Originally published under the title "Obama Is Trying to Trick Us All by Rebranding the Iran 'Ransom Payment' as 'Leverage'."
On August 4, days after the disclosure that in January the US paid $100 million each for the release of four Americans held hostage by Iran, Barack Obama said "We do not pay ransom. We didn't here, and we won't in the future." It was this Democrat's version of "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
Obama lying to the American people is hardly news, but it didn't end there. Soon everyone in the world recognized that it was ransom, and the Iranian government said it was ransom. Something had to be done, so "ransom" was revised, Ben Rhodes-style, into "leverage." It was a failed attempt by a president with a compulsion to be correct, or at least appear so, to change public perception with a political euphemism.
Most euphemisms arise from a desire to say something potentially offensive in an inoffensive way. The perpetually-offended Victorians were prolific euphemizers. Once upon a time in America television hosts referred to sexual intercourse as "making whoopee." Those days are mostly gone, but the euphemism is still an important component to political discourse.
Political euphemisms are different though. A euphemism works by renaming, although a euphemism is not necessarily a synonym. President Eisenhower oversaw the transfer of nuclear technology to allies and future enemies alike under the "Atoms for Peace" program.
Some are linguistically oxymoronic but accurate. Ronald Reagan introduced us to the "Peacekeeper" nuclear missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative – SDI or "Star Wars" defense as it was called.
Many are designed not to signify an act for polite company, but rather to hide the truth. Welfare payments are distributed under the rubric "earned income tax credit," and Democrats propose new taxes by calling them "investments in the future."
Some try to package an uncomfortable truth with technical jargon that help soften horror – "collateral damage."
Obama's attempt to pass off ransom as 'leverage' is amateurish. Political euphemisms shouldn't evoke laughter.
Barack Obama's attempt to pass off "ransom" as leverage" is amateurish. But then most of his attempts at euphemism have been unimpressive. Replacing George W. Bush's admittedly flawed "Global War on Terror" with "Overseas Contingency Operations" was silly, and substituting "Man-Caused Disaster" for "terrorism" has prompted laughter in all circles. Political euphemisms should not evoke laughter.
Sometimes he reaches for a euphemism and comes up with only overstatement (hyperbole) or understatement (litotes). He overstated the case during the 2012 election cycle by hyping his success "Al-Qaeda is decimated." Ironically, he got this right without knowing it, thinking that "decimated" is synonymous with "virtually destroyed" rather than "reduced by 10%." He understated the case by calling Kanye West a "jackass." Twice.
Obama also avoids some popular euphemisms. He will never announce that he's putting "boots on the ground," that term being a media euphemism reserved exclusively for large forces like regiments or divisions, and only when deployed by a Republican Commander in Chief.
He rarely uses the term "combat forces" unless to deny that we have any on foreign soil. Instead he prefers the old Vietnam era euphemism "advisors." So what if their advice is tendered at the front line of a battle? Perhaps soon the Forward Operating Base (FOB) will be renamed the Advising Office (AO).
"Military cuts" is another term that will not come out of this president's mouth. The public has caught on to the wonky term "sequestration," so look for another euphemism the next time he announces another decrease in active-duty troops, or tries to rationalize the Air Force's warning that we have too few pilots to fly our rapidly-deteriorating airplanes. Might I suggest "Defense Diet"?
Apparently out of wind in the last five months from his presidency, all this lame duck can manage is a pathetic attempt to pretend that the $400 million in crisp euros and francs delivered to Ali Khamenei's bagman was "leverage."
Poor John Kirby, the State Department spokesman whose job has turned into backing up his boss' euphemisms. Kirby insisted that the cash drop was "separate" from the simultaneous release of four Americans – "part of two negotiations," he explained.
Obama said it "defies logic" to use the term "ransom."
It is officially time to stop asking, even rhetorically, if they think we're stupid.
A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.