How to Speak Foreign Policy Like a Beltway Native

Translating Washington’s favorite foreign policy clichés, from "boots on the ground" to "thank you for your service."


It’s summer, you’re kicking back at the beach, and you finally have some time to relax and reflect. How about reflecting on some clichés you should never use again?

I asked several dozen denizens of the national security and foreign policy communities to nominate their (least) favorite clichés and euphemisms – the ones that occupy positions in paragraphs that should be occupied by something meaningful, but aren’t; the ones designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate; the ones that should be eliminated entirely from our collective vocabulary.

Here’s what they came up with, along with translations. Feel free to nominate your own additions to this list in the comments.

War on terror” or “War on Terrorism.”
Translation: “We have no idea who these guys are or what motivates them, but we don’t like them.”

“Our vital national interests are threatened.”
Translation: “I am unable to articulate just what is being threatened, but I need a reason to do something.”

“We need to use all the tools in our toolkit.”
Translation: “This will be really hard. We probably can’t do it.” (This phrase has a close cousin: “All instruments of national power.” It too should be banished.)

“This will require a whole of government effort.”
Translation: “This will take a miracle. We definitely can’t do it.” Prior interpretations include: “I think this is someone else’s job.”

“These gains are fragile and reversible.”
Translation: “Don’t blame me if they evaporate.”

“There is no military solution.”
Translation:What, you expected this to work?”

“We’re on the right side of history.”
Translation: “It’s the thought that counts.”

“No boots on the ground.”
Translation: “I prefer to rely on destructive but ineffective air campaigns. This won’t prevent me from sending a whole bunch of Special Forces guys and other ‘advisers’ into combat zones, but please join me in pretending they’re not really there.”

“We need to do this by, with and through our local partners.”
Translation: “No boots on the ground.”

A moderate [Syrian, Sunni, etc.]”
Translation: “They might be willing to work with us, and they’re not quite as egregiously awful as everyone else.”

Translation: “We don’t know who they are but they look nasty, so it’s okay to kill them.”

“It’s a war of ideas.”
Translation: “Please pay my company to create clumsy, poorly translated leaflets and news stories than can be deployed to really irritate people in foreign countries.” Close cousin, also to be banished: “We need to own the narrative.”

“This is an inflection point.”
Translation: None. No one knows what this means.

“The next six months will be decisive.”
Translation: “We have made no progress so far.”

“[The Islamic State/al Qaeda/the Taliban, etc.] has proven to be a surprisingly resilient enemy.” Translation: “Our intel was all wrong.”

“This is unacceptable.”
Translation: “Yeah, whatever.”

“We will not tolerate this.”
Translation: “We’re going to make a lot of unhappy noises, but don’t worry, we won’t do anything.”

“This is a redline for us.”
Translation: “I didn’t say ‘redline.’ I said, ‘Look at that handsome red pine.’”

“Going forward, we’re going to take it to the next level.”
Translation: “We’re going to try to stop screwing up.”

“We will demonstrate our leadership and resolve.”
Translation: “We will talk more about our leadership and resolve.”

“We need to shift to a strategy of offshore balancing.”
Translation: “We need to find someone else to do this.”

“Allies and Partners.”
Translation: “You guys are the ones who should do this, not us.”

“A senior official.”
Translation: “Someone in the White House.”

An unnamed source not authorized to talk to the press.”
Translation: “A leaker.”

A Snowden.”
Translation: “A leaker we don’t like.”

“Do more with less.”
Translation: “Good morning. Your budget is being cut! Quit whining.”

“I support the troops.”
Translation: “I’ve never met any troops, but I’m a little embarrassed about that.”

“Thank you for your service.”
Translation: “Better you than me, you poor sap.”

“I want to acknowledge the sacrifice and heroism of our brave men and women in uniform.”
Translation: “I’m running for office.”

“We must defend the Homeland.”
Translation: “I pine for the era of fascism.”

“Human terrain.”
Translation: “People we don’t know much about and might have to kill.”

“We need to win their hearts and minds.”
Translation: “Don’t kill them.”

“We need to pivot to Asia.”
Translation: “The whole Middle East thing isn’t working out.”

“We have a policy.” 
Translation: “We don’t have a strategy.”

“We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Translation: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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