Why the Obama Administration Keeps Saying 'Degrade and Destroy'

Image: U.S. President Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington September 10, 2014. Saul Loeb / Pool via Reuters

President Obama and his press secretary have a new favorite catchphrase.

"Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL," Obama said in his prime-time speech Wednesday night, in which he laid out his long-term counterterrorism plan against the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The president's promise came days after he first told Americans he would "degrade and ultimate destroy" ISIS, also referred to as the Islamic State or ISIL, and a day after White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest used "degrade and destroy" (or variations of the phrase) a whopping dozen or so times in a press briefing.

"Degrade and destroy," as short of a phrase as it is, is brimming with meaning, experts say. In three or four quick, easy-to-remember words, Obama and his administration are doing their best to make clear they have a strategy for dealing with an international threat and separating themselves from past Iraq failures.

"What they're trying to do here is develop a way to frame the issue in such a way that it doesn't mean you're at war, it doesn't mean you're trying to save the country, et cetera," said George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at University of California Berkeley and author of multiple books on how political discourse is framed. "What they're doing is setting up a way for the public to understand what the policy is. They were terrible about framing the [Affordable Care Act] health care plan and so on."

He added that it addresses concerns that Americans have right now. "This phrase says, given where [ISIS] is currently, we're going to go away from that and make things worse for them and therefore better for us."

Obama received considerable backlash last Thursday when he was asked about his plans for ISIS amid the recent news that in addition to terrorizing Iraqis and posing a threat to the Middle East, the group beheaded two American journalists in separately released videos. "I don't want to put the cart before the horse," Obama said at the time. "We don't have a strategy yet."

He first used "degrade and destroy" the next day. By repeating the "de-" prefix, which essentially means "to take away" in Latin, the phrase is a clear message to the public that there is indeed a well-planned-out strategy for stopping ISIS in its tracks, Lakoff said.

"Repeating the two 'de-'s twice intensifies it. It means we're really going to do this. It also lengthens it. It says there's a sequence. You can't just go in, bomb it, and it's over. You can't just send in troops and it's done. There's a process. It does both of those things at once," he said.

"Repeating the two 'de-'s twice intensifies it. It means we're really going to do this."

The catchphrase starkly contrasts with a slogan that was used the last time the United States got involved in Iraq: George W. Bush's "shock and awe" doctrine, which was intended to be a quick burst of military might that would stabilize Iraq, but didn't end up being quick at all.

Both Lakoff and Reid Cherlin, a magazine writer and former Obama press aide, said everything about "degrade and destroy" shows it is taking the opposite tack that "shock and awe" did.

"Degrade and destroy is pretty evocative because you can see it happening in your mind. It's repeated airstrikes with the theoretical endpoint of there being no ISIS," Cherlin said. "You could just say 'destroy' to start with and leave out the 'degrade,' but probably most of what we'll be doing is the degrading, and the 'destroy' is the hopeful part."

While it isn't known who in the administration first came up with the alliterative tagline, Cherlin said he suspected it originated in the Pentagon.

"The Pentagon and the military in general often use commonplace words in a slightly different way than what we are used to, and I hear that in 'degrade,'" he said. "We're used to hearing it as something being degrading or something degraded by that. We're not used to hearing it as an active, transitive verb."

Whoever came up with it is not using it in the sense that it's usually used in in the English language, Lakoff said.

"In a case of 'degrading to women,' that's a metaphorical use," he said. "They're using it interestingly because they're using it in a physical sense. The 'degrading' has to do with physical grades," literally taking the word to mean breaking down what ISIS is comprised of.

The offbeat usage shouldn't be a problem for the public, he said, especially if the phrase is repeated for months — which it's likely to be.

Cherlin said it appears to be an example of a "bumper sticker slogan," phrases that are pollster-driven and test well with constituents.

"I think this is a pretty good one," he said.