Welcome to Washington in global crisis, a semantic jungle where tortured phraseology is the native dialect. Normal discourse is not allowed.
Consider the 2,500 Americans being detained against their will by Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait. They will not be free to leave, according to Iraq, until the crisis in the region is resolved.
Every day, the State Department is asked whether these people are hostages. "It is premature to call them hostages," State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said last week. "Restrictees," as Iraq now calls them, are not hostages unless something has been demanded in exchange for their freedom.
Yesterday, Tutwiler raised another definitional hurdle: "These people are not bound and gagged. They are not held at gunpoint." Reminded of one group of Americans being held by armed guards in a Baghdad hotel, she observed that they are moving freely inside the hotel and no guns are pointed directly at them, and so they are not hostages.
President Bush, asked the status of the detained Americans, responded on Tuesday: "Inconvenienced people who want to get out."
This exercise in euphemism, odd as it sounds to the untrained ear, has a serious method to it. Calling the "restrictees" hostages would effectively turn them into hostages, the policy-makers say, making it impossible for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to release them without appearing to buckle under United States' pressure.
Similarly, the U.S.-led naval blockage of two ports and two Iraqi pipeline terminals in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean Sea is not a "blockade" because, the diplolinguists say, a blockade is an act of war and, in the words of the president: "We're not in a war."
Last Sunday, on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," Secretary of State James A. Baker III dubbed this action an "interdiction."
This term has since come into wide circulation in Washington. The president, the secretary of defense, the newspapers, radio and television networks use it freely. It doesn't seem to matter that nobody appears to know precisely what it means -- or that those who do know aren't telling.
State spokesman Tutwiler, asked to define interdiction, re-
sponded: "I don't have a definition for you. I'd refer you to a dictionary." Asked specifically what Baker meant by the term, she said: "I haven't asked him. He knows very well what it means. Interdiction means interdiction."
Press officers at the Defense and State departments told a reporter yesterday they do not have an official -- or unofficial -- definition of interdiction or blockade, although they have been saying for days that the United States is engaged in the first and not the second. Defense suggested the reporter call State; State suggested the reporter call Defense.
Barry Carter, professor of international law at Georgetown University Law Center, who is not involved in the current crisis and therefore speaks untortured English, said that the word, blockade, while traditionally associated with war, has no "legally significant meaning different from quarantine, interdiction or the like."
"It's the act of stopping a ship that is a hostile act, whether you call it quarantine, blockade or interdiction," he said.
For all the caution, certain phrases slip through the net. For example, in addressing the nation last week, Bush likened Saddam to Adolf Hitler, and Baker warned against allowing Saddam to inaugurate a "new Dark Age." National security adviser Brent Scowcroft called him a "cruel, brutal man."
This is the language of politics, however, and not diplomacy.
The American diplomatic lingo appears to have won differing acceptance in different countries depending on their attitude toward the U.S. actions. Several French correspondents, whose government opposes the U.S.-led "interdiction," said they have been terming it blockade, or blocus. One recently reported it as "a blocus that is not being called a blocus."
An Israeli correspondent, whose government supports the United States, said he has been using the term hessger, or quarantine, and an Egyptian correspondent, whose government has joined the "interdiction," said he called it al hissar belkouwa or complete boycott by force.
Georgetown's Carter expressed surprise that the government chose the term "interdiction," which he said has associations with the Vietnam War, when it was used to describe bombing raids to interrupt North Vietnamese supply lines.
"I don't know why they don't use quarantine," he said, observing it seems less war-like. "It sounds so medical."