An Expert Translation of Diplomatic Speak

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Ever wondered exactly what President Bush actually means when he says, "We all share the common values of freedom and democracy"? We do to. Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's Washington Correspondent does a little diplo-speak translation.


Explaining and justifying this change in policy requires some carefully worded statements from the Bush administration. Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's senior White House correspondent, wrote a short article last week on how to translate diplo-speak, so we've invited him here to interpret. Good morning. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. RICHARD WOLFFE (Newsweek): Good morning, my pleasure.

HANSEN: How did the administration justify the change regarding speaking with Iran and Syria? What could you tell from the language that Secretary Rice used?

Mr. WOLFFE: Well, first of all, they insisted absolutely that there was no change in policy, which itself - they were so insistent, methinks they protested a little too much. You know, they showed that they had always been talking to everybody. There were a number of spokespeople, for instance, who said there were always bilateral relationships with at least Syria.

Well, yeah, there were, but nothing ever happened in them. So there was a certain amount of twisting themselves into a pretzel here.

HANSEN: Are there any phrases, particular - or language usage that you keep your ears open, or you're going to keep your ears open for during the Iraq talks?

Mr. WOLFFE: Yes indeed. For a start, they use the weasel word sub-ministerial to begin with, as if, you know, you don't need to worry yourself about this little thing, it's only sub-ministerial. The idea being this is all a junior thing, it doesn't really mean anything. Yeah, well, sub-ministerial was never a category they had before until they got to this moment.

They're talking about, for instance, they expect the people at the conference to play a responsible and positive role. In other words, all the language before about get your tanks off our lawn, that's no longer operative, but they mean the same thing. Now they're just talking about being responsible.

HANSEN: As we heard in Michele Kelemen's report, there isn't always agreement within the administration over whether to talk to the countries it considers evil. How does the administration use language to handle its internal divisions?

Mr. WOLFFE: Well, it is funny that they even focused on the question of whether there was a policy change to begin with because until now it has always been about projecting strength, or in the administration's words, not rewarding bad behavior.

Now they have obviously crossed that Rubicon to say that they can sit down and not actually reward anything, but you know, there is that very simplistic view of the world that the administration has valued, that you can make a statement about talks as if the other side will somehow benefit simply by sitting down and talking.

As I explained to - you know, as I questioned the president in the last press conference, generations of presidents before sat down the Soviet Union. They didn't reward good behavior or bad behavior just by sitting down.

HANSEN: In the broadest sense, do you think the language that's coming out of the administration is a signal of a less-confrontational approach in international diplomacy?

Mr. WOLFFE: Up to a point. They're only doing this because they've already rattled the sabers. They've got the carrier groups in the Gulf. They're doing it from what they think is a position of strength. To the rest of the world, especially to Iran, actually America looks like it's in a relatively weak position because of Iraq. But the administration thinks that it's done enough to say we can make a concession now. Of course the critics say it's too little, too late.

HANSEN: Richard Wolffe is the senior White House correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Thanks for this useful and productive conversation.

Mr. WOLFFE: Any time.

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