“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that's all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.
In dialogue and diplomacy, words mean different things to conflicting and competing partners with their own interests and audiences to please. Clarity is often the enemy of progress. Let me give two examples.
Nearly four thousand people died in 'The Troubles,' a euphemism for however one describes the violence over four decades between the Provisional IRA and the British State, the Irish State too, and loyalist paramilitaries.
The term is itself used to avoid defining the violence as a war, which would have given formal status to an illegal and illegitimate actor, the IRA, or as civil war and legitimising the paramilitaries as defenders of communities as they claimed but which largely scorned them.
The negotiations with the British and Irish states were not technically with the illegal IRA but with 'the Republican Movement,' a term that allowed the IRA a say as the flip side of its legal political arm, Sinn Fein.
Each had red lines they said they would not surrender on. Yet the IRA breached its bottom lines and peace was made. How did it come about? Words were vital once the terror groups were defeated. The cornerstone of the peace was a careful formula devised by the British in the late 1980s and which later formed the basis of Anglo-Irish diplomacy. It was the assertion that the British State had 'no selfish strategic or economic interest' in Northern Ireland.
Critics of this neutralist approach often inadvertently or willingly misunderstood it by inserting a comma to read that the UK had no selfish, strategic or economic interest. Mull it over and you will see that it completely changes the sense of the phrase to mean that the UK is indifferent while its policy was that it had interests that were not selfish. The comma was crucial.
The IRA had its own problems in persuading its 'volunteers.' Some were implacably opposed to anything short of the movement's maximum demand for Irish unity which they thought could only be advanced by armed struggle. Others realised the game was up and they needed a political solution. An internal IRA paper was leaked to me in 1993. It was entitled TUAS, which either meant 'tactical use of armed struggle' or 'totally unarmed strategy' but did not say.
Both examples illustrate how 'constructive ambiguity' allowed people with widely different views to assemble in the same room and sign documents that meant different things from what some of their supporters may have thought.
Moving nearer to Kurdistan, the outcome of the Arab/Israel war of 1967 was the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a landmark UN Security Council resolution which proposed a solution based on two concurrent elements – the recognition of Israel by its neighbours and Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories.
Please note that it does not refer to 'the occupied territories,' the importance of which is to allow the possibility of wiggle room in negotiations. Israel's problem is that it is a very narrow country between Palestinian lands, some of which are elevated and allow military forces a great advantage.
When we come to the dispute between Kurdistan and Iraq on its supposedly illegitimate and illegal referendum, Prime Minister Abadi is demanding that the referendum be annulled. In an ideal world, a face-saving formula will be found that allows unconditional talks that are not formally based on the referendum.
Opponents can blame Masoud Barzani as much as they want but the decision was a popular one. His successors can keep that result in their back pocket.
Walking Baghdad back from its reaction to the referendum will take great diplomatic and political skills by the UK, other friendly governments and anyone who can lend a hand to mediation to de-escalate tensions and encourage dialogue. Words are their weapons but commas, elisions and constructive ambiguity are far less dangerous than real weapons.
And if Baghdad persists with its policy of collective punishment and seeking to divide, dilute or dissolve the constitutional entity that is the KRG, those who were critical of the decision to proceed with the referendum in the hope that differences could be resolved by a One Iraq policy and within its federal constitution should be prepared to conclude that Iraq is unwilling to carry out its side of the bargain and that a new approach is needed.
Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.