Is It War or Not? Not-So-Lucid Language from Kerry and RiceConcha: Is It War or Not? Not-So-Lucid Language from Kerry and Rice
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell
When watching and listening to senior members of the Obama Administration attempt to explain away the mission the president laid out regarding ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Orwell’s perspective on clear language comes to mind.
Another more modern saying comes to mind as well: “You can’t kinda get a girl pregnant.”
So when we hear the Secretary of State or the National Security Advisor speak about U.S. objectives concerning ISIS–which now controls a land mass equal to Belgium or Maine–clarity isn’t exactly the first impression being made.
Example A) CNN’s Elise Labott to John Kerry during a Wednesday interview in Saudi Arabia:
Labott: “Are we at war with ISIS?”
Kerry: “I think that’s the wrong terminology. What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation. It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”
Example B) Susan Rice with Wolf Blitzer on Thursday:
Blitzer: “I’ll start with a simple question: Is the United States at war right now with ISIS?”
Rice: “Well, Wolf, as the President said very clearly last night, we’re going to do what’s necessary to degrade and, ultimately, destroy ISIL and so, that’s going to entail a comprehensive approach.”
Rice’s answer goes on for another 30 seconds, but Blitzer cuts through the nuance to ask again for a yes or no answer.
Blitzer: “It sounds like a war to me. Is it fair to call it a war?”
Rice: “Well, Wolf, I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign or I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. We will not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war.”
So add it all up: ISIS has–according to intelligence reports–up to 31,500 fighters. This includes as many as 2000 Westerners and more than 100 Americans. It controls Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. The U.S. has over 1000 ground troops there and will add 475 more per the president’s speech. Said troops may be there as advisers/trainers and not be on the front lines, but will be in harm’s way regardless (suicide bombers or missionaries infiltrating Iraqi military ranks like the Taliban one who killed a U.S. general recently in Afghanistan, for example). We will “degrade and destroy” ISIS for a substantial period of time (Pentagon estimates put this timetable at at least three years). The president was very clear in his speech Wednesday night: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
If it walks like a war and talks like a war, isn’t it therefore war?
So why the reluctance to call it that? Because Mr. Obama’s legacy (the guy who ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and brought all of our men and women home) is still playing a major role in the language officials like Kerry and Rice are being instructed to use. But legacies aren’t something controlled very easily. NBC’s Tom Brokaw made that clear during a Thursday appearance on Ronan Farrow’s MSNBC program:
“We all have to remember that with that speech last night, he has defined his presidency. If it succeeds, he will be a different kind of president remembered than if it fails. He has two more years in office and he said repeatedly that this is going to take a long time, so I think it will preoccupy him for the next two years.”
So despite being a president seemingly annoyed by foreign affairs because of the distractions they caused in his goal of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” (his words), according to seasoned guys like Brokaw–who has worked at the highest levels of media since being an NBC White House Correspondent while Nixon was in office–his legacy becomes not Obamacare, not a level-playing-field economic-policy, not saving GM and killing Bin Laden…but Iraq.
That’s what one calls ironic.
In the meantime, we’ll hear the president and his team use ISIL when everyone else is using ISIS (as if one percent of the population can even answer correctly what either acronym means); we’ll hear about not being at war despite all the bombing and killing inside the borders of two countries involving a 30,000+ army in a war/comprehensive-counterinsurgency-campaign that will likely last into the next presidency.
Because when there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
Or… like kinda getting a girl pregnant.
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