Times Headline Deploys Adjective...or Verb?

By Andrew Sprung

Is it worthwhile delving into the mind of a New York Times headline writer? Why not? Consider:

As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated

Momentous question of the morning: is "complicated" an adjective or a (passive) verb?  Are we simply suggesting that U.S. policy is complex right now, or that it's being "complicated" as we speak by the behavior of the besieged Egyptian president?

The core point seems to be that, being a step behind fast-moving events, policy is "complicated" at every step by new developments rendering the last pronouncement or action obsolete. For example:

The mixed messages have been confusing and at times embarrassing -- a reflection of a policy that, by necessity, has been made up on the fly. "This is what happens when you get caught by surprise," said one American official, who would not speak on the record.

But allowing events to 'complicate' policy does lead, tautologically enough, to policies that you would also describe as "complicated" without any time element. To wit:

Administration officials insist their responses have been more reaction to fast-moving events than any fundamental change in objective. Over the last few days, with Mr. Mubarak making it clear he does not intend to resign anytime soon, they have described their latest strategy as one of encouraging Egyptian elites to isolate him to the point where he is essentially a spectator to the end of his own rule.

The current strategy -- "encouraging Egyptian elites to isolate" Mubarak -- is certainly complex. That's because it's been complicated hour by hour -- that is, it's evolved from trying to push Mubarak out swiftly, altered in response to the key Egyptian actors' phased strategic retreat, which so far stops far short of easing Mubarak out of the country.

Is this semantic hair-splitting worth bothering with? Maybe, a little. Obama's policymaking is invariably incremental, data-driven, cautious to a fault (and virtue),  given to letting events play out while trying to steer them behind the scenes and then pouncing at a propitious moment -- rather than forcefully and publicly setting a course early and trying to bend events toward the position staked out.  To visualize that m.o. as allowing events to "complicate" strategy on the fly is not an entirely empty exercise.

Which is not to say that this process does not sometimes tend toward strategies too clever by half.

P.S. I will step off this Fallowed ground now  and look forward to reading next week's illustrious crew. Heartfelt thanks to James for this terrific opportunity, and to The Atlantic's Justin Miller for a load of help and always-on rapid response.

Andrew Sprung, a media consultant and student of rhetoric, blogs at xpostfactoid.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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