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
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
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
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