Episode 70: Laundering Imperial Violence Through Anodyne Foreign Policy-Speak (Part I)

Citations Needed | March 20, 2019 | Transcript

Citations Needed
38 min readMar 20, 2019


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you everyone for listening this week. You can to follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work and the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100 percent listener supported. We do not have any ads. We do not run commercials. We do not shill for mattresses and snack packs and website making machines. We are completely funded by our listeners and we cannot thank you all enough for that.

Adam: Yeah. And remember as always, there’s Patreon-only content, which you can access if you subscribe to us and for all those to do thank you so much and uh, it keeps the show free.

Nima: Barack Obama unleashes “kinetic strikes” on Libya, Hillary Clinton lobbies for “limited military coercion” in Syria, Congress passes “robust sanctions” on Iran, and Trump gives “US general’s more room to run” as he “ramps up” “pressure” on ISIS.

Adam: The Center for American Progress calls for “no fly zones” to “protect civilians.” It’s important the US “engage” in the Middle East as it “reasserts itself” on “the world stage” and backs it up with “diplomacy” and “military muscle”. While Russia expands its naval fleet the US merely “modernizes” it. “All options are on the table” when discussing Venezuela and Iran.

Nima: So much of how we discuss U.S. militarism and imperialism is laundered through these seemingly anodyne phrases, rhetorical thingamajigs that vaguely gesture towards an idea without conjuring the unseemly images of what’s really being called for.

Adam: Dropping exploding shrapnel from 5,000 miles away designed to rip through human flesh is called quote unquote, “targeted airstrikes,” starving and cutting off medicine for an entire civilian population to pressure the government to act in the US’s best interests is quote unquote “sanctions” which are said to be a quote unquote “alternative to war.”

Nima: Routine harm dished out by US and its allies is sanitized using this Foreign Policy-speak: seemingly neutral jargon that’s deliberately designed to dampen the negative rhetorical impact of what would otherwise be viewed as the destructive acts of an arbitrary and violent empire. Indeed, even the term “foreign policy” itself — as opposed to what’s more correctly defined as the management and expansion of US empire — frames the United States’ relationship to the other 95 percent of the world as passive, benign and morally neutral.

Adam: Today we examine what’s being said, and what’s being left out when we use “foreign policy-speak”, how writers can avoid these lazy euphemisms, and instead make a concerted effort to objectively describe the policy being advocated for rather than relying on well worn thought-terminating cliches that are designed to do all of our thinking for us.

Nima: As you can imagine, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to foreign policy-speak and for that reason we are going to do two episodes on this. We’re going to have this one big topic, but it’s going to be covered in two episodes. Our guest for both shows is Janine Jackson, program director at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting or FAIR and the producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin.

[Begin Clip]

Janine Jackson: Post Cold War we’ve had a lot of public conversations about the existence of loaded language and propaganda and so maybe US corporate media has felt that they needed to deliver another level of subtlety to their loaded language to make sure that we know that they know there’s such a thing as propaganda and this isn’t it.

[End Clip]

Nima: While we know that it’s kind of a cliche to quote George Orwell, especially when you do a show about propaganda and the use of language, but we thought we would start this topic with this quote, this Orwell quote from 1946 because it speaks to what we’ll be discussing on today’s show. The quote is this:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.

“Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Adam: And as usual, we apologize for using George Orwell. We know he’s cliche-

Nima: We get it.

Adam: But not everyone’s a savvy and hip as you are and it’s a good place to start. Okay. So before you send me your messages saying ‘Orwell, really? Is this fucking 10th grade rhetoric?’ Yes. Well, we did it. We read Orwell and it’s actually relevant and it’s good. And even if it is derivative, it’s succinct. So shut the fuck up. It’s all about scolding your dissenters.

Nima: (Laughs.) So cruel.

Adam: I’m going full Shanley, man. So because the list of anodyne foreign policy-speak examples is virtually endless we had to narrow it down and we’re doing something we haven’t done before, which is a listicle, which I’m not above. In fact, my bio on Twitter for several years was not above listicles. I was a staff writer at AlterNet, I had no choice, but I like a good listicle. We’re going to do the Top 10 Anodyne Foreign Policy-Speak Terms. We narrowed it down. It was actually quite, uh, quite a selection process.

Nima: It was a full march madness bracket, whittled down to 10.

Adam: We struggled over it internally, but without further ado, we’re going to break this down. We’re going to do five on this show, five on the next show, and we’re going to have Janine’s interview in both episodes. Like we mentioned, she’s been doing this for a long time. She’s gonna provide a lot of color and commentary on this, but we wanted to start by doing the first five in particular. Number one, there’s no particular order by the way, this is not a countdown. This is not David Letterman. The first one we’re doing is “engagement or retreating from the world stage.”

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: It was supposed to be the cornerstone of strategic engagement.

Man #2: Western engagement-

Man #3: Our engagement-

Woman #1: And the US engagement in the region-

Man #4: We have to engage Latin America much, much more.

Woman #2: Well this administration had better be a lot more engaged in Latin America.

Woman #3: All of these require robust engagement with Latin America.

Man #5: Re-engage with Asia-

Woman #4: Signaling his desire to have the US become more deeply engaged in Asia.

Man #6: How much does America really want to engage with Asia? Is it Asia alone or Asia Pacific?

Man #7: Promoting US leadership through balanced engagement across the Middle East.

Woman #5: But politicians on both sides of the aisle might find themselves hard pressed to stand behind further engagement in the Middle East.

[End Clip Montage]

Nima: Engagement or to “engage” with a region is a very polite way of saying have a military presence or invade or occupy or control the government or impose devastating, crippling sanctions on a civilian population. So originally a military term for “going to war with” — people traditionally “engaged in battle” or “engaged the enemy” — this word “engage” slowly has morphed to mean everything under the sun when it comes to this foreign policy-speak so from low level diplomacy all the way up to full scale bombing, invasion and occupation.

Adam: Yeah. It’s a favorite non-term of the quintessentially foreign policy-speak think tank Brookings, who’s always arguing for more US engagement and you read their reports and it’s not until page 9 or page 27 you realize by engagement what they mean is funding and arming more proxies, more dictators or investing in soft power mechanisms like NED-type groups. I’m going to list off a few Brookings headlines from the past couple years. “The end of US engagement in China?” “Engagement with Iran: The Sequel.” U.S.-China relations: Is it time to end the engagement?” “Restoring equilibrium: U.S. policy options for countering and engaging Russia.” “What does it mean to engage Russia?” So what’s interesting is that the origins of the term “engage” when you see the word used up until about really the Vietnam era, the term engaged usually means war. You engage with an enemy, you engage on the battlefield. That was the way it was used and then people started using this sort of term we engage in diplomacy, we engage in peace talks specifically in the context of Israel. This was a very popular term. The US is engaging in the Middle East peace process, which usually is a way of extorting the Palestinians into giving up concessions to Israel. But then we sort of dropped the war and peace seeking qualifiers and then the word engage slowly began to include everything. It spanned the gamut from two low level diplomats meeting for tea to invading a country. That all meant to engage.

Nima: Yeah morphing from what is sort of like a Stratego style battlefield terminology, the term engagement actually, you know, was used on and off since Vietnam, but didn’t become really widespread in the lingo of foreign policy until around 9/11. Then it really took off. But typically post 9/11, it became this way of talking about the uh, United States engaging in the Middle East, which sounded obviously much more sophisticated than say if you were to, you know, just said, bombing countries, protecting Israel and stationing military bases literally everywhere.

Adam: So there’s a Morning Call headline from April of 2003, “French government quietly preparing its military for possible engagement in Middle East.” Baltimore Sun, July of 2001, “The concerns [over CIA] didn’t alter Tenet’s engagement with Middle East leaders.” This is in the run-up to Iraq. Then later on there was this obsession that US was not engaging in the Middle East under Obama. This was a well worn phrase you heard over and over again. There’s a headline from the Boston Globe, “US committed to engagement in Middle East, Kerry says…Critics accuse America of retreating from the region.” So there’s this constant, and especially in the age of Trump, you see this over and over again, this idea that we’re not engaging in the Middle East and that we’re retreating. Now what this usually means is, is that we’re not arming and funding groups to fight Iranians and Russians.

Nima: As much as some people would like. Because that’s not stopping, but it’s not as much.

Adam: It’s unseemly to say we should be arming and funding proxies in Syria and propping up the Saudi War in Yemen that’s killed thousands of civilians. So you say, ‘oh, it’s important that we engage in the Middle East.’ It sounds so neutral, sounds so morally neutral. The all time best example of this, it was written by a guy named Evan Barrett who wrote for The Daily Beast, which is obsessed with perpetuating US militarism, he was a defense contractor in post war Iraq and at the time he wrote the article was a principal in the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which is sort of this NED-type dedicated to overthrowing the Syrian government. And he wrote an article called “The Soft Bigotry of the American Left.”

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: And the sub headline was, “When It Comes To The Middle East From President Obama down, party members keep asking an ugly question: What can you do with these people?”

Nima: Uh. So hand wring-y.

Adam: The premise of the article is that by saying we need to pull out of wars, we are actually being racist. That we were saying that they don’t, it’s brilliant marketing. It’s great bullshit. I mean as far as bullshit goes, it’s really top shelf stuff. The argument is that it’s racist and the article uses the word engagement about 85 times in a way that is so hilarious to me. Nima, you want to go ahead and read these quotes?

Nima: Yes. I would like nothing more because they are amazing. And when I say Rhodes, it has Ben Rhodes, the White House advisor. So here,

“Rhodes seems to argue that however disingenuous the White House’s spin may have been, it was aimed at winding down our counterproductive engagement in the Middle East over the objections of the incompetent foreign policy establishment Rhodes calls ‘the Blob.’…”

There’s another:

“Hillary Clinton remains admirably steadfast in her commitment to Middle East engagement, but she does so against a tide of new liberals who are fixated on problems at home, and who join many of their conservative counterparts in a bipartisan consensus of fear and bigotry.”

And there’s one last one. It’s so good, it’s so good. There’s one last one, here, this is Rhodes again:

“I see him cast his accusatory hand not only at the military industrial complex, or the foreign policy establishment “Blob,” but at Middle Eastern peoples themselves. After all they’ve been through, they deserve better than this callous deflection. They deserve our support and engagement.”

Adam: What the hell does engagement mean here? When he talks about Hillary Clinton’s commitment to Middle East engagement, what he means is overthrowing the government of Syria, which he was charged to do at that point, which involves arming, you know, proxies, many of them if not all of them sectarian in nature. It involves presumably bombing the Syrian government, which he was also lobbying for at the time. That’s what he means by engagement, but he doesn’t want to say that. So he says engagement and it sounds as if he wants, you know, he wants Hillary Clinton to meet Bashar al-Assad for coffee.

Nima: Or to be involved with, right? To be attached to. When you get engaged to someone, to be married, you’re deciding to make a commitment, if you want to use those terms like, but that’s part of what this speaks to. That’s how that word is widely understood. It is this commitment to being involved in the lives of other people for fucking ever because you have military bases and propped up dictators. That is what that means, but you don’t say that-

Adam: Hey Nima, why are you opposed to engagement?

Nima: Who would be opposed to engagement?

Adam: And what’s funny is that when you fire a missile from, uh, you know, F -22, you say “target engaged,” which is really what they really mean. Uh, we are engaging Syria by blowing them up. We’re engaging Iraq by overthrowing their government. But let’s move on. So number two, uh, it’s like trying to choose which of our children are the best children. We want to say all of them.

Nima: These are all my favorite children.

Adam: Yeah, this is quote, “Put pressure on” love it, ”robust sanctions” that “isolate” enemy country X.

Nima: So good. So to put pressure on a rogue regime through the use of robust and targeted sanctions that can isolate the government to then obviously do what the United States government wants it to do. We hear this all the time. It is, you literally can just like, search for this online. It is in every article about any official enemy of the United States.

There is one example I do want to point out though to start this section, and it’s as related to Iran under George W. Bush, but it didn’t stop with him. Barack Obama the morning after clinching the Democratic nomination for president in June of 2008 appears in front of AIPAC, which is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, basically the leading Israel lobby in Washington. And so he appears in front of their annual conference in Washington DC and declares, knowing he’s going to be the Democratic nominee for president and probably knowing he’s going to be president, declares his every intention to quote, “find every avenue…to isolate the Iranian regime, from cutting off loan guarantees and expanding financial sanctions, to banning the export of refined petroleum to Iran.” End quote. And he continued to brag about having introduced legislation just the year before that would quote “encourage states and the private sector to divest from companies that do business in Iran.” End quote. The intention overall, Barack Obama said, was that in addition to imposing quote “unilateral sanctions that target Iranian banks and Iranian assets,” the point was to quote “tighten the squeeze on the Iranian regime.”

Adam: Yeah. And of course what the sanctions are actually doing is rarely mentioned. Because if they mentioned the consequences when they say strangling or crippling sanctions, as Hillary Clinton boasted about her crippling sanctions, they kill a lot of people. Uh, so Bloomberg News in November 2018, “Trump’s Sanctions Are Proving a Bitter Pill For Iran’s Sick.” “Penalties have made global banks wary of business with Iran.” “Some medicines in short supply as the noose tightens, price rises.” The New York Times also did an extensive article on this. CNN, “Iranians are paying for US sanctions with their health,” which details the shortage of x-ray machines and other necessary medical supplies in hospitals because they can’t import them from the West, from Europe and the United States.

Nima: Yeah, this is deliberate. This is a deliberate tactic to drive up unemployment, to deliberately harm civilian populations because they know they can’t get medicine that is needed or medical equipment. And then meanwhile the United States says, ‘oh, but you know, medicine isn’t banned in our sanctions, we are humanitarian in that way.’ But they know full well that the fallout, the overall consequences of the sanctions is that foreign companies stop doing business with these countries that are sanctioned by the US because often have a thing called secondary sanctions, which is that the United States will then penalize and punish and bring to court and extract money from countries that don’t abide by unilaterally imposed US sanctions. So, you know, European companies that don’t agree with US sanctions don’t want to have to go to court against the United States, the power and the might of the United States and jeopardize whatever financial, economic, military relationships already exist. And so they tend to go along with these things. So robust sanctions have devastating impact on civilian populations. And the entire point is this kind of cynical gambit to make people who live in these countries deemed insufficiently obedient to US interests, to make them so miserable, to make their lives full of such suffering and devastation that they somehow turn on their own government. And don’t blame the United States who they know is actually doing this to them. A lot of polls have shown in the past that the Iranian people, for example, are not fooled by this and that whatever problems they do have with their government, and there are many, they do not blame basically the lack of medicine and stuff like that on their government because you know what, uh, they also have news and they actually get to read the statements made by US politicians. And they know what is literally happening in this world. And they know that the United States is responsible for imposing these sanctions.

Adam: And by the way, obviously there’s, you know, hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the Iraq sanctions. And this term is casually thrown out all the time.

Nima: This is obviously not a thing of the past. This is endless. A recent example is just from November 2018 reported in The New York Times. Uh, and it has to do with John Bolton who really loves to impose robust sanctions on countries, uh, in an effort to really tee them up for the ultimate invasion. So this article talks about Bolton deeming Nicaragua as a part of the so-called Latin American troika of tyranny, which also includes obviously Cuba and Venezuela. And so John Bolton, neocon ghoul who just wants to bomb every official enemy said this, that until, “free, fair, and early elections” are held in Nicaragua, Bolton said, the government “will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”

Adam: Yeah. And of course The Economist said in a tweet on January 31st, 2019, “Juan Guaidó and Donald Trump are betting that sanctions will topple the regime before they starve the Venezuelan people.” And that’s rarely framed that way. It’s framed as this kind of gentle nudge as opposed to, I mean, why did, why did Japan bomb Pearl Harbor, they bombed the United States because they cut off their oil supply. You need an oil supply to operate a country, you know, not justifying it either way, but that’s-

Nima: There are consequences to embargoes and to sanctions.

Adam: People die, economies suffer.

Nima: Which is the point. Moving on. Number three, we have to “do something” or alternatively, when it fits lamenting the fact that the United States “stood by and did nothing.”

Adam: This is an extremely popular refrain.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: The president drew the red line in the sand in Syria. He saw each city one by one fall and they did nothing. They just stood by and just let it happen.

Woman #1: Activists report indiscriminate bombings and summary executions in the streets by forces loyal to President Assad. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson laid part of the blame at the feet of the House of Commons and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said jointly, quote, ‘this is the inevitable result of hollow words and inaction, red Lines crossed without consequences, tarnished moral influence leading from behind and the total lack of American leadership.’

Man #2: President Obama had promised to do something in Syria and didn’t do anything and I think what happened after Mr. Obama didn’t do anything to Assad, correct?

Man #3: Obama did nothing with Syria.

Man #4: To tell you the truth there’s Syria, of which, um, Obama did nothing.

[End Clip Montage]

Adam: This is very popular in the context of Syria. There’s not a lot known about what the US has done in Syria or hasn’t done. We do know, according to David Ignatius and The Washington Post, uh, other reporters at The Washington Post that the US spent about a billion dollars a year of funding and arming groups to overthrow the regime in Syria, the government of Syria. You could make an argument that by not bombing the government directly until Trump’s two token bombings in April 2017 and April ’18 respectively, um, you could make the argument that they didn’t do enough, but you could not possibly say that they did nothing. But over and over and over again, we kept hearing about how the US stood by and did nothing in Syria.

Nima: For instance, there was a Guardian editorial back in September of 2015 that said this, “The optimism of the Arab spring is spent. Colonel Gaddafi was a tyrant, yet Libya has unravelled violently in the aftermath of his removal. The refusal to intervene against Bashar al-Assad gave the Syrian president permission to continue murdering his people.”

Adam: There’s an Op-Ed written by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post who wrote quote, “A number of options well short of major intervention might have reduced the regime’s destructive power and/or strengthened the capabilities of more responsible forces. All were untaken.” Uh, you saw this time and time again, Joe Scarborough, Nick Kristof several times said the US stood by and did nothing but they weren’t doing nothing. They were arming the opposition and funding fighters in the opposition. And again, you can say that was not enough, but it’s not nothing. And the reason why people say the US is not doing enough is that because if you say the US isn’t doing enough, that necessarily begs the question, what are we already doing? And what is the legality and wisdom of that? But you can’t do that. So what you have is this constant sort of Samantha Power Rwanda narrative where we’re sort of sitting by as atrocities unfold. But of course the US and it’s Saudi allies were heavily responsible for militarizing that conflict. Now again, you may say that’s a good thing. You may say that’s justified, but they didn’t do nothing. But the thing is to sort of fit this square peg into the round hole of this Rwanda narrative, this kind of genocide Rwanda narrative-

Nima: And the kind of attendant now responsibility to protect, right?

Adam: Right. You have to create the idea that Obama sat there and twiddled his thumbs when he really, he really didn’t by any objective metric.

Nima: So one prime example of this, as our listeners may remember, was in August 2016 after a devastating photo of five year old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after his home was bombed in Syrian or Russian airstrikes, we heard amped up calls by direct US military intervention, meaning military assault, military attack against the Syrian government in response to this to heartwrenching photo, the viral photo of Omran. And the broader of siege of East Aleppo, which is what was happening at the time, was prominently featured in most major newspapers at the time from New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, many others, uh, CNN, MSNBC and Fox all ran stories on the photo alone and the editorial boards and pundits all over weighed in a as well. Many of them insisting that Obama must, what else: do something to stop the suffering of the Syrian people as exemplified through this tragic photo of the five year old.

Adam: And very rarely is one asked to explain what that “do something” means. And the do something typically is laundered through an equally euphemistic expression. If not, this is probably my personal favorite, which is “no fly zone.” This is number four, “no fly zone.” No fly zone is absolutely brilliant because it gives the impression that no one’s flying in an airspace. But a no fly zone, it’s not a no fly zone, it’s a one party fly zone. It’s a US or NATO fly zone, which then of course raises the question, well how did you capture the air over a country? Well that requires blowing up the aircraft and the aircraft traffic control of the country. Throughout the war in Libya, which of course was framed as a no fly zone and then later just turned to regime change, which by the way, 100 percent of all no fly zones have later lead regime change from Iraq to Kosovo to Libya. No fly zones always mean regime change.

Nima: Cause you’ve already invaded the air above a place.

Adam: Right. So how else is the regime you’re trying to overthrow going to defend itself? There was a UN no fly zone, to protect civilians in Libya, which we won’t litigate now, but it was a moral panic. We had to sort of rush to do it. Oh it turns out then three weeks later Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama say, ‘oh well, we’re going to overthrow the government now.’ Which of course was always really the goal and no fly zone provides this liberal foot in the door. It’s saying, ‘okay, it’s just a no fly zone.’ Another branding they used for Syria was “safe zone.” We had to create safe zone.

Nima: Oh right.

Adam: And it’s true that the Russians and Syrian bombings were extremely indiscriminate, killed a shitload of people. And so the moral instinct to say, ‘oh well we need to create a no fly zone.’ Right? This is why the bombings were the center of the conversation because you had to give the sense that they were sort of this aerial genocide and you say, ‘oh well, no fly zone.’ That sounds good. It sounds anodyne it sounds like you’re, you’re preventing violence but a no fly zone, according to, by the way, a 2013 New York Times article when they, when they were floating the idea of a no fly zone, the New York Times wrote, “Imposing a no-fly zone, [Gen. Martin E. Dempsey] said, would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated anti-aircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country.” So it requires 70,000 troops effectively. And this was before, by the way, Russia entered the war. So you also have to dismantle the dozens of Russian anti-aircraft. Potentially you have to kill several Russians. This was not really talked about. It was sort of oh, a no fly zone. Let’s just assert that the US can fly over the sovereign territory of another country and the other country is supposed to just roll over and say, ‘yeah, no problem man, you know, just be sure to turn the lights off when you’re done.’

Nima: Well, as you mentioned earlier, Adam, like the term itself pulls so much weight in terms of obfuscating what is actually happening. So no fly zone really, it’s like safe, clear, blue skies. No one’s up there, no one’s flying. That is not true. What it really means is destroying a foreign countries air force in that country on the ground or blowing fighter jets out of the sky.

Adam: And if you want to advocate that, then advocate that. My problem is that when people say no fly zone, it’s just liberal propaganda. It’s a, it’s a liberal buzzword that makes war seem like it’s easy and elegant. And it takes what is effectively a declaration of war and poses it as a de-escalation of conflict. It is deliberately meant to obfuscate. As you know, we talked about this offline, Nima, but Pearl Harbor was a textbook no fly zone. They were bombing the US air capacity, they were targeting only military targets, more or less, they were creating Japanese control over the airspace of Hawaii. That was a textbook definition of a no fly zone. But if I told you that, you would say, well, what? No, no, no, but that’s what a no fly zone is. I mean, that’s what the US did to Iraq, it’s what it did to the Libyan Air Force. It bombed the shit out of them. You have to do that to insert a no fly zone. The problem is that when people say “no fly zone” in the media, they’re never called upon to explain what that means. And there was one rare example of this in, it was a Democratic Party debate when Martha Raddatz all people brought this up to Hillary Clinton.

[Begin Clip]

Martha Raddatz: Secretary Clinton, I, I’d like to go back to that if I could. ISIS doesn’t have aircraft, al-Qaeda doesn’t have aircraft. So would you shoot down a Syrian military aircraft or a Russian airplane?

Hillary Clinton: I do not think it would come to that. We are already de-conflicting airspace.

Martha Raddatz: Isn’t that a decision you should make now whether — ?

Hillary Clinton: No, I don’t think so. I am advocating-

Martha Raddatz: If you’re advocating this — ?

Hillary Clinton: I am advocating the no fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians, I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia.

[End Clip]

Adam: Hillary Clinton didn’t really, she bullshitted. She says, ‘oh well, you know, no fly zone won’t require us to shoot down Russian airplanes.’ But that’s what it is.

Nima: What if they’re flying in the zone?

Adam: Exactly. And of course they’re going to fly in the fucking zone. They don’t want to just give up the airspace. Now there are sort of de facto no fly zones within this, within Syria that they kind of agreed not to kill each other, but they’re not going to concede a no fly zone over Damascus or over major Syrian air force bases.

Nima: So this term really was created first used in The New York Times in August 1992 when George H.W. Bush wanted to assert US led control over Iraq. Surprise, surprise. Ostensibly as reported and as claimed to — what else? — protect minorities there. And so The Times ran the headline, this is, um, again, August 17th, 1992, “Bush Is Asking Allies to Support Air Action to Protect Iraq Shiites.” And it goes on to explain this quote, “Under the plan, the United States and its allies would declare a ‘no fly’ zone roughly below the 32d parallel in Iraq, thus creating a security zone that would incorporate the major Shiite cities of Najaf, Karbala, Amara, Basra and Nasiriya.” End quote. And so we’ve now had this term for nearly three decades and I think we’re going to hear it a lot more. It is the perfect kind of liberal feel good term to describe literal air war.

Adam: For the purposes of this episode, we wanted to just do that, which is diplomatic-y speak-y and military euphemisms we’re going to table for another episode, but we wanted to use military actions that are framed as diplomatic. So there’s a really great term that’s used, which is “limited/kinetic airstrikes.” This was very popular. It was coined by the Obama Administration. Uh, Michele Flournoy, who was the former third-ranking civilian of the Pentagon under Obama, who was sort of being groomed to be the defense secretary under Hillary Clinton, uh, she coined an even better version of this, which is pretty amazing. It was “limited military coercion” in Syria. So this was sort of a gentle bombing.

Nima: (Chuckles.) That’s amazing. It’s a nudge, Adam.

Adam: It’s just a nudge.

Nima: Eh, you know.

Adam: Center for American Progress, which was the government in waiting effectively foreign policy shop for the Clinton administration that never was, unfortunately, I can’t believe I’m actually saying that, but —

Nima: Oh wow. (Laughing.)

Adam: Um, well, whatever. She would have been better than Trump.

Nima: Well sure.

Adam: I’m sorry. I’ve come out of the closet as a liberal. I don’t give a shit. Um, better than Trump. Um, that she, although on this one issue, probably not, that there was this effort to sort of not be pro-war, but be pro-war so CAP would write these really tortured 60 page policy position papers on Syria where they would use these terms like, like limited military coercion, which really was a way of testing the waters for a NATO bombing of the country to overthrow them.

Nima: And one of the best ways that it described this was that this coercion to help get Assad out of power in Syria, uh, would include a quote “no bombing zone” over parts of Syria held by US backed rebels.

Adam: We went from no fly zone to safe zone —

Nima: To a no bombing zone, except obviously someone’s allowed to bomb.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Someone’s not allowed to bomb. You bombed so that the other person can’t bomb. Right?

Adam: Right. Presumably your bombs are like less bad, which, which, you know, they probably are, but not by a lot.

Nima: So this term limited strikes or kinetic strikes makes it really sort of scientific and interesting. We have other variations. It’s all kind of folded into this number five. But we hear about pinpoint and precision and surgical and signature strikes. And we have been hearing this for years. White House spokesman Jay Carney under Obama was a big fan of, of this surgical strike metaphor, the kind of medical euphemism when he said quote, “a hallmark of our counterterrorism efforts has been our ability to be exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted.” You heard this idea of surgical precision repeated by John Brennan who was , you know, the counter terrorism advisor and then CIA head, “laser-like focus” of bombings. This was all really under Obama especially had to do with the pressure that they were getting — pressure is another one — the attention that their illegal drone program, drone murder, assassination, civilian killing program was getting both in the media and a little bit, uh, politically. And so you heard Brennan talk about “delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.” Surgical pressure to the groups, to the groups! Literally it’s, it’s, it’s a robot firing missiles.

Adam: And then, um, August 7th, 2014, President Obama, uh, the headline in The New York Times is quote, “Obama Allows Limited Airstrikes on ISIS.” Uh, this was during the Yazidi where ISIS was about to invade these Yazidis and kill a bunch of them, which probably could have been stopped with local forces, with the Kurdish militias, but we didn’t want to use them. So we went and we wanted to kind of do it ourselves. So limited airstrikes. This “Obama Allows Limited Airstrikes on ISIS.” The US is still bombing isis. This was, gee, this was all four and half years ago.

Nima: It’s limited in the sense of human history, like it’s four years out of a lot more, (laughs) but, but firing missiles from flying robots, um, is deemed surgical, right?

Adam: Surgical.

Nima: The kind of surgery that like removing a splinter with a chainsaw and then using that chainsaw to murder the other members of your patient’s family. It’s that kind of surgery. So when the Obama administration then conducted “signature” strikes, this was a different thing. Signature strikes. These were defined as drone attacks in which the United States targets people they believe to be militants, though they don’t know the exact identities of the targets. So the basic criteria we learned for this extra judicial death sentence proclaimed thousands of miles away by someone who has no idea who you are, this was the criteria: males of military age. So anyone between 18 and 70. Signature strikes.

Adam: Signature strikes. So that was our first five. We’re going to do in the next five on the next show. There’s so much bullshit here. We had to break it up into two episodes. This is sort of like, you know when you were a kid and you would get that Nintendo game that had ten games in one and all the games were always shitty? This is the opposite of that. If the ten games in one for one episode, one monster two part episode, but it’s actually good games. It’s like Paperboy, Excitebike. It’s not like Nikko’s American Football Contest and you’re like, that doesn’t sound fun.

Nima: So we are going to be joined now by Janine Jackson, program director at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and the producer and host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Stay tuned.


Nima: We are joined now by FAIR’s Janine Jackson. It is great to have you on the show again Janine.

Janine Jackson: It’s my pleasure, gentlemen.

Adam: Thanks so much for coming on. Um, we, we’ve been wanting to get you on for a while, but we were waiting for the most exquisitely FAIRish theme and uh, we thought this particular episode was that because it deals with something that FAIR’s been covering for quite a while, which is this sort of seemingly anodyne or seemingly innocuous language and the way it, it kind of smuggles in ideology, which is a very fascinating puzzle in its own right. Diplomatic speak is something that, you know, FAIR’s been covering for over 30 years. And I guess my first question is kind of a broad one, in your time there, in your observations, how much ideological labor is done with the cliches we’ve talked about on today’s show, um, and others like it? To what extent do you think these devices have gotten more popular or less popular?

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson: Well, I actually came to media criticism through a couple of ways through corporate power and that conversation, but also personally very much through language, you know, and that is very interesting to me. I would say, I’m not sure that I see, I feel that that kind of coded language and that sending ideological messages through apparently kind of neutral words has always been a part, I mean, that’s what propaganda means right? To some extent. You know, I think that’s always been a part of US media coverage. Post Cold War we’ve had a lot of public conversations about the existence of loaded language and propaganda and so maybe US corporate media has felt that they needed to deliver another level of subtlety to their loaded language to make sure that we know that they know there’s such a thing as propaganda and this isn’t it. Right? You know.

Adam: I think that’s right, you know, the word itself — propaganda — fell out of favor and it switched to public relations in the ’50s. I mean it’s always been sort of managerial, sort of very heavily processed language.

Janine Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. Almost doesn’t mean anything. You know, it’s almost like bureaucracy speak, you know? Almost like when you work for a corporation and they’re like ‘we’re going to manage the hours and the thing’ and you mean like wait, you’re going to tell me to come in to work more? You know, like ‘no, no, we’re managing’ and you know it kind of fits with a lot of kind of BS language that we see. And I’m almost touched by when you’re talking about diplomacy speak cause to me the very word diplomacy is an example of what we’re talking about. I think a lot of people think diplomacy, you know, means prioritize peace and it doesn’t actually mean that.

Adam: Yeah. And so does foreign policy right? These terms themselves sound so innocuous. What do you think of that word: diplomacy? And what does it, what does, what is the image that pops into one’s head? Cause this is really what this episode is about, which is what the image versus the reality. What is the image that you think pops into people’s heads when they hear the word diplomacy and what in reality does it actually entail?

Janine Jackson: Well I think that when a lot of folks think about it, they think that first of all it means prioritizing peace over war. That’s what diplomacy seems to mean. It seems to mean that we want to not kill one another but try to find a ground in which we can exist peacefully. And in fact, what it often turns out to mean, the way that corporate news media use it is, you know, diplomacy where we try to get other countries to do what we want them to do. And if they don’t, then it’s not that, um, we were not diplomatic. It’s that diplomacy didn’t work, you know? And I think that that’s really difficult, I think a lot of folks as cynical as, or as skeptical as I might be, I think a lot of folks just consuming US media really earnestly, genuinely believe that the US government is basically on the side of good and that basically we don’t want to go to war with other countries and that it’s very, very difficult to internalize or understand anything different than that. So when we hear that the US is trying to support diplomacy, we think that means the US government is using every method they can to avoid war making and ooo boy, is that the opposite of the truth.

Nima: One of my favorite versions of this is actually when they just sort of say all the things together, right? They’re just using all the, all the jargon at once. All the transformative catalytic change toward social impact and you know, building capital, like all that garbage just kind of gets like lumped in in the phrase “coercive diplomacy.” There was an article in Foreign Affairs a number of years ago in 2013 called “Getting to Yes With Iran: The Challenges of Coercive Diplomacy,” written by Robert Jervis. And it’s that term that just sort of like, well is it coercion, which again is almost too anodyne to really mean anything or is it diplomacy? And it’s like, oh it’s, it’s everything cause it’s just US imperialism.

Janine Jackson: Well it helps if you don’t understand what words mean-

Nima: (Laughs.) Right.

Janine Jackson: You know, because um, you know, coercive diplomacy works about as well as a coup for democracy. You know, as long as you don’t unpack what either of those words mean, it can sort of make sense. And frankly, it’s really just, um, I mean obviously the word Orwellian is overused, but it really is an instance of power trying to make words mean what they say they mean, you know? And it’s as simple as that. And so if you say, well, we’re going to have a coup in Venezuela, but that’s going to be in aid of democracy, anyone who knows what words mean, their brain breaks, you know, they don’t understand. That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make any sense. But if you just say, well, okay, um, I’m going to assume these people are telling me the truth and, and that I should just understand this and probably if I don’t understand it, I’m the problem and I’m just not smart enough to understand it. Well then it works very well.

Adam: You know it’s funny you mention Venezuela, I think this has introduced a few new words to update the kiddos. I think there was a line that was being repeated by Juan Guaidó and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that when they were trying to effectively rush the border on February 23rd and 24th, they used this line, “avalanche of aid.” Um, and when I kept hearing that they were going to mount hundreds of people on the border and bring in an avalanche of aid, I said, gee, that sounds a lot like an invasion. The whole Venezuela thing has been couched in humanitarianism, which we could do a whole episode on, but it’s, it seems like they’re having to reinvent new words, uh, because people become desensitized to these concepts and now, you know, avalanche of aid was clearly white-boarded in some office in Miami, whether it be public relations or Univision or CIA but like there’s this sort of ‘avalanche of aid sounds good.’ I mean —

Nima: There’s going to be so much help, it’s going to smother everyone in help and happiness.

Adam: Yeah.

Janine Jackson: It’s also confusing you know? Avalanche isn’t good. Right?

Adam: Well, if it’s aid that’s good. If it’s an avalanche of love, if it’s an avalanche of rainbows and $30 steaks people are like, ‘yeah, that sounds good.’

Janine Jackson: But you know, the language thing goes so, so deep. It’s so beyond even words like diplomacy and I was thinking about surgical strikes.

Nima: Oh yeah.

Janine Jackson: You know, like things can’t terms like that, you know, like language that you’re just like, wow, who wrote that for you? But it really just comes down deeply also to something as simple as US media saying “we” when they’re talking about the US government, you know, ‘we are considering invading Venezuela,’ ‘we are under attack from Iraq,’ you know, something like that. And you think, well, the United States is built up of many different people, with many different interests, located in very and situated in very many different ways. And so to have a US media reporter say, ‘we have an interest in Venezuela,’ ‘we have an interest in Afghanistan.’ As a listener, you just get kind of subsumed in that. Yeah, I’m part of that we. I’m part of that we.

Adam: I think about “we” a lot and I think we even touched on it in the very first episodes Nima, is that when we talk about moral culpability of being Americans, I use the word we, I say, you know, what we did in Vietnam or what we did to Iraq, because, because there’s a sense of like responsibility knowing that you live in the belly of empire. But I don’t use it when we’re talking about things that are extensively good, like liberating a country or, or bringing an avalanche of aid, you know, ‘we are doing this.’ I really, and I think that in a weird way, a kind of lefty collective guilt kind of plays into that in a way. And it’s a, it’s a very easy sleight of hand to miss.

Janine Jackson: Yeah, I agree. I agree. And you know, I said something on a CounterSpin a week or so ago where I said, um, I talked about media talking about our interests and I actually said, they mean some of our interests, you know, um, they’re not really, they’re talking about, you know, warmongerers and defense companies interests. You know, I think I was probably talking about Venezuela and I got an angry email, like ‘stop saying US interests. It’s not US interests.’ And I thought well but I actually really took pains to not say that frankly.

Nima: Right.

Janine Jackson: You know, I really did try to make it clear that we often media and then sometimes us, you know, quote unquote “alternative media” say “we” when we mean the United States. But in this case, I really wanted to, to differentiate that when we’re talking about reigning war on another country in the world, and we say that it’s in our interest or our defense, uh, it, we need to unpack what is meant by “our.” You know, and that’s actually a, a big thing of what media don’t do and they’re collapsing of that does a whole lot of ideological work that even the most savvy listeners sometimes don’t realize is happening, you know?

Nima: Yeah. Well, and what also strikes me is when that kind of monolithic collective pronoun or just the idea of a we or a they, it is very weaponized when it needs to be. But also it usually only goes one one way, which is something that we bring up a lot. I mean that when it’s handy enough, the Iranian people are very separate from their government.

Janine Jackson: Right, right.

Nima: But when it’s handy in a different way Iran needs to suffer, they need to suffer.

Janine Jackson: And when we’re targeting a country, when we’re targeting a country with sanctions, well, we’re always just targeting the leaders of that country, we’re never targeting the actual people.

Nima: Regime.

Janine Jackson: Regime yes of course. Never the actual people who are actually on the pointed end of those sanctions. So it invisibilizes the actual impact of the policy that we’re endorsing because we present it, or I’m sorry, US media present as the United States targeting this other country, which in this case you’re meant to understand means just the leadership of this other country and not the people of that other country, right?

Nima: But only sometimes.

Janine Jackson: Yeah, but only sometimes.

Adam: The cutting off a country’s ability to do debt financing, which is an essential part of dealing with crises, is called the targeted sanction because of some sort of, that they’re all just a collective gang of cronies. And of course the constant quote unquote “targeted sanctions,” which are always always a precursor to more collective forms of punishment, it’s never acknowledged that if I’m an investor and I think your country’s about to be overthrown because there’s constant threats of overthrowing and there’s all these quote unquote “targeted sanctions,” that that becomes itself a de facto sanction because why would I engage in a loan to you if I know it’s going to be null and void five minutes from now? So there really isn’t much difference in effect. But, uh, yeah, we talked about sanctions to a great extent earlier and I think the language around sanctions in the ways in which it’s viewed as this kind of alternative to wars, got to be a top five greatest propaganda coups, it’s just taken for granted that even, you know, these alleged socialists like Bernie Sanders are for sanctions.

Janine Jackson: And it’s such exceptionalism.

Adam: With some exceptions.

Janine Jackson: Yeah. I really can’t imagine Americans thinking, what if your freaking lights went out? You know? Because there was a blackout, you know, based on an attack on your electrical grid from another country that thought that you shouldn’t have elected the president that you elected. I just think it’s so far outside the ken of a lot of United States citizens that they almost can’t grok that this is what is it actually happening?

Nima: Yeah.

Janine Jackson: You know, and, and, and then we’re talking about language and I was thinking about a thing from, um, from Miami Herald in 2015 where they were talking about how Maduro in Venezuela opposes US imperialism. And they put US imperialism in quotes because it’s like, you know, I mean, you know, that’s just like jargon. Obviously those aren’t real words that really mean anything. And to the extent that they are, they’re just words that opponents of the United States use to degrade, you know, the US’ good actions and to me this is, you know, it bothers me on a number of levels, but it bothers me just because people ought to know what words mean. Imperialism is a word. It accurately describes a set of policies. It is accurately attributed to the United States. And so when a media outlet puts it in quotes as if it were a marginal, weird, not really okay opinion, they’re twisting their reader’s brains, you know, in a certain way that makes them, outside of that particular article, makes them unable to understand what their government is up to. You know?

Adam: And meanwhile totally made up Madison Avenue words like “smart sanctions” are never put in quotes.

Janine Jackson: Well no. Yeah. Right, right.

Nima: That really gets to such an important point, which is that the kind of scoffing quotes meant to, you know, right say, ‘oh, this is just like lefty speak.’ This is the jargon that really doesn’t, you know, this can be disputed whether it’s occupation, whether it’s white supremacy. And yet all the violent vicious words that have been glossed over are just the terms, I mean —

Janine Jackson: It’s just objective.

Nima: Right. It’s just the objective way to talk about something. You know, something that is another perfect example of something that is so just in our lexicon that gets barely any scrutiny is something as basic as the term “regime change.”

Janine Jackson: Right. Well, “regime” even, you know, you’re only a regime if the United States doesn’t like you, otherwise you’re a government. You know, I mean, I know, you know, you’re only a regime, if the, the US thinks that you don’t, it’s not in their interests to have you occupy that position you know?

Nima: Or it is illegitimate in some way. It de-legitimizes.

Janine Jackson: Exactly. And the very idea that the United States government gets to determine the legitimacy of other governments, other sovereign governments around the world. To us it seems absurd or at least, you know, something that you should question. And yet it’s, and the point that I would make, is that it’s so much price of admission to what elite media call the serious people conversation. You can’t really get in the conversation unless you except those terms that of course the United States has the right, if not the duty to overthrow other countries leaderships if the US government decides that they’re not supporting what they want them to support. And you can’t question that even though if another, if you know, Panama decided they didn’t like the US government, the idea that they would start trying to sabotage our electrical grid in order to make us overthrow that government, it’s beyond the absurd. And yet we are conditioned by the way that corporate media talk to think that somehow it’s reasonable if the United States does it to other countries but it would be completely absurd and outrageous if other countries tried to do it to us.


Adam: Yeah, always going to have Janine. Note, we are off next week so the second part will actually be the week after that. Um, and then that will reveal what her favorite of these euphemisms is, which I’m very excited about.

Nima: And it will also reveal my favorite, which is in the next episode.

Adam: We’re doing a little cliffhanger here, uh, going to keep you titillated.

Nima: So we will leave it there. Thank you so much for listening this week to Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our all listener supported show here through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always an extremely special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed this produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. We will catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.