SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday defended administration policy on Syria, which we have criticized as tepid in condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s barbarities.

Mr. Assad has been slaughtering Syrians for months. They have taken to the streets seeking freedom from the brutality and stagnation his dictatorship has delivered. He has unleashed tanks and, in his latest innovation, gunboats, which have fired on unarmed civilians in the port city of Latakia. By barring foreign press and stifling his own, Mr. Assad has managed to kill thousands with relatively little international attention. Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, his diplomats are tracking and intimidating Syrian expatriates in the United States and elsewhere who speak out against the regime.

The United States has condemned all this but with great caution. For weeks, as Mr. Assad gunned down his people, the administration held out the hope that he could yet become a reformer. It has not insisted that he leave office. President Obama has spoken in public about Mr. Assad’s depredations only twice in five months.

“I am a big believer in results over rhetoric,” Ms. Clinton explained Monday. She said the United States is orchestrating “a growing international chorus of condemnation.”

“You know, it’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she said. “Okay, fine, what’s next? If Turkey says it, if [Saudi] King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”

We agree that rhetoric unmoored from reality can be dangerous. It can leave the United States looking impotent; it can allow allies to duck their responsibilities; in worst cases, it can encourage people to take risks expecting assistance that is not forthcoming. Ms. Clinton’s behind-the-scenes efforts to rally an alliance for change in Syria could multiply the effects of actions, such as sanctions, the United States eventually takes.

But her formulation Tuesday understated the importance of U.S. leadership. It does not seem to be true, sadly, that the Assad regime will heed Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And it certainly would be news — foremost to people inside Syria — if the United States stated that Mr. Assad should go.

Over many decades moral support from the United States has been immensely important to people who take risks for freedom — to dissidents in prisons and protesters in the streets alike. It would be important again in this case, not because Syrians would expect U.S. intervention, but because they would know that they are not alone — that people lucky enough to live in freedom are watching and admiring and rooting for them.

Being clear on that could have practical benefits for U.S.-Syrian relations after the Assad regime falls. More important, it would reaffirm that America’s claim to a world leadership role is different from, say, China’s — that it is based in part on values and not just on self-interest.

Saudi Arabia’s repressive kingdom is never going to share those values. If the two nations can agree, for reasons of convenience, that Mr. Assad has to go, all the better. But Syrians should know that America feels that way, not (as in King Abdullah’s case) because Mr. Assad has become an inconvenient ally, but because their cause is just.