Calling Shots Requires Precision

Suzanne Fields

4/17/2009 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Language matters. President Barack Obama learned that in time to give the command to slay Somali pirates when they threatened imminent death for Capt. Richard Phillips, their American hostage. This was no time to go wobbly, indulge weakness in the knees, or stir a pot of mush. The highly trained Navy sharpshooters were told to shoot to kill. Mission accomplished.

Soldiers and sailors understand the value of straightforward language. Adm. David Farragut captured heavily fortified Mobile Bay, ensuring Union control of the Gulf Coast late in the Civil War, when he signaled to his fleet: "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!" No nuance there. When Gen. Anthony McAuliffe answered the German demand to surrender his troops at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, there was no mistaking his meaning: "Nuts!"

Most of us figured Mr. Obama would give in to his penchant for euphemism and his confidence in his tap-dancing, reducing a confrontation with piracy on the high seas to a "high-seas contingency operation." The result would be a "man-caused disaster," and what could the SEALs have done with that?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compounded fears when she announced that the Obama administration sought "an appropriate 21st-century response." What in the world did she mean? Sending commands on Twitter via BlackBerry? Consulting Facebook profiles of the pirates? A call for Johnny Depp? (Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr. are still dead.)

Surely, the creepiest words in the contemporary vernacular, whether describing the behavior of a country or the behavior of a common criminal, are "appropriate" and "inappropriate." A child who eats peas on a knife displays "inappropriate" behavior; a child who uses a knife to cut another child is also guilty of "inappropriate" behavior. Crime is thus reduced to bad manners.

A tough military response to piracy is "appropriate," whether by Thomas Jefferson against the pirates of the Barbary Coast or Barack Obama against the pirates of the Somali coast. These were no rollicking band of brigands, no "Pirates of Penzance." Nevertheless, Barack Obama surely was tempted to delay, if not equivocate, whether by drawing up a list of talking points or suggesting an international forum of "partners" to debate solutions. We all can be glad he fought back like John Wayne and not Jimmy Carter, saving the life of a brave man. America didn't ask how the rescue operation would resonate among "moderate pirates" or how it would play "on the Arab street," noted William Kristol on "Fox News Sunday." Instead, the president did it the effective way -- unilaterally.

Now the big question is: Can we find the pirates' hiding places? That's difficult to do, but not impossible. There's no MapQuest to identify "pirate's lair." No GPS device will tell soldiers where to turn right or left. Like the Hamas terrorists who hide among innocents, pirates are difficult to eradicate inside their communities, particularly because many of them are teenagers protected by families and extended clan. Collateral damage would include the suffering of civilians. War, even when it's called "an overseas contingency operation," is hell.

Words shape perception, and euphemistic language obscures reality. Barack Obama, being a master of rhetoric, is tempted to imagine that his words are the reality. His new strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat is to dispense with the reasonable precondition that Iran shut down its nuclear program while talking. This also dispenses with the common sense born of experience in the interest of "sensitivity" for "Iran's pride." The strategy includes allowing Iranian technicians to keep their centrifuges spinning but not allowing them to enrich uranium for a bomb. Both sides could claim "victory."

But there's a problem. The inspectors not only don't know whether hidden enrichment sites are spinning but also don't know whether they're being stockpiled. We would have to take what the Iranians say on trust, which is like taking the word of pirates on trust. Former President Ronald Reagan, dealing with then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed to trust, but only if it was "trust but verify." Barack Obama, who is certainly no Ronald Reagan, would count on the Iranians being as naive as he seems to be.

Administration officials want "to dialogue" with Tehran (bad grammar and all, speaking of language). Honest dialogue requires language with specific meaning. A strategy of "sensitivity" when the stakes are so high, whether with pirates on land or pirates at sea, is, to say the least, "inappropriate."