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Two Iowans speak clearly on war, verbal confusion

Richard Doak

Des Moines Register

September 24, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

In the age of sound bites and blogs, thoughtful discourse at length seems about as old fashioned as a chautauqua lecture.

But occasionally you can still run across speeches that are worth spending time with, such as two given recently by Iowans Jim Leach and Nicholas Johnson.

Leach is a Republican, Johnson a Democrat. They spoke on different occasions and from different perspectives. Iraq was not the main topic of either speech, but their reasoning brought both speakers to remarkably similar conclusions about the war.

The speeches can't be adequately summarized here. Each is several times longer than this column. I'll mention some of the highlights.

Leach, the longtime member of Congress and foreign-affairs expert, delivered the Kurtz Lecture at the University of Iowa College of Engineering on Aug. 31. Under the title "The Politics of Power," Leach ranged from the power of money in politics to the power wielded by the United States in the world. The full text is available at his congressional Web site,

"Anyone who does not see a compelling case for radical campaign reform is not looking closely enough at the machinations in American politics," Leach said.

He spoke specifically of the power of money to prevent Congress from addressing the threat of global warming and from adopting a conservation ethic.

"For too many conservatives, conservation is a pessimist's agenda," he said. "In reality, conservation is the ultimate in optimism. It implies preservation of past values and at the same time an attention to challenges of the present. Without a conservation ethic, we have no chance to become free or at least less dependent on foreign energy."

On the world scene, Leach said the United States has become "consumed with power politics." He said foreign policy has been dominated "by an elite of so-called neocons who operate on the assumption that America need not be bound by international norms applicable to others... Now as preconceived policies unravel, we are confronted with two imperfect options: either to begin a troop draw-down ... or stay for a prolonged period.

"Both options - staying the course or overstaying our presence - have downsides. My view is that prolongation of this intervention defines us as an occupying power implicitly concerned for oil rather than a liberating power concerned for democracy. In this geo-strategic framework, the less troubling option is to commence an orderly draw-down, the sooner the better."

Leach went on to discuss several other topics in the context of power, observing, "One of the myths of our time is that realism is principally about might. Actually, realism is about the human condition. A great nation must maintain a strong military capacity, but it is the human condition that must be uplifted if national security is truly to be secured."

Johnson, former Federal Communications commissioner who teaches law at the University of Iowa, spoke at the New York Society for General Semantics on Sept. 8. The occasion was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the society and the publication of "People in Quandaries," a seminal book on semantics written by Johnson's father, the late Wendell Johnson. The text of Johnson's speech is posted on his Web site,

Johnson spoke on "General Semantics, Terrorism and War." The topics might seem unrelated, but Johnson noted that failures in communications often lead to conflict, "and the ultimate, and most tragic 'communication failure' we call 'war.' "

Too often, he said, politicians "forgo thoughtful analysis for expressions such as "send in the Marines," "Let's kick some butt," and "Nuke 'em," instead of "the prior application of rational thought - like asking the two basic general semantics questions, "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

He noted that the politicians failed to make use of the Powell Doctrine, which lists a series of tough questions to be answered precisely before committing troops to battle. They include: what, specifically, is it you are trying to accomplish, how will a military operation contribute to its accomplishment, how will we know if we've been successful, and what will the exit strategy be?

The very term "war on terror" is imprecise and defies definition, Johnson said. Until the enemy and the goals are more precisely defined, he said, the "war" will continue to be counterproductive.

Johnson quoted his father, who had witnessed the Nazis use propaganda to lead Germany into war. "We can no longer tolerate studied confusion, cultivated distrust and verbal irresponsibility," Wendell Johnson wrote after World War II.

It seems to me that, rather than being vanquished, "verbal irresponsibility" is a hallmark of our age. We call it "spin," and it might be more than a mere annoyance. It might be a clear and present danger.