The passive is never the voice of a leader. What plain folk asked to go to war crave is plain speech delivered with passion, a leader who says what he means, means what he says, and says on Tuesday what he said on Monday.
That’s not the style in Washington. Terrorism becomes “overseas contingency operations,” murder is “workplace violence” and “war” is merely an “action.” No cavalry general, this side of France, ever cried “charge!” and meant it as a suggestion or as a “battlefield advisory.” Winston Churchill drafted the English language in 1940 and sent it to war; Barack Obama drafts words and sends them over the hill.
President Obama, who yearns to be Horatius at the Bridge without breaking a sweat, must keep this in mind in making another of his celebrated orations without actually saying anything. If he truly wants to persuade his countrymen to go to war as the debate moves beyond posing, posturing and empty words, he’ll have to give up his fondness for evasion, equivocation and rhetorical trickery as Congress moves toward a decision.
Some politicians are more artful with euphemism and evasion than others. Bill Clinton, with years of experience creeping into Hillary’s boudoir at 3 o’clock in the morning and talking past her rolling pin, set a high standard for bending the language when he was still the governor of Arkansas. He was asked to say whether he would have voted, if a member of Congress, to grant authority to President George H.W. Bush to go to war with Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I to retrieve Kuwait. “I guess I would have voted [with] the majority if it was a close vote,” he said, “but I agree with the arguments the minority made.” Everyone knew then that Bubba was on his way to a long career in the majors.
Nancy Pelosi is willing to be the president’s point person in the House, but she wants the cover of her grandson, age 5. The boy offended the legions of the politically correct, a grave sin indeed in San Francisco, with his declaration to granny that he doesn’t want to go to war. “Now, he’s five years old,” Mzz Pelosi told reporters, “and he’s saying ‘war.’ I mean, we’re not talking about war, we’re talking about an ‘action’ here.”
When they go all-out mongering war (or even mongering “action” that looks like war to the people getting the business end of a Tomahawk missile), the Democrats call in their reserves of intellectual heft. Jimmy Carter recruited his daughter, Amy, as his adviser on nuclear war. Like the Pelosi toddler on war in Syria, Amy was quoted by her father as against it.
John Kerry, assigned to transfuse “intrepid” and “daring” into Mr. Obama’s blood and backbone, in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed Mzz Pelosi’s gifts of euphemy. “Let me be clear,” the secretary of state told the senators, “President Obama is not asking America to go to war.” To Rand Paul’s raised eyebrow, he obfuscated further: “We don’t want to go to war in Syria, either. It’s not what we’re here to ask. The president is not asking you to go to war.”
Richard Nixon thought a president’s word was the equal of the law, and was taught an expensive lesson. Barack Obama — and his men — imagine that his saying something is so makes it so; words are putty, soft and shapeless until the president applies his hands (and voice).
“I didn’t set a red line,” he said in Stockholm. “The world set a red line.” He further explained: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America’s and Congress’ credibility is on the line.”
Mr. Obama has gotten by until now with redefining reality as what he says it is. Red line? What red line? Now he wants to similarly redefine war. Anyone who has been in war, or has got close to it, knows that when men, women and children all around you are reduced to flying arms, legs and other body parts, and buildings are being reduced to rubble, it’s war — or close enough to war to pass for whatever Mr. Obama regards as the real thing. War is one of many things this president doesn’t know very much about. A clever euphemism makes a sorry education.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.