Reorienting ourselves to the Levant

The Obama administration has reached back to an earlier era for its preferred designation for the latest major terrorist threat.

Staff Sgt. Ciara Wymbs/U.S. Air Force/AP
A B-1B Lancer disengages from a KC-135 Stratotanker after refueling during U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State group targets in Syria.

Deciding what to call a new threat is part of a government’s foreign-policy operation.

The Obama administration, with its steadfast use of its preferred term for the fighters now making trouble in Iraq and Syria, has dusted off a term most of us remember, if we ever learned it, from novels rather than the news: the Levant.

I first heard “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” out of the mouth of Secretary of State John Kerry in a radio news clip. It triggered a thought process: Hmm, new enemy group appears; internal administration deliberations about what to call it follow, then come efforts to get news organizations to play along. Meanwhile, news organizations deliberate, too, consulting one another but making their own decisions, no matter what the White House says. (See the US Constitution, Amendment 1.)

Whatever the administration’s rationale for “Levant,” the word is a bit old-fashioned, a bit Old World – but perhaps not out of character for Mr. Kerry. After all, he comes across as somewhat Old World at times, with his Swiss boarding school and all. Remember the 2004 presidential campaign, with those Republican barbs about how Kerry “looks French”?

There’s more to it than that, of course. “The Levant” came into English in the late 15th century, indeed from French, meaning “the Orient,” the direction of the sunrise. It referred concretely to the “Mediterranean lands east of Italy” – principally Syria, Lebanon, and Israel on today’s maps. (The Levant had a particular meaning in the context of trade with the Ottoman Empire – Turkey – but let’s not go there now.)

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, for one, was not impressed with the use of “Levant.” The term, she wrote, “conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia....” She speculated that it may be “a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.”

She was alluding to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached in 1916, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. The accord carved up the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence. Note that it wasn’t called the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the Peoples of Mesopotamia and Greater Syria, Who Have Been Painstakingly Consulted About the Political Arrangements They Prefer.

Critics on the right, meanwhile, have charged that the White House simply wants to avoid mentioning “Syria” – as it would if it were to call these people “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” With the start of US airstrikes in Syria, though, that argument may be less relevant. 

The Associated Press has recently settled on “the Islamic State group” as its preferred term for the terrorist organization, but earlier this year opted for “ISIL” over “ISIS,” noting that to refer only to Iraq and Syria “suggests incorrectly that the group’s aspirations are limited to these two present-day countries.” 

The group’s goal is, alas, broader, and, the AP said, “The standard English term for this broad territory is ‘the Levant.’ ” 

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