Clichés at the Gates: Obama’s and Netanyahu’s buzzwords

Op-ed: Guy Cohen on the rhetoric of Obama and Netanyahu and the use of the different spoken and written words regarding the "challenges" and "opportunities" of the western world

Buzzwords and Jargon have seduced our age. "Going forward, we are focused on aggressively managing short-term challenges and opportunities and we remain committed to delivering our mid-decade plan and serving a growing group of Ford customers". So said Ford's former chief executive Alan Mulally.

Having endured recent speeches by U.S President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I felt that the Financial Times management columnist, Lucy Kellaway, dusted off Mulally's empty statement, and re-fashioned it as an antidote to the tiresome squabbling over Iran and the axiomatic instability in the Middle East. There is a lot of reassuring talk about the "challenge" that the United States, and the international community, face from groups like ISIS. Isn’t it naively optimistic to portray the activities of these groups as no more than a challenge? 

Western governmental leaders and their spokespeople can talk about the inhuman atrocities in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Russian aggression in the Ukraine, and Iran's nuclear program as "inspiring challenges". Challenge has become a euphemism for threat – real and unnerving threat. An example of this evisceration of language was Obama's remarks about the resistible rise of militant Islam in Closing of the Summit on "Countering Violent Extremism" last month.

Critics were quick to seize on the President's use of evasive, mollifying, language when he addressed the poisonous relationship between Islam and terrorism. Users of the current vocabulary that abounds with vague terms point out that it has a subtext of restraint. This, so the argument goes, is important, if we are to understand the political tremors that have shaken the Muslim world and, by an inevitable osmosis, the entire international community. "We should resist", it is said, "the temptation to accept the contention that all Muslim countries, alienated gangs or organizations are all part of a single, though undefined, entity".

Yet, out of all the elaborate White House official line, what particularly caught my attention was Obama's enthusiasm for a current buzzword that has been greatly overworked and has virtually lost any meaning – "challenge". In one paragraph, the president uttered "challenge" six times: "And I say all this because we face genuine challenges to our security today, just as we have throughout our history. Challenges to our security are not new.  They didn’t happen yesterday or a week ago or a year ago.  We've always faced challenges.  One of those challenges is the terrorist threat from groups like al Qaeda and ISIL.  But this isn't our challenge alone.  It's a challenge for the world". Bring on a nice fat Thesaurus.

I suppose this risk aversion is a motivational tool to face "a challenge" rather than tackling a problem or directly confronting a threat. But is it really the case with the current American administration? Is the Administration so pessimistic, fatigued and anxious that it thinks it is doomed to founder with long, dirty wars in distant countries unless it resorts to optimistically biased rhetoric, making it sounds like an inspiring opportunity rather than a destabilizing and horrific problem?

ISIL is terrorizing the people of Syria and Iraq, beheads and burns human beings across the Levant and the Libyan coast – no more than 300 miles to Sicily. This is not a "challenge". It is a life threatening menace that is killing thousands of people who wished – with all their hearts – they wouldn’t have to face this "challenge". In the world of 2015 the use of 'challenge' seems meaningless as a threat while 'problem' has become a neutered verbal Band-Aid. 

This brings me effortlessly to Netanyahu's clichéd enthusiasm for the word "opportunities", which, albeit with his complementary use of "inevitable threats", differentiates his rhetoric from Obama's. The difference was illuminated by the Netanyahu's speech to the UN last September: "There is a new Middle East. It presents new dangers, but also new opportunities. Israel is prepared to work with Arab partners and the international community to confront those dangers and to seize those opportunities. Together we must recognize the global threat of militant Islam, the primacy of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability…"

All this suggests there is a varying scale of opportunity these momentous days, which relates more to a collective reactive power than to America and Israel's will and capabilities to confront these problems. Indeed, there is a lot of huffing and puffing to foreign policy. Netanyahu can’t cough up here. And Obama is trying to beat the clock. This is a game of inches right now, or millimeters.

Guy Cohen is a Munich based advisor on defence & energy for the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute


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