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From Repeated Mistakes to an Unmistakable Message

In modern geopolitics, offense is called defense and diplomacy translates as the refusal to talk.
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Joe Biden in Washington, DC on 11/3/2021. © Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

February 24, 2022 07:24 EDT

Our regularly updated feature Language and the News will continue in the form of separate articles rather than as a single newsfeed. Click here to read yesterday’s edition.

We invite readers to join us by submitting their suggestions of words and expressions that deserve exploring, with or without original commentary. To submit a citation from the news and/or provide your own short commentary, send us an email.

February 24: Unmistakable

Our regular examination of language in the news cycle has been bringing us back to the major international story thus far of 2022. The RussiaUkraine crisis keeps generating examples of the deliberately twisted and sometimes directly inverted semantics, a trend that will probably continue and perhaps become amplified in the coming weeks and months.

As a general rule, when politicians claim to be “clear,” the observer can be certain that what they are clear about is at best half the story. Clarity imperceptibly fades into obscurity. It gets worse when the speaker claims that the message is “unmistakable.” Quoted by the New York Times, US President Joe Biden offered a wonderful example of such rhetoric while explaining the measures he is taking to counter Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Tug of War and the Implications for Europe


“Let me be clear: These are totally defensive moves on our part,” Biden proclaimed. “We have no intention of fighting Russia. We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.”

This is the standard mantra in Washington. Economic sanctions are always intended to punish civilian populations in the hope that they will revolt against their government. They should never be thought of as aggressive or offensive, not even partially. Perish the thought. Biden makes that “clear” when he claims they are “totally” defensive, like a soldier in the field raising a shield before his face to deflect an enemy’s arrow. 

Embed from Getty Images

As for the “unmistakable message,” it may simply mean that the White House has made so many mistaken guesses in recent weeks about the date of a Russian invasion, it is now necessary to inform people that the latest message, for a change, is not just one more in an endless series of mistakes.

Biden also called Vladimir Putin’s move “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” For the moment, it is an aggressive incursion into contested Ukrainian territory, but it isn’t an invasion. It can only be deemed the beginning of an invasion if there actually is an invasion that follows from it. There is no question that President Putin’s initiative violates international law, but that alone doesn’t make it a military invasion.

Biden should know something about what invasions look like. He was, after all, the key Democrat, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to champion US President George W. Bush’s tragically planned and utterly unjustified invasion of Iraq in 2003, a well-documented episode Biden persistently denied during his election campaign.

Putin’s move may be a prelude to an invasion, but preludes only become real when the event they are preparing becomes real. The real reason Biden calls it “the beginning of an invasion” is to save face in an attempt to maintain a modicum of credibility regarding his administration’s warnings in recent weeks. He may well be hoping it turns into a Russian invasion just to prove his repeated predictions were somewhat correct.

Then there’s Biden’s promise to defend “every inch of NATO territory.” Everyone knows Ukraine is not NATO territory. So why offer such a justification? Perhaps Biden’s reason for saying this on record is that, when Republicans and the more bellicose Democrats begin castigating him for failing to support Ukraine militarily, he will be able to use Ukraine’s non-NATO status to defend his policy. At the same time, he is getting the best of both worlds. He may thus safely stand back and watch a bloody proxy war proceed, much as Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Biden have done for the past seven years with Yemen.

Finally, Biden made the important decision to call off the proposed summit meeting with Putin. At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that should have taken place on February 24. “Now that we see the invasion is beginning,” Blinken explained, “and Russia has made clear its wholesale rejection of diplomacy, it does not make sense to go forward with that meeting at this time.” 

That statement on Blinken’s part is literally a “wholesale rejection.” He even used the expression “pretense of diplomacy,” disparaging the very idea of trying to solve the problem rather than let it get worse. Lavrov had made no attempt to scotch the meeting. In its coverage, Reuters added that “Blinken said he was still committed to diplomacy.” Except, apparently, when he’s committed to preventing it from happening. In former times, diplomacy consisted of getting a conversation going whenever a serious problem arose. It certainly did not consist of explaining why there was no need for a dialogue.

In the light of this new style of diplomacy, historians may now find it an interesting counterfactual exercise to wonder what might have happened during the Cuban missile crisis had either John F. Kennedy or Nikita Khrushchev objected that diplomacy was a waste of time. 

Why Monitoring Language Is Important

Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.

In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.

Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.

Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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