Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Use for Words

I'm not trying to compete with William Saffire, but I'm struck by the novel ways in which words are being used in conflicts.

We're all familiar with our president's repeated references to freedom, and his desire to spread it around the world.  President Sakashvili of Georgia learned the lesson well: every third word in his desperate pronouncements are about the place of freedom and democracy in the tiny country he rules.  However, like other leaders of small countries or groups around the world, he fails to recognize the right words to not bring hoped for results.

After the American failure to support the Shia uprising in southern Iraq following Desert Storm - or the Kurdish uprising of around the same period, the Ukrainian orange revolution a few years ago (or, for that matter the Hungarian uprising of 1956 or socialism with a human face in Prague 1968), the Georgian president is the latest in a long line of pro-Western leaders who have wanted to believe that America puts its troops where its mouth is. Today on Democracy Now, in an ironic coincidence, Ron Suskind, author of a new book called "The Way of the World; A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism" tells the story of Benazir Bhutto's belated realization of the power of the democratic idea. Roughly, what she said to him was that because the democratic idea had actually taken hold, the people of Pakistan had come to oppose President Musharraf, and this had strengthened her position, even though Musharraf was the one the American proponents of democracy, were backing. As Suskind sees it, the irony is that America failed to match its rhetoric with an order to Masharraf to see that his opponent in the democratic election was protected - and as a consequence, she was assassinated. This brings us back to the point of this post, which is that increasingly, talk of democracy and freedom is used by all sides in conflicts, no matter what their actions. Vladimir Putin refers to Russia's obligation to protect its citizens in South Ossetia, even though the status of South Ossetia would not, under international law, entitle its citizens to the Russian passports they have been given. President Sakashvili stresses that his country is free and democratic, although its desire to avoid domination by its neighbor is what drives it to seek membership of NATO, knowing full well the threat such membership represents to Russia. (This was acknowledged this morning on CNN by Richard Haas, who served several Republican presidents and is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.) It's bad enough that citizens have to rely on highly censored information from the media, but now the task of judging what constitutes desirable government behavior or outcomes is rendered near hopeless by the fact that rhetoric has been elevated to the status of policy.

The only thing we can (perhaps) be thankful for is that each government knows that its adversaries also use language more as decoration than as a means of communication.

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