Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


When it comes to Obama’s foreign policy, words matter

Hard-news reporters are supposed to use plain language designed to inform, but it didn’t happen in this case.

The United States, Obama said, must not try to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world.”
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Words matter. Like “desire” and “need.”

Last week, the White House unveiled a 29-page document updating the Obama administration’s thinking on national security strategy. It contained such vague, anodyne, but (to me) relatively sane statements as:

“The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.”

To tell you the truth, I’m pretty sick of presidents using the phrase “defend our interests” without saying enough about what that means, especially since it often means killing people in foreign countries for reasons that aren’t particularly in the interests of average Americans. But the main thrust of the paragraph is mostly a restatement of Obama’s famous foreign-policy doctrine known as “don’t do stupid stuff.”

Article continues after advertisement

The United States, Obama said, must not try to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world.”

To the permanent hawk wing of the foreign- and military-policy spectrum, that may come across as just yellow-bellied reluctance to, well, to dictate the trajectory of events around the world.

Fine. Let them say so and make their case, and let journalists quote them and hold them accountable for what they say on the slight chance that the next war they stampede us into might not work out so well in the end.

But I happened to read about the new Obama administration paper in an Associated Press report in which AP White House correspondent Julie Pace didn’t call John McCain or Lindsey Graham to get that quote. Instead, she just threw in this paragraph:

“Obama’s critics have accused him of putting his desire to keep the U.S. out of overseas conflicts ahead of the need for more robust action against the world’s bad actors.” (Emphasis added.)

We see constant evidence that politicians have adopted words that have been tested to pack a punch, especially among whichever groups of voters they seek to persuade. But hard-news reporters are supposed to use plain language, designed only to inform and to avoid word choices that amount to editorializing.

So why is Obama’s reluctance to get into more conflicts a “desire” whereas the trigger-happy policy of critics is a “need” to bomb?