Foreign Policy by Slogan

As long as I can remember, policies that made no sense on their own have been dressed up in slogans, designed to make the ridiculous appear serious.

On the ground in Vietnam I heard about "Vietnamization" or "strategic hamlets" or "light at the end of the tunnel," or "falling dominoes," or "American credibility." None of that explained the lunacy I was seeing first hand.

After many years of thinking I was not smart enough to understand the "larger picture," I have come to realize that if the specific action appears to be idiotic, it is idiotic, even if couched in the language of larger meanings.

The warning signs are the proliferation of euphemisms in place of hard and direct words. In the context of Syria, our policy is to "degrade" the capability of Assad but not to engage in "regime change."

Compare that with Colin Powell's answer when asked about the strategy for the first Gulf War: "We intend to surround them and kill them." The so-called Powell Doctrine posited "military action should be used only as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk to national security by the intended target; the force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged."

People who become President or Secretary of State or other high government officials are smart, talented people. The tape recordings and memoirs that come out later (Johnson, McNamara, and others) show they had a better grasp of reality, but were captives of their own language. Why?

One possibility is that our leaders have a very low opinion of the rest of us.  They agree with Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men: "We can't handle the truth." Of course, if they didn't always couch everything in highflautin' language, maybe we could. We are not always making the world safe for democracy.  Sometimes we are attempting a specific task which should make sense on its own and which does not mean the end of the world if we fail...or if we succeed.

My own view is that by the time someone reaches high government office, they are warped by a sense of self importance. Everything in that culture...staff, media attention, perks of office, and the majestic setting, reinforces the idea that they, and they alone shape destiny. Over time, the language matches the affectation. Ipso facto everything has great significance; otherwise they would not be talking about it. And the weighty words flow..."American credibility," "huge ramifications," "inconceivable horror," and "our role in the world."

On each occasion some or all of that may be true. But the emphasis obscures the details and the discussion of what, exactly, we are going to do. If the specific action is described with real words, not euphemisms; and if it makes sense on its own; if the direct results are clear and achievable and worth doing; if the means employed are sufficient, then the larger purpose will take care of itself and the rest of us are prepared for the hard reality of an uncertain outcome.

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