President Obama Called Violence in Libya "Unacceptable." In President-Speak, That Means "Acceptable."
Posted Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, at 5:16 PM
Speaking this week about the crackdown by the Qaddafi regime in Libya, President Barack Obama said, "The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is
Unacceptable to whom? What does "acceptance" mean, here? Did Qaddafi submit the bloodshed to the Oval Office for approval, but Obama refused to sign for it? Did someone give the Libyan protesters an opt-out box to click if they declined to be shot, or if they preferred to be shot later?
Come statement-making time, the American presidency sounds like Reinhold Niebuhr's
in reverse: the things the president can't change get deemed "unacceptable."
In 2006, the Washington Post noted that President
had been using the term to describe, among other things:
rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
On the last point, Bush said specifically that "the idea of
is unacceptable"—a sort of philosophical mystery, since the Iranians seem to accept the idea of having a nuclear weapon just fine, so that the idea of that idea is itself an accepted premise of America's Iran policy.
Nevertheless, Bush stuck with the usage, going on to call Russia's military foray into Georgia in 2008 "
" Again, despite their unacceptability, the troops were still there.
Obama has picked up where his predecessor left off. Before he was even inaugurated, he declared, "It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in
." (The United States
in broadband penetration.)
Since then, Obama has had better luck in deeming "
" Virginia's failure to mention slavery in proclaiming Confederate History Month—the state
—and in saying it would be "
" for middle-class tax cuts to expire. But the defeated or quixotic usage continues, as with Libya.
The most elegant formulation probably belonged to
, speaking about gun control in 2000: "The crime rate is still too high," Clinton said. "The level of violence we put up with is still unacceptable."
. When a president is speaking, that about describes it.