What is the Supreme Quality in any piece of professional work such as a speech? Choose from the following options:
- Simple message
- Strong structure
- Energy + commitment
- Clear language
- Honesty + integrity
The answers typically cluster around Simple message and Honesty + integrity. Only one person has ever insisted on Loyalty – a diplomat from communist China.
The answer I give to the invariably startled throng is Accuracy. Imagine the bravest, toughest, most loyal and honest and energetic soldier in the world. If s/he blows up a civilian wedding by mistake, s/he can be accused of war crimes. Accuracy supports all the other noble qualities, and gives them positive operational effect.
In this sense I have been poring over President Obama’s speech to the United Nations last September, two weeks after US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi in an attack on the US consulate there.
Controversy is now escalating about what exactly happened in Benghazi and how the Obama Administration responded to the unfolding disaster. One line of attack focuses on how the Administration described what had happened, linking the killings of Chris Stevens and three other Americans directly to ‘outrage across the Muslim world’ at a crude anti-Islamic video produced by an Egyptian-American Copt, Nakoula Basseley.
The wily Obama speechwriters for this UN speech did not specifically say that the attacks had been an angry response to this video. But the text and its delivery strongly (and of course deliberately) convey that impression. A main part of the speech argues that freedom of expression is a key human liberty, and that violent extremism is not a legitimate response to something unpleasant or outrageous:
In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they’re willing to tolerate freedom for others.
That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
… And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. (Applause) There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy…
Let’s put to one side the creepy but widely used formulation used by the President, ‘the Muslim world’. We don’t talk about the Christian world. In fact we go out of our way not to do so. We don’t know where it is these days. And wherever it is, we don’t want non-Christians living in it to feel unwelcome or excluded. Plus the very idea of a ‘Muslim world’ reeks of a possible scary Clash of Civilizations, and itself excludes all the people across the Middle East who aren’t Muslims.
Let’s instead focus on the video issue.
Right from the day of the attack the asserted linkage to the video was questioned. Since then the credibility of claims that the video somehow inspired the attack has gone into free-fall. Various serious people involved in the Administration’s own policy chain at the time are emerging to say that it was known from the start that the attacks on the Benghazi consulate had nothing to do with this video, but rather were terrorist-inspired and/or timed to coincide with the anniversary of attack of the World Trade Centre in New York.
In short, this is becoming a presentational disaster for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who herself referred to the video at the ceremony when the bodies of the four dead Americans returned home) and increasingly for President Obama himself.
Hence, the question: what motivated the President and his speechwriters to press the ‘outrageous video’ line in various public statements, well after they must have known that it was incorrect or at the very least highly tendentious?
After all, it’s one thing in the heat of the moment (and the heat of a tough Presidential election campaign) to link the attacks to other news reports of some angry Muslim protests at the video. But as the hard facts came in, why dig an even deeper hole? Why produce a text for the President to deliver to the supreme gathering of world opinion, the UN General Assembly itself, in which the key rhetorical premise went well beyond ambiguous and deep into inaccurate, or even simply untrue?
The President’s supporters and critics will have their various answers to that question. Here at PunditWire we are looking at subtle points of technique and messaging.
And the basic point of technique and messaging here is clear. As I always insist, accuracy is all. It underpins honesty.
By making a series of essentially inaccurate assertions in one statement or speech after another, the Administration has made itself vulnerable to an unusually painful line of attack: that the Administration at the very top has manipulated and exploited the gruesome deaths of four Americans – including a US ambassador appointed by President Obama himself – for its own cynical political and rhetorical purposes.
I am a former Ambassador myself. So I find the Administration’s behaviour really rather disturbing.
Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website www.charlescrawford.biz or @CharlesCrawford