Paul Greenberg

Yet our secretary of defense, who's developed a bad habit of talking too much of late, has assured the American public -- and our enemies -- that the president is opposed, in military terms, to putting "boots on the ground" in Libya. What's that mean, that our CIA operatives there are wearing dress shoes? That we're unwilling to fully commit to the cause we've embraced? Which in war is a sure recipe for defeat.

Unfortunately, this president has formally, specifically, and repeatedly rejected any interest in regime change in Libya -- even while pursuing it. He declines even to call this war a war. The very word is verboten in his official vocabulary, which must be cleansed of politically incorrect terms.

Instead, American public opinion is served a heaping helping of doublespeak. This country is involved not in a war but in Overseas Contingency Operations or only a Humanitarian Effort. Its commander-in-chief speaks of the American military as if it were the Red Cross. And he never lets simple candor interfere with his talking points.

Everybody in Washington has to know what's going on in Libya -- John McCain and Joe Lieberman over in the U.S. Senate clearly do -- but no one in the President's circle is allowed to say so, not clearly, not simply, not without qualification or reservation or little winks. And in war there is no substitute for candor. Any more than there is a substitute for a united, supportive, well-informed home front.

It was another president from Illinois, a Mr. Lincoln, who said that "with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed." To mobilize that sentiment, a president must level with the American people. Foggy language will not do it.

But calling things by their right names seems foreign to our president's nature. He doesn't address issues so much as talk around them. Like a bureaucrat trying to obscure a problem rather than solve it. Clearly he's spent a lot of years in academia. It shows.

Instead of relying on his TelePrompTer, Barack Obama might do well to arrange for simultaneous translation of his remarks, like at the United Nations, into plain English. I'd like to shake the hand of any translator who could perform that feat. It would be a great service to the language, and therefore to clarity of thought, not to mention American foreign policy. Which grows more and more vague. Like the president's statements about this war -- yes, war. Right now, when he talks foreign policy, what's clearest is what he doesn't say. Which is a lot.

Yes, there are times when strategic ambiguity can be useful, even wise. A president named Eisenhower was a natural at it. But unintentional ambiguity isn't strategic, it's just sloppy. And it loses a president traction with public opinion. How support or object to his policy if no one, including the president, is able to articulate it clearly? Or even answer the simplest questions about it, like whether we're at war or not, or determined to oust a dictator or not.

It was a European dictator, and one who was no slouch at military matters at that, who may have offered the best advice in the matter:

If you go to take Vienna, said Napoleon Bonaparte, take Vienna. If this president is out to take Tripoli, then take Tripoli. Otherwise, he will leave friend and foe forever dangling, and a civil war without end.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.