeply about and follow closely will thus largely be tailored to them, even at some considerable cost to their efficacy abroad.
American rhetoric following 9/11 is a good case in point. The "global war on terror" played well with domestic audiences, even as this phrase turned off audiences everywhere else. Arguing in support of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration's explanation that "we are fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here" was clearly not a message designed to appeal to an Iraqi audience. President Bush's "freedom agenda" provided a domestically appealing rationale for that war, particularly important once the original rationale, weapons of mass destruction, evaporated. This message had but faint resonance among the Iraqi population and antagonized every other regime in that region, all of which were anti-democratic. "Bring 'em on," Bush's visceral response to the growth of an insurgency in Iraq, was not designed to reassure the Iraqi people or even deter the Iraqi resistance, but rather to inspire a vigorous American counteraction.