Changing Words to Appease Dictators

by Rafael Medoff

The revelation that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to omit the words “freedom,” “democracy,” and “empowerment of women” from a speech she gave in Saudi Arabia is troubling. But it’s not the first time a senior U.S. government official has deleted or weakened words of truth in an attempt to appease a dictator.

The latest episode began in early 2010, when Secretary Clinton was scheduled to speak at Dar Al Hekma, a women’s college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Accordingly to newly-released emails, Clinton’s senior adviser, Huma Abedin, instructed the secretary of state’s speechwriters to “talk to my mom” about what Clinton should say in her address. Abedin’s mother, Dr. Saleha Abedin, is lecturer in sociology at the college.

Later that same day, Dr. Abedin provided Clinton’s staff with a memo headlined “IMPORTANT POINTS TO REMEMBER.”  She advised: “Do not use the political terms such as ‘democracy/elections/freedom’.” She also recommended: “Do not use the term ‘empowerment of women’…Do not even mention driving for women!”

Sure enough, the speech Secretary Clinton delivered in Saudi Arabia made no mention of democracy, freedom, or women drivers. Her only reference to elections concerned voting in Iraq.

Changing language to avoid offending totalitarian regimes seems to be a bipartisan phenomenon. Under President George W. Bush, State Department officials tried to water down a U.S. report on human rights in North Korea in 2008, in order to avoid offending Pyongpang. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Glyn Davies advised his colleagues to omit a reference to North Korea as “repressive” and refrain from acknowledging that public executions there are “on the rise.” With six-party talks on the region’s future about to get underway, it was worthwhile to “sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause,” he argued.

In a similar spirit, the Bush State Department’s 2005 report on antisemitism worldwide sacrificed quite a few adjectives, not to mention nouns and verbs, when it came to reporting on regime-sponsored antisemitism in the Arab world. The sections on Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority, two of the worst offenders, were just 182 words and 86 words long, respectively. By contrast, Iceland for some reason merited 387 words.

There were similar episodes back in the 1930s. In 1934 and again in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally intervened to remove criticism of Adolf Hitler and his regime from speeches that Interior Secretary Harold Ickes was planning to give. The Roosevelt administration’s pre-World War II policy was to pursue friendly relations with Nazi Germany; Ickes’s criticism of “a strutting and vain-glorious Nazism” might have undermined that goal.

Even after it was verifed, in 1942, that the Germans were carrying out the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews, the Roosevelt administration continued to play word games.

That December, the British government—under pressure from members of parliament, Jewish organizations, and others—reluctantly suggested to Washington that the Allies issue a joint statement confirming and condemning the mass murder. FDR’s State Department at first objected to the proposal, fearing that “the various Governments of the United Nations [the Allies] would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.”

Ultimately the Roosevelt administration went along with the proposed statement, but only after watering down the language. For example, the proposed phrase “reports from Europe which leave no doubt” (that mass murder was underway) was whittled down to just “numerous reports from Europe.” The key phrase “which leave no doubt” was sacrificed for the political objective of resisting pressure to help the refugees.

The State Department sacrificed adjectives about the Jews again in October 1943, when Secretary of State Cordell Hull visited Moscow for tripartite talks with the Soviets and British. The State Department drafted, and the other Allies approved, the statement that was issued at the end of the meetings. It threatened postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations, mentioning “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages …Cretan peasants … the people of Poland”–but not Jews. The State Department feared drawing too much attention to the suffering of the Jews would increase pressure on the Roosevelt administration to admit more Jewish refugees.

No wonder Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Holocaust rescue activist, remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being “treat[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”

If sacrificing a few words actually led to some tangible benefit, advocates of appeasement might be able to make a more persuasive case for their approach. But where is the evidence that appeasement dictators has ever worked?

Did downplaying the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust lead to their rescue? Did watering down the State Department’s antisemitism report reduce antisemitism in the Arab world? Did “sacrificing a few adjectives” convince North Korea’s leaders to become more reasonable? Did following Saleha Abedin’s advice lead to democratic elections in Saudi Arabia? Instead of learning from the mistakes of the past, U.S. administrations seem to keep repeating them.

(September 2017)