Can we please stop using the word “embolden” to describe American policies with respect to our enemies?
“Embolden” has become a buzz word to attack the foreign policy maneuvers of political enemies here in the United States. President Bush used to say that withdrawing from Iraq would “embolden” the terrorists–and many Democrats pushed back by arguing that in fact the Iraq War itself had “emboldened” the terrorists. Just today Mitt Romney attacked Obama for “emboldening” North Korea by trying to engage with them diplomatically.
But what does “embolden” actually mean? The dictionary definition is to make bold, to give someone courage or confidence. But in the context of a strategic environment, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.
To see why, imagine a game of chess. At any given point in a chess match, there are a small set of moves that will move a player towards success, (good moves) and a larger set of moves that will move that player closer to failure (bad moves). So now White does something to “embolden” Black. Black, now that they are “emboldened”, starts playing more aggressively. But remember, neither the set of good moves nor the set of bad moves has changed. Will being “emboldened” make Black play better? If the his aggressive behavior causes him to pick a good move, then maybe. But aggressive behavior could just as easily cause Black to make a bad move–to allow his aggression to cloud his reason or cause him to underestimate White.
So imagine that North Korea has become “emboldened”. That doesn’t change the underlying situation, or affect whether or not building an intercontinental ballistic missile is a good idea. They will either make a good move or a bad move, and they will do so based on the international strategic environment and on their own internal preferences.
To claim that “emboldening” your enemies is a bad thing, you have to assume that they are currently making a strategic error out of an irrational fear–and that the boldness will cause them to overcome that fear. It means that Romney is essentially saying “North Korea ought to be pushing forward with development of an ICBM, because we all know we aren’t going to do anything, but until Obama came along we were successfully bluffing them!” Except I don’t think Romney actually believes any part of that.
Words have to have meaning for us to effectively communicate with each other. When politicians use words like “embolden” to attack their opponents, it strips those words of their meaning; they become weapons to beat each other up with, instead of tools to facilitate understanding. That, in turn, just makes it a little bit harder for us voters to educate ourselves and make semi-informed choices.