Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Vital role: world struggle encapsulated in a phrase

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the grand drama of governing post-Saddam Iraq, what role will the UN play? More to the semantic point, what modifier of that noun role most accurately defines -- or obfuscates or sugarcoats -- the part that the international agency will play? (Note that I have strained to substitute part for the overused figure of speech, role to play, but cannot avoid the theatrical metaphor of some character playing a part.)

The adjective President George W. Bush chose, with great care and after much advice, is "vital." What does he mean by that modifier? "I view a vital role as an agent to help people live freely," he said. "That means food; that means medicine; that means aid; ...that means being a party to the progress being made in Iraq." Pressed for elaboration by reporters, Bush tried to show associated effort: "When we say vital role," he explained, "that's precisely what we mean -- that they will be involved." Not so precise; pressed further, he stated with emphasis, "A vital role for the UN means a vital role for the UN."

That begs the semantic question. (No, it does not pose or raise a question; it defines a word with itself, no definition at all.) This is akin to a technique pioneered by Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, who said, "A word means just what I choose it to mean," and was carried on by Elzie Segar's Popeye the Sailor, a 1930s cartoon character who liked to state with great certainty, "I yam what I yam and that's what I yam."

Why did Bush -- followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other explicators of American foreign policy -- choose the word vital? That adjective -- from the Latin vita, "life" -- has a primary meaning of "essential to existence," by extension "absolutely indispensable" and, as the O.E.D. puts it, "in a wider sense, of supreme importance."

Finesse needed

But that was surely not the meaning Bush had in mind. The question he addressed was not "Who's on the team in Baghdad?" or "Who will be 'involved' in the coalition of the belatedly helpful?" Rather, the gut question is "Who is running Iraq?" Who is boss, final authority, top dog, in charge, ultimately responsible?

That's a diplomatic issue requiring linguistic finesse. By taking the word vital to mean "involved," the president strips it of some of its vitality. By placing it in a well-worn phrase of participation rather than leadership -- vital role -- he reduces its centrality further, indicating a part rather than the whole. Finally, by his choice of the indefinite article "a" -- in a vital role, not the vital role -- Bush takes the meaning of the modifier another step down from its dictionary definition "of supreme importance." Such a triple evisceration of puissance is the hat trick in the reconstitution of meaning.

On CNN, Robin Oakley took a crack at the modification of role with "although George Bush and Tony Blair have talked repeatedly of making it a `vital' one, EU nations suspect the US in particular of wanting to palm off the UN with little more than a humanitarian-aid function." Javier Solana, the EU's chief foreign policy official, put the European desire to avoid a subsidiary position in a way that tried to counter Bush's semantic ploy: "We want a role for the UN, a role that you can qualify semantically -- vital, central, whatever terminology you want to use. The important thing," Solana said, "is the quality of the engagement of the UN."

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