Six Ways Obama Talks About War Without Saying “War”

Obama and proponents of taking action in Syria have a thin rhetorical line to walk

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Pete Souza / The White House/ Reuters

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Chris Wallace, anchor of "Fox News Sunday," in the Blue Room of the White House on Sept. 9, 2013

The rousing rhetoric of a wartime speech is one thing. Trying to explain what the U.S. might do in Syria is quite another, a rhetorical puzzle that Obama’s administration has been trying to piece together for the war-weary American people. In six interviews last night, Obama walked a thin line trying to explain what, exactly, the U.S. should do when another country crosses a red line.

Here are six rules the President and many of his aides seem to be following when it comes to talking about war that isn’t war.

Don’t use the word “war,” of course.

There has long been a stockpile of euphemisms for actions or threats that involve making war, in the dictionary sense of “the employment of armed forces against a foreign power”: any necessary means, regime change, ultimate defense, humanitarian intervention, grave consequences—all options being on the table. In his interviews last night, Obama repeatedly referred to “military action” and even euphemized “military action” as “a significant piece of business” in an interview with PBS. “Everybody knows if you send in Tomahawk missiles and you’ve got the fleet sitting off the coast, those are war-like actions,” says Ken Khachigian, a former speechwriter for Nixon and the chief speechwriter for Reagan. Still, he says, “I wouldn’t say ‘we’re going to war’.”

Talk about what it is by saying what it isn’t.

Whatever the U.S. does in Syria, Obama reiterated last night, will not involve “boots on the ground.” It will not include “sustained airstrikes.” It will not amount to being involved in the “entire Syrian conflict.” The “sectarian civil war in Syria” is one thing, and what the U.S. does is another. He said America will not “embroil” itself. It will not be “long term.” And it will not be “costly.” This military action will not amount to “a military engagement” or “some large-scale invasion,” that would morph into a “slippery slope.” And it certainly wouldn’t be anything like other slippery slopes America has been trying to climb in the Middle East, he said, or “even Libya.”

Say the target is a group of things.   

Obama’s language suggested that the U.S., unlike Bashar Assad, would not really be taking action against human beings. A military strike in Syria is different than one in Iraq or Afghanistan, he implied, because this is a fight against the use of things. His plan is for the U.S. to strike “Assad’s capabilities,” to execute a “set of strikes to degrade his chemical weapons capabilities,” to “deal with this chemical weapons issue.” Our foes in his words are nouns that will never live or breath. “There’s a lot of clinical language that gets used when you’re speaking about the actions taken by your own side,” says former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol. “Your language gets a little looser when you’re speaking about the other.”

Make it sound small.

Secretary of State John Kerry likely went too far yesterday when he said that military action would be “unbelievably small.” As Shesol says, “It starts to sound at a certain point like protesting too much.” But Obama used keywords last night to suggest that, if war was a duel to the death, military action in Syria will be more of a glove to the face demanding satisfaction. He used the word limited no fewer than 10 times, and words like narrow. He repeatedly used the word proportional. What exactly is proportional to a foreign leader’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizens is up for debate, but proportional action implicitly rules out widespread destruction or anything that would be big enough, in theory, to justify another round of retaliation.

Make it sound precise.

The word Obama used last night most often in reference to chemical weapons and why most all of humanity opposes them was indiscriminate. So he emphasized that military action taken by the U.S. would be the opposite of blind slaughter. It would instead be discriminate and “very specific” in a “targeted,” even “surgical,” way. When Obama wasn’t referring to military “action,” he referred to military “strikes,” which also sound much more distinct than bombings or even the use of missiles. Weapons are chaotic; a strike is like an organized bolt of lightning. “They really want people to understand how contained this operation is going to be,” says Shesol. “[A limited strike] sounds very clean. It sounds very technical.”

But make it sound serious.

When NBC’s Savannah Guthrie interviewed Obama yesterday, she said the notion of “limited and consequential” strikes seemed almost a contradiction in terms. But if the U.S. is taking action, Obama has to make it sound like that action will be big and bad enough not only to deter Assad from using chemical weapons and to avenge the death of Syrian innocents, but to dissuade all other malefactors in the world from ever using chemical weapons again. So Obama repeatedly emphasized that military action would be “significant,” and that “the U.S. does not do pinpricks”—even if the U.S. does do small, surgical, limited, targeted strikes against weaponry and other things.