The Twitter Inc. logo is shown with the U.S. flag, November 7, 2013.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The American public is accustomed to taking politicians at their word. In turn, the country’s political elite has grown accustomed to being cautious about the language it uses—lest they later be handcuffed by their own policy statements. During the 2004 presidential election, U.S. President George W. Bush’s campaign labeled the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, an unreliable “flip-flopper,” in part because he claimed he opposed the Iraq War even though he had voted for the legislation authorizing it. Pundits attribute Kerry’s loss in that presidential race partly to the fact that the flip-flopper narrative stuck. Voters punished Kerry by casting their ballot for the other guy, as they would most politicians who change their stance or undermine their own credibility on important issues.

In the national security realm, officials tend to be even more careful with language because the stakes are potentially much higher. Former U.S.

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  • VAN JACKSON is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He hosts the Pacific Pundit podcast series. His most recent book is Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations.

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