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A Translation Guide to Foreign Policy Gibberish

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
September 5, 2013
ForeignPolicy.com

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Evaluating U.S. foreign policy starts with the tricky task of understanding what U.S. foreign policy actually is. Analysts endowed with great forbearance can listen to the question-and-answer sessions with spokespersons from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon. These folks have the unenviable task of putting forward the best case for administration policies, while providing as little newsworthy information as possible.

This is accomplished by using words or phrases that are consistently positive, action-oriented, and ambiguous enough to maintain maximum flexibility as more information becomes available and goals and interests shift. To help the uninitiated better understand what government flacks really mean, please keep this foreign policy translator handy the next time you are watching C-SPAN.

"We're evaluating the situation": We still haven't done anything.

"Events on the ground are fluid": If I articulate an official position on what's happening, somebody could get upset with my word choice.

"All options are on the table": Bombs.

"We can't rule anything out": We retain the right to do anything and everything.

"Our position has been very clear": Let me re-read some nonspecific generalizations from the briefing book that don't address your question.

"We welcome this debate": After harnessing the federal government's resources to hide the issue, we're going to dilute it with adjectives, already-public information, and selective leaking.

"We have serious concerns": The harshest possible condemnation of an American ally.

"Intolerable": Tolerable -- obviously, since we're still only talking about it.

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