Obama's Word Play

Jonah Goldberg
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Posted: Apr 11, 2009 11:04 AM

President Obama had a grand time in Europe. He wowed the press, met the queen, gave some wonderful news conferences and got virtually none of the major policy concessions he wanted. But he did do a lot of talking, for what that's worth.

And for Obama, that's worth a lot. During the campaign, then-Sen. Obama made it clear that he thought words meant a great deal. "Don't tell me words don't matter," Obama proclaimed. " 'I have a dream' -- just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' -- just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' -- just words? Just speeches?"

Give the man points for consistency. He has put rhetorical innovation on an equal footing with policy innovation. Exhibit A: "Overseas contingency operations." That's the Obama administration's term of choice to replace "the long war" or "the global war on terror." No doubt they were inspired by the famous Leo Tolstoy novel, "Overseas Contingency Operations and Cessation of Overseas Contingency Operations," later dumbed-down by the publisher to "War and Peace."

Janet Napolitano, head of Obama's Department of Homeland Security -- primarily created to deal with terrorist attacks in the wake of 9/11 -- has decided "terrorist attack" is too hard-edged. It's "man-caused disasters" now. "That is perhaps only a nuance," Napolitano explained to a German newsmagazine, "but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur."

Meanwhile, the White House has announced that prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will no longer be called "enemy combatants." No word yet on what the new term will be. No doubt the poetic euphony of "man-caused disasters" and "overseas contingency operations" sets a very high bar for Obama's Office of Euphemism Generation. But surely "Men Prone to Disaster Causation" or "Overseas Counter-Contingency Operators" are the most obvious choices. My friend Mark Steyn, however, suggests going another way: "Future Facebook Friends."

And that points to just one of the problems with the Obama administration's effort to use words to shape reality. It's morally tone-deaf. Maybe Napolitano is right about the need to bleed fear from our politics (a directive Obama didn't seem to have in mind when he suggested that failure to pass his budget would lead to catastrophe, er, man-caused disaster). But these phrases are morally meaningless. Public safety is an important government function, but, regardless of whether "war on terror" was the right term, it's surely wrong to use language better suited for a salmonella outbreak to describe a conflict with evil men who have American blood on their hands.

We've seen this before. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, famously declared that countries such as North Korea would no longer be called "rogue nations" but instead "states of concern," which sounded an awful lot like various poses from a photo shoot with Dr. Phil. One can hope that the problems that came with the Clinton administration's lawyerly approach to terrorism won't be replayed by this administration. President Clinton was very good at vowing to hunt down our enemies after terrorist attacks, but when he left the podium, he was more interested in how his comments played in polls and focus groups than what we were doing to catch the bad guys.

So far it's hard to say definitively how Clintonite Obama's approach really is. His approach toward Iraq and Afghanistan is better than his critics on the right expected and worse than his fans on the left hoped. Indeed, despite the change in jargon, in the war formerly known as "the war on terror," Obama's policies are shockingly in sync with Bush's.

However his policies turn out, it's clear that Obama still puts a great amount of stock in the power of words -- his words. In particular he continues to have a candidate's relish for denigrating George W. Bush and a left-wing academic fondness for finding fault with America. In Europe last week, he pledged more "humility" and apologized for America's "arrogance."

Similarly, as befits a very symbolic president, his administration enjoys symbolic gestures. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked on the Russians before the Group of 20 summit by giving them a giant red button with the word "reset" on it (or that was the plan; they used the wrong word in Russian). In a meeting with the Russian president, Obama followed up by lamenting the "drift" in Russian-American relations. Putting aside the oddness of giving a big red button to an antagonistic country with a boatload of nuclear weapons, it's still an odd tack to take with the Russians. After all, whatever mistakes the Bush administration may have made, Russia was hardly the aggrieved party. America didn't make Russia invade Georgia, aid Iran or crush democracy. President Bush famously, and naively, saw Vladimir Putin's soul in the Russian leader's eyes. Obama's naiveté may rest in his own belief that his words amount to some kind of Jedi mind trick.

Indeed, Obama spent the week telling Europeans everything they wanted to hear, but got little for it. The French and the Germans still belittled America's "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism and refused to follow our lead.

This might lead to a painful realization for Obama. While he may think words are everything, for our enemies and even our friends, words are -- still -- just words.