WASHINGTON — By now, most people know that Russian President Vladimir Putin took over the neighboring Crimea region of Ukraine and formally annexed it after a hastily called referendum there that drew outrage from across the globe.
U.S. officials don’t dispute what happened — they saw the Russian celebration of the “return” of Crimea and heard the challenge to Western domination in Putin’s speech — but the official government lexicon hasn’t caught up to the facts on the ground. The State Department’s latest verbal twist is to refer to Putin’s land grab as an “attempt” at annexation, to underline U.S. opposition to a move it considers illegitimate.
Such language causes eye rolling among foreign policy specialists, some of whom harbor more serious concerns that the empty wording also signals a lack of policies that factor in the uncomfortable realities of places such as Ukraine, Syria, Egypt and China.
“Isn’t this already a fait accompli? It’s already taken,” a reporter pointed out at a recent State Department briefing where spokeswoman Marie Harf defended the use of “attempted annexation” for the Crimea crisis.
Professional Russia watchers say they know that a degree of diplomatic protocol is needed in describing the events in Ukraine, but they also question whether a policy of willful blindness signals that the United States was caught off guard and couldn’t formulate a policy that dealt with a more belligerent, expansionist Russia.
Regional specialists complain that the United States had taken its eye off European security in favor of a seemingly more urgent global terrorist threat that focused foreign policy on the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since a boom time in the 1990s with joint democracy-building projects, some analysts say, U.S. engagement with Russia had waned so much that it’s become clear in Putin’s defiance how little sway Washington now holds with Moscow.
“I wonder about our ability to even influence government through other channels,” said Adele Lindenmeyr, a historian of the Soviet Union who teaches at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. “Maybe that’s why we seem to be throwing up our hands and saying our response will be that nothing’s changed since March 16.”
Calling what happened in Crimea on that day an “attempted” annexation is only the latest in a long-standing practice of using curious descriptions and euphemisms to mask U.S. foreign policy failings or to sidestep controversial topics.
At a different briefing this month, the same spokeswoman, Harf, balked at descriptions of a million-dollar, U.S.-funded social media program in Cuba as covert or secret, even though an Associated Press report exposed a “byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account” and other practices to shroud the U.S. involvement in building an opposition forum.
“Discreet” was the word Harf preferred.
In another example of hair-splitting, Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land can be “illegitimate” but never “illegal” in diplomatic parlance. The word “drone” is so taboo that AP reporter Matt Lee asked State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last month whether she was “able, physically, to use the word ‘drone.’ ”
“I do like the ring of ‘remote-piloted aircrafts,’ ” Psaki shot back, to laughter in the briefing room.
“How about in relation — can I get you to use it in relation to bees?” Lee pressed.
“To bees? Drone bees. Yes.”
“Diplospeak,” as it’s sometimes called, is by no means exclusive to the Obama administration. Two decades after mass killings in Rwanda, shame lingers in Washington over the Clinton administration’s decision to order spokespeople to avoid saying “genocide”; talking points allowed only that “acts of genocide may have occurred.” The watered-down version was intended to temper public demands for U.S. intervention in a conflict that left nearly a million Rwandans dead within 100 days in 1994.
U.S. officials still tread gingerly when it comes to the g-word, swatting away questions of whether Rwanda-size genocides are unfolding in the Syrian civil war or in North Korean prison camps. When asked whether Syria was a crisis on the scale of Rwanda, then-State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, “We have to be careful, in general, in making broad comparisons.” United Nations officials, however, counter that — in the magnitude of suffering and not just death tolls — Syria poses the greatest humanitarian challenge to the international community since Rwanda.
The U.S. brand of diplomatic doublespeak has come under scrutiny recently because revelations by anti-secrecy groups and high-profile leakers have shown the world how the United States spies and eavesdrops on even its close partners and uses highly unflattering language to describe allies, as well as foes, in in-house reports and on telephone calls.
“The WikiLeaks revelations have thrown some diplospeak statements into sharp relief when they have allowed comparison between diplomats’ classified communications to Washington with what they have said in public. But those who listen carefully to the public utterances of diplomats can usually interpret what is intended behind the words,” former Ambassador William Rugh, a 30-year Foreign Service officer who served in six Arab countries, wrote in an essay about the use of U.S. diplomatic language in reference to the Arab Spring uprisings of recent years.
The most notorious diplospeak case of those transitions involved the Egyptian military’s ouster last summer of the country’s first democratically elected president. U.S. officials took such pains to avoid calling it a coup that Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” called it “going Kama Sutra on the English language, bending words into all kinds of exciting, exotic positions before reaching a climax of meaninglessness.”
Funny, sure, but some policy analysts say the jokes about the linguistic contortions cloud a more serious point: A coup determination would have triggered a review of the billion-dollar annual U.S. aid package to Egypt because such assistance must be suspended in the event of a military’s overthrow of an elected leader. If they could avoid the coup label, officials’ reasoning went, they could continue a longtime alliance that’s especially valuable as the regional status quo crumbles in the aftermath of the Arab revolts.
The Obama administration’s formal stance, reached after weeks of review, was that it would review aid but had no legal obligation to make a coup determination and therefore wouldn’t. Or, as “The Daily Show” explained with mock incredulity: “So that’s our strategy? We think we can get around our own coup rule if we can just manage not to use the word ‘coup’?”