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Words matter

Words matter

President Obama is being rightly praised for his meaningful speech in Israel. He poignantly and powerfully made the case that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is (as Daniel Levy summarized it) necessary, just, and possible. He had an awful lot of ground to make up with Israelis, and the attitudes he advanced in his speech went a considerable way toward repairing the damage wrought by his earlier attitudes and policies.

One of the most striking departures from past practice was the president’s effort to assure Israelis that they have — and will continue to have — American support for their security and democracy. The administration seems belatedly to have come to the recognition that Israelis are more likely to make the brave choices required for a peace agreement if they are confident of our support. This is exactly the opposite of the position the administration has taken on Iraq and Afghanistan. In both those cases, the president’s policies have been predicated on the belief that those societies and leaders would not make the hard choices required of them unless the United States threatened them with abandonment. Thus, the timelines for military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have created self-fulfilling prophesies of governments working against our interests because they believe we are working against theirs.

It is theoretically possible that societies scarred by authoritarian repression and civil war would make the brave and monumental choices in those circumstances, but I have a difficult time dredging up examples of any that have. And the president clearly doesn’t think that the established democracy of Israel would do so. Let us hope President Obama’s acknowledgement of the need for supporting states making difficult compromises portends a change in policy more generally rather than being sui generis to Israel.

Another context in which words matter is what our enemies hear. The late, great Ernest May, a Harvard historian and a member of the 9/11 Commission, paralleled the Wehrmacht attack on France in 1940 to the al Qaeda attack on the United States. In both cases, the enemy used open-source knowledge of the society to identify and exploit known weaknesses. I could not help thinking of this watching the pathetic parade of civilian and military defense leaders proclaim all the destruction and incapacity incurred by a 2 percent cut in federal spending — despite the fact that the United States will retain 45 percent of global defense spending. 

On this, the day he relinquishes command, it seems fitting to praise General James Mattis as the only military leader who used the opportunity of Congressional budget testimony to issue a growling threat to our enemies. Mattis emphasized that even with spending cuts, sequestration, and a continuing resolution, he had under his command the military power to destroy anyone who would challenge the United States, its interests, and allies. Let us hope our defense leaders start thinking about how their tales of woe sound in Pyongyang and Tehran.

There is some evidence that happy day may be approaching in the form of Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s volte-face in Seoul this week. Carter had previously and repeatedly testified that sequestration would be incredibly destructive to our military, making the defense strategy — the pivot to Asia — unexecutable. Sent to Seoul to reassure our South Korean allies, Carter now insisted that budget cuts would have no affect on neither our willingness nor our ability to carry out our defense strategy. Nor would budget restrictions diminish our ability to deter North Korea or fight alongside South Korea. "We’ll ensure all of our resources will be available to our alliance," he said.

Despite having invented the 24-hour news cycle, the permanent political campaign, Madison Avenue advertising, Hollywood iconography, and been at the forefront of globalization, the United States still tends to have our domestic debates as though we are talking only to ourselves, as though we can segregate what we say domestically from what is heard internationally. We cannot. Words matter, and very often our enemies take our words more seriously than we do ourselves. It’s high time our leaders start factoring that more carefully into their policy statements as well as their policy prescriptions.