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  • The journalist’s not-so-trusty companion

I mean to put in a good word here for the journalist’s unsung friend the weasel word. When you want to say something categorical but are afraid to—because, damn it, what if you’re wrong?—the weasel word is the way to go.

For example, pin the message on sources say . . . . Better that sources turn out to have no idea what they’re talking about than that you do. Sources say will never go out of fashion, but here’s the weasel word that has lately torn up the news columns. Seemingly. It’s been hot for two months.

Seemingly hit the big time when the Syrian crisis—remember the Syrian crisis?—took a sudden turn no one knew what to make of. Let’s review. President Obama had promised reprisals if president Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Assad deployed chemical weapons. Very well, said Obama, Assad must be taught a lesson and I will ask Congress for the authority to teach it. But it quickly became clear that Congress was not about to give Obama that authority—even though Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile strike Obama was contemplating would be “unbelievably small”—along the lines of the paddling loving parents administer that “hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Would Congress defy Obama? Would Obama defy Congress? Would Assad get away with defying world opinion? At this point Kerry was asked by a reporter in London if there was any way Assad could avoid an American missile strike. In response, Kerry sounded a lot tougher than the U.S. was looking just then. “Sure,” said Kerry. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week—turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” Not that Assad ever would. “He isn’t about to do it,” Kerry went on, “and it can’t be done.”

These were the remarks by the secretary of state that the media immediately branded “offhand”—or, in the case of the most fastidious journalists—”seemingly offhand.” They sounded both hopeless and injudicious—Kerry narrowing the corner Obama had already painted himself in by declaring the only way Assad could avoid the missile attack Obama would have to defy Congress to order was by doing something the U.S. was certain he would never do.

The White House disavowed Kerry’s remarks.

But Russia saw advantages in taking them seriously. Which meant that their friend Bashar Assad had to take them seriously, in which case the White House had better take them seriously too. Or, in each case, pretend to take them seriously. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, spoke up, and soon he and Kerry cut a deal. And the next thing we knew Assad was admitting he had chemical weapons and agreeing to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, and UN inspectors were heading into the country to inventory and dismantle them.

Headlines don’t traffic in shades of gray, and a Chicago Tribune headline said “Kerry’s off-hand remark puts Syrian deal in play.” But the article itself, from Reuters, bent over backwards to hedge its bets:

Whether deft diplomacy or a rhetorical stumble, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to crack open the door to a possible solution to the Syrian crisis that could get President Barack Obama and U.S. lawmakers out of a bind, save Syria from a bombing and cast Russia as peacemaker.

Kerry’s seemingly off-hand suggestion on Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might avert a U.S. military strike if he surrendered all of his chemical weapons offered a potential escape hatch that no one had seriously proposed before—and that could end up leading nowhere.

Cynicism ran wild. The New Republic said what it thought in a headline: “The Syria Solution: Obama Got Played by Putin and Assad.” The kicker to the headline—”Amateur Hour.” Said the National Review, an “apparent gaffe” [apparent is one of our sturdiest weasel words] by Kerry that White House “spinmasters” were retailing as “crafty statesmanship” was now “official U.S. policy.” The magazine didn’t believe that for a second.

But two months have now gone by, and the Russian initiative hasn’t gone nowhere yet. And sober and thoughtful voices have begun pointing out that the Syrian crisis was dealt with diplomatically in a way that might be called not half bad. I was impressed by the assessment of Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, which appeared in the most recent New York Review of Books.

“It would be wrong,” Roth wrote, “to belittle September’s last-minute diplomatic breakthrough in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly offhand remark that Syria could avoid US military action by surrendering its chemical weapons. To begin with, averting another US military intervention in the volatile Middle East is no small matter.”

When I spotted the familiar seemingly I had a thought: the word remains the same but Roth is using it a little differently. Two months ago it was put to use by writers who didn’t want to come right out and say Kerry was just shooting his mouth off. Now it sounds respectful and knowing. As in, sure it sounded offhand but we’re not children here.

Or is the difference only in my head?

At any rate, weasel words aren’t taught in journalism schools, yet no reporter uncomfortable with them can be said to have mastered his craft. In Monday’s New York Times I came across a reminiscence of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—which was a real crisis, a crisis in which more was at stake than a president’s dignity (and therefore a crisis that is still written about half a century later, rather than forgotten by Thanksgiving). Said the Times, JFK “avoided disaster, Dean Acheson later observed, by ‘plain dumb luck.'”

I’ve always preferred to think Kennedy avoided disaster by deftly exercising the “Trollope ploy”—it being pleasant to think the world’s fate was in the heads of leaders familiar with Trollope. However, here is an examination of the Trollope ploy that makes it clear it was neither cunning nor dumb luck that saved us; rather, a president who didn’t cave in to his counselors.

But sometimes good results are plain dumb luck; and sometimes they’re the fruits of a ploy so cunning we can barely comprehend it. Where on this continuum does Kerry’s Syrian policy lie? A former secretary of state like Acheson can say what he thinks on his own authority, and he can afford to be wrong. Us ink-stained wretches—not so much. Seemingly is a way of telling the reader: It looks this way, but what do we know?