On world stage, Bush team's plain talk sends the wrong message

October 05, 2004|By Jeremy Jones

THE BUSH administration lacks the patience for nuances of language, perhaps thinking there is an honorable tradition of plain speaking to uphold. Even if it does not see the world in black and white, as many of its opponents charge it with doing, its rhetoric often seems designed to paint it that way. Plain words play well in a culture where fancy talk has always been a little suspect.

Although some attempt seems to have been made to pull back from the simplistic fantasies of the "axis of evil," or a new "crusade," the language of "You're either with us or against us," of "freedom fries" and "Old Europe," continues to shape the administration's communication with the public, both domestic and international.

We can try to laugh off this kind of talk as just part of the Fox News world of entertainment, not serious government communication. But only up to a point. The fantasies such talk excite contaminate our culture.

Within the realm of foreign policy, it is clear that the problems created by plain speaking extend beyond the short-run public relations deficits chalked up by headline speeches into tricky areas of diplomatic interchanges where a bit of thinking about language, pedantic though it might seem to the administration's action men, does not go amiss.

Take the broader Middle East initiative, or, to be attentive to its various linguistic formulations in the past few months, the wider or greater Middle East initiative. Here is the administration's big idea for the Middle East: Political and economic reform in the Arab Middle East is the only way to work our way through to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The idea in itself is more or less crazy, depending how much time you spend with it: completely crazy if one thinks its advocates really believe it will work, and only partially crazy if viewed as a device for putting the peace process on hold indefinitely.

Either way, it has a certain moral deficiency. To demand that compliance with international law must await the completion of a process that everyone must recognize will be uncertain, gradual and possibly interminable, is effectively to legitimize a totally unacceptable status quo -- so acquiescing in the violence (on both sides) that springs from this impasse.

Beyond the idea itself there is a question of language to which no one in the administration seems to be aware. Leaving aside the question of its sequential or causal relationship with the Middle East peace process, let us suppose there are Arab governments interested in engaging with the reform process. Among such governments we might find Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco. Try to hear what the administration is saying through their ears.

In Arabic, the word for reform is islah. But, as ever, translation is a perilous activity, since for the Arab listener the call for islah most strongly implies that the present state of affairs is barbarism (fasad, in Arabic) -- a corrupt and irreligious condition of disorder. Is this how the administration wishes, publicly, to characterize the polities and economies of its already reluctant and anxious allies in the Arab world?

If so, it is not alone, as this is precisely the kind of language used by other critics of current Arab governments -- critics such as Osama bin Laden, for example, or the various nameless and blood-spattered cells and individuals beheading American citizens in Iraq.

And what if one of the governments keen to participate in the initiative, and with over 10 years of parliamentary elections behind it to boot, were Yemen's? Well, the main opposition to the Yemeni government, largely powered by religious conservatism and tribal violence, is called Islah.

So perhaps, when launching its big idea, the administration might stop, think and choose its words with more precision. It's time to start talking of tahdith (modernization) and tatwir (development), words that in Arabic carry a positive and go-ahead spin, and to stop talking about islah. If the administration means what it says about its partnership with the states of the Arab Middle East, it needs to say what it means.

Jeremy Jones, a British citizen, is a fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Steve Chapman's column will return Friday.

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