Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

The uses of ambiguity: W., Ike and Wordfog -- QUEMOY AND MATSU. By now the names of those little islands off the Chinese coast may be embedded so deeply in historical memory that it takes some dredging up to recall that they were once the stuff of daily headlines and ominous forebodings of war.

Back in the furious Fifties, those sandbagged spits of land were being shelled daily by the Communists in control of the Chinese mainland, and the question kept arising at presidential press conferences: What does the United States propose to do about it?

Surely even now, somewhere in the stacks and carrels of a university library, some earnest student of modern American diplomatic history, poor confused thing, is still trying to figure out the Eisenhower administration's policy toward Red China's every aggressive move back then.

But our student needn't bother cranking his way through old microfilm trying to follow Ike's every cryptic comment on the subject. All he has to do is pick up the paper and read George W. Bush's. The more things have changed, the more mysterious presidential pronouncements remain.

There were at least two schools of thought to explain the habitual obscurity into which Ike would sink in his public statements -- only to emerge at the end beaming like an underwater swimmer who'd just crossed the English Channel without taking a breath. (It may have been Melville who said a smile was the wisest response to some things.)

The first, superficial explanation for Ike's wordfog -- an explanation much favored by what passed for the American intelligentsia at the time -- was that it couldn't be helped: Ike was just an amiable duffer with dyslexic propensities.

A dissenting view was offered by the late Murray Kempton, a columnist whose small but lovely niche in the pantheon of American opinionation now remains unfilled. It was Mr. Kempton's theory that Ike was inarticulate like a fox. He argued that the old general's obscure responses to pressing questions were deliberately designed to leave them nicely unanswered. (Ike hadn't spent all those years as a staff officer without learning the dangers of clarity.)

Mr. Kempton sold me on his theory, especially after I heard a story about Ike and his press secretary, Jim Hagerty. It was Mr. Hagerty's thankless job to translate his boss' remarks into something that would approach English. And the press aide was particularly nervous just before one news conference -- at which questions about Quemoy and Matsu were sure to fill the air, much like the shells then falling on the islands themselves. One careless remark, he knew, and we might be at war. "Don't worry, Jim,'' Ike soothed. "I'll just go out there and confuse 'em.'' And he did. No one was better at it.

Before it became clear just what the United States would do if the Chinese invaded those islands (it still isn't) the crisis had faded. Ike had laid down so much wordsmoke that there was nothing to fight about. Here was an example not so much of peace through strength, but peace through confusion.

Historians really ought to pay as much attention to the origins of peace as they do to the origins of war. If they did, they might see that, with only a verbal expenditure, Ike had bought time, and time had brought peace, or at least an absence of war.

It was left to Murray Kempton, whose own convoluted 18th Century sentences wrapped around the reader like an anaconda, to appreciate Ike's achievement. Eisehowerean may have been an obscure tongue, but it proved a mighty useful one on occasion. Bushean, too, may have its uses.

There are times when the object of presidential statements is not to clarify the issues but to mystify the adversary. The crafty old general did it deliberately. Our still new president may do it accidentally. Either way can work.

Note that, after George W. Bush finished explaining his administration's China policy last week, and assorted advisers finished explaining his explanation, said policy was at least as mysterious as it had been before. And it had the added benefit of allowing all the analysts to read whatever they wanted into it. The hawks at The Wall Street Journal were delighted, the doves in Congress were assured nothing had changed, and all were scratching their heads.

Just what had W. said? In the course of a long day, he said he was ready to do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself,'' although military force was only "an option,'' and while the United States still recognized only "one China,'' that he hoped peace would be maintained between "the two nations,'' and our policy remained unchanged, whatever it was. Got that? Ike would have been proud. And they say the Chinese are inscrutable.

Whether the president confused the Chinese, he certainly succeeded in confusing Congress: Tom Lantos, the Democratic congressman from California, sounded gratified. "I think the president's straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement,'' he said, by which he seems to have meant the president's convoluted, cautious and ambiguous statement, "will guarantee that hostilities in the Taiwan Strait will not take place.''

But Gary Ackerman, a Democratic congressman from New York, said he feared the country had moved from "strategic ambiguity to strategic confusion.'' Apparently he was for ambiguity and against confusion. Happily, he didn't try to explain the difference in this case.

The congressman from New York did ask a lot of questions. For example: "What does 'whatever it takes' mean?'' But if all his questions had been answered forthrightly, it would mean the end of the ambiguity he so treasures.

The case for ambiguity as a way to deter aggression is, well, ambiguous. The great powers of Europe were so ambiguous about their intentions in 1914 that the world has yet to completely recover from the result of their dangerously vague diplomacy.

Closer to our own time, an American secretary of state announced in 1949 that South Korea lay outside the American "defensive perimeter.'' Naturally the Communists invaded the next year.

In 2001, there must be no doubt about this country's willingness to use force, and enough of it, to defend the real Republic of China, the one on Taiwan.

But as for diplomatic conundrums like whether there are one or more Chinas, there's no need to go into provocative detail. Or to play into the stereotype of the Western imperialist looking for a fight. Time is on our side. Let's stretch it out, and fill the years talking cryptically.

When practiced right, ambiguity ought to be deliberate, not accidental. A science, not a lapse. Call it a policy of unambiguous ambiguity. A recognition, as on certain old maps, that Here There Be Sea Monsters. Why go there needlessly? Better to circumnavigate the more abstract issues. Clear enough?

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2001, TMS