The Cable

What’s a ‘Parent Tumor’? Ask Ash Carter.

Public officials like a turn of phrase, but the phrase usually refers to a real thing.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09:  U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee December 9, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and U.S. policy toward Iraq and Syria.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee December 9, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and U.S. policy toward Iraq and Syria. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is hardly the first Pentagon chief to find a snappy phrase he likes so much he rhetorically beats it into the ground. And he won’t be the last. But over the last two months he has distinguished himself for having invented a brand-new medical term as a way to add some color to his description of the Islamic State.

It’s not a bad bit of wordplay. Describing the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, can be difficult, given its brutality and ability to spread its bloody rule over millions of innocents across multiple countries. Carter has long talked about the terrorist group being a “cancer” preying on the local communities it has captured. But in November, things started to go sideways.

On Nov. 16, the Defense chief took the analogy one step further. “The metastasis of [the Islamic State] has to be taken care of,” he said, “as well as the parent tumor, which is in Syria and Iraq.”

From what we can tell, that was the birth of the phrase “parent tumor,” which appears to be a description Carter — or his staffers — came up with himself. He has since used it dozens of times.

“The term ‘parent tumor’ is not used by professionals in the discipline of oncology,” said Louis M. Weiner, director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington. “When we discuss the original tumor deposits in people with cancer, they are commonly referred to as primary tumors, or ‘primaries’ — but not as a ‘parent tumor,'” Weiner said.

“We describe primary tumors and their metastases. ‘Parent tumor’ is not a term we use,” Weiner said.

Foreign Policy reached out to several Pentagon staffers to ask where the phrase came from but did not receive a reply while federal government buildings in the capital were snowed out and closed down Tuesday.

The term might have passed unnoticed if not for the frequency of its use. A quick search on the Defense Department website shows dozens of hits for “parent tumor,” all from Carter, and all since his November speech when he first rolled it out.

On his recent trips to Paris and Davos, Switzerland, “parent tumor” popped up everywhere as Carter insisted the United States and its allies must “destroy the ISIL cancer’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centers in Raqqa and Mosul.” Just days later, in an op-ed to Politico, he managed to mention it four times — and “tumor” two more times in just 800 words.

Clearly, it’s a thing for the SecDef, even if it isn’t real for the rest of the world.

Having said that, the phrase makes sense in its own context, even if it might be overused. And Carter’s not the only Pentagon chief to coin his own term: Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta loved to talk about the “meat cleaver” or “meat axe” approach of sequestration, the mandatory budget cuts devised by Congress that were supposedly so bad they could force the White House and Capitol Hill to reach a long-term budget deal. While sequestration lives on, one of the parting gifts Panetta received when he left office in February 2013 was a plastic meat cleaver.

Photo credit: by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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