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Fooling Only Yourself

Abe’s post (“Accepting the Unacceptable“) about Secretary Gates’s speech yesterday is a reminder that – as George Orwell warned us long ago – the debasement of language has both intellectual and political consequences.

When George W. Bush called Iranian nuclear weapons “unacceptable,” John Bolton said he was often asked what Bush meant by that, and always answered it meant they were unacceptable.  By the end of Bush’s second term, Bolton said he no longer knew what Bush meant.  Bush left office having denied Israel’s request for weapons to unaccept Iran’s program – although placing them in the hands of Iran’s intended first victim would have sent a credible signal to Iran to stop its program.  Bush also called Russia’s invasion of Georgia “unacceptable,” but left office with Russian troops ensconced in Georgia and its territorial integrity gone. 

Whatever “unacceptable” meant, it did not mean concrete consequences for Russia or Iran.  If Iran had previously been worried about the meaning of “unacceptable,” it had little cause for concern after seeing its practical application in Georgia, and still less after it watched the new administration deliver a reset button to Russia, with a video to the mullahs and serial apologies to the rest of the world.

Obama has called Iranian nuclear weapons “unacceptable,” but few people think he will do much beyond talk to Iran in the hope of securing another North Korea-type framework agreement.  His secretary of state warns of “crippling” sanctions, but knows they are unlikely to be imposed; or be enforced if imposed; or be effective even if enforced – they weren’t in the case of Cuba or North Korea, or with Saddam Hussein.  His secretary of defense has delivered a public warning to Israel not to consider the one action that might cause the Iranians some concern.  

The word “unacceptable” has become an Orwellian term, referring to something with which we disagree, but will in fact ultimately accept.  In his classic essay, Orwell referred to language sounding significant (such as “stand shoulder to shoulder“) but that actually “will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”  He would have recognized the language in Gates’s speech, and its consequences.


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