Friday, May 05, 2006

When Words Matter

Has a war ever started because of a speech of other remarks by one official about another country?

Probably. One modern instance that is a close parallel is the World War I era Zimmermann Telegram. Imperial Germany’s Foreign Minister suggested an alliance between Imperial Germany and Mexico should the U.S. enter the war on Britain’s side. Zimmermann confirmed the telegram’s authenticity in February 1917, when the U.S. public was moving (or being moved by the Wilson White House) toward war. It arguably represented a final if not the final “evidence” of German perfidy.

Has a war ever been started because purportedly irrefutable evidence presented to decision-makers to justify war wasn’t irrefutable or even evidence?

The “second attack” on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin didn’t precipitate U.S. involvement in Vietnam but it did mark the point from which Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded the U.S. presence in the South and the air war over the North.

And then there is Iraq – the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the Nigerian yellow-cake, the non-existent mobile bio-warfare labs, the aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons.

Has a war ever been started because something purportedly said by a ruler or an official pronouncement was incorrectly translated?

Again, probably, and again there is a close parallel in our own time. In April 2003, tensions between North Korea and the U.S. suddenly ratcheted up when the official North Korean News Agency initially mistranslated one of its own statements. The mistake, of course, was about nuclear weapons production: the first translation suggested they had already processed the spent fuel rods while the correction said they were on the verge of reprocessing.

Washington, of course, would have been hard-pressed to do anything about it as the White House was fully occupied with the invasion of Iraq and the first indications of how difficult the occupation would be.

Another Iraq-related instance is found in Bush’s October 2002 speech in which the president states: “Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his ‘nuclear mujahedeen’ – his nuclear holy warriors”

As Dr. Glen Rangwala, Lecturer in Politics at Cambridge University, England, points out, the transcript of Saddam’s entire speech reveals that the context is nuclear energy, with even the phrase “nuclear energy mujahedeen.” Nuclear weapons are not mentioned.

The most recent example, with the potential to come back to haunt the U.S. and other western countries, is a mistranslation of remarks by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The translation picked up by the media was: “Israel should be wiped off the face of the map.” Juan Cole, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the Middle East, strongly disputes this translation as this idiomatic structure does not exist in Persian.

The proper translation is: “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” – something far different from the implied use of military power conveyed in “wiping off the map." There are many options for diplomacy and non-violent dispute resolution by which an “occupation regime” can be ended.

The White House might do well to take careful note.

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