ISIS or ISIL? A telling tale of the primacy of words over actions in Obama’s foreign policy

President Barack Obama has been very careful to enunciate clearly the acronym of the terrorist organization whose forces have taken Mosul and have been rapidly advancing toward Baghdad. ISIL, or “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” is the official U.S. nomenclature for this group.

Others, if not most outside the government, call the group “ISIS”, or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”.

The actual name of the organization in Arabic is

الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام or داعش (dāʿiš). The pronunciation of the Arabic acronym is something like “Da eesh”.

See Patrick J. lyons and Mona El-Maggar, “What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s; Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant?” New York Times, June 18, 2014.

The nuances of meaning in the two alternate names, neither of which contains a precise translation of the Arabic word “al-Sham”, is a matter of some intellectual interest.

But when Obama spelled out “eye ess eye ell” for the TV cameras, he was stressing that he knew the correct name for this group, and that we should learn to say it correctly.

Or perhaps it was just so new to him, despite the last year’s events in Syria and Western Iraq, that he was simply trying to get it right himself.

Does it matter? In a theoretical sense, there could be an issue as to whether the goals of the group are to establish a caliphate “in Iraq and Greater Syria (which encompasses Lebanon), or in a much broader but not clearly-defined region, “the Levant”. The term includes parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel and the Left Bank. The term was used 100 or 200 years ago by European colonial powers, but has fallen out of usage, in part because of its colonialist overtones.

But is the translation of an acronym really the right place to sort this out?

The Arabic refers to “al-Sham”, which itself has a vague meaning in historical usage, but at least it starts with “S”.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the military, political and diplomatic aspects of the crisis, rather than the linguistic ones?

Does Obama have any sense of what is salient, at this particular moment, and what must be decided and executed today?

Or is he lost in an academic world where what ultimately counts is a brilliant analysis, articulated in well-crafted words? Or is he, or is he at the same time, lost in a legislator’s sense of time, where all issues seemingly can be visited again?

The president seems far removed from the ominous requirements of decisive action and consequences which Dwight D. Eisenhower faced on the eve of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, or which John F. Kennedy faced as Soviet warships carrying nuclear missiles bore down on Cuba in October, 1962.

In any event, what is salient and requires urgent decision, now, is certainly not to insist on “ISIL” when everyone else is using “ISIS”.

It is actions, and actions taken at the right moment, that will determine the outcome of the current crisis in Iraq and Syria.

Had Obama acted two and a half years ago with even a minimal use of force to halt Bashar al-Assad’s massive war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, we probably wouldn’t even be talking today about Iraq falling apart because of ISIS or ISIL.

You could call the group “The Flying Rocket Men”, for all the difference the name makes.

As for The Observer, I’ll stick with ISIS, or “Da’ish”.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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