The President’s summary of his policy on the Islamic State or on “the group known as ISIL” was not elegantly enunciated: “To degrade and ultimately destroy” is a compound infinitive phrase that is pitched to the demotic or colloquial in ways that contribute to misinterpretation and distortion.
The infinitive “to degrade,” a somewhat esoteric military term of art roughly inserted into public discourse some years ago, is meant to refer us immediately to an enemy’s capabilities, which are to be brought to a lower level, but the second and more common connotation of “degrade” is quietly also conveyed, perhaps somewhat intentionally if not entirely consciously: to humiliate, to render an object of spite.1 Regarding the phrase in its entirety, the absence of pauses (which could be indicated by commas) and the omission of the second particle “to” run the two parts of the President’s program together, and encourage his critics to indulge their impatience or polemical convenience, to drop the qualifying adverb “ultimately” altogether or to treat it as an intensifier, and, as events unfold, to expound on each day’s, week’s, or month’s necessarily mixed results as somehow contradicting a solemn promise or revealing a strategy already “in ruins” or “in full-scale… meltdown,” or suffering from a fatal mismatch of minimal means and maximal ends, or, also premature if less dramatic, simply “not working.”
“To degrade and, ultimately, to destroy” might have been more difficult to misinterpret, since a more careful phrasing would clearly designate and distinguish two phases of a long-term strategy. As offered and initially implemented, if not as articulated or heard or unconscientiously translated, the strategy seems to mean “at first primarily to contain, but actively to contain in such a way, specifically by reduction of capacities and potentials, as to expose the targeted entity to destruction.” Indeed, the two-part program does not exclude – or perhaps can be taken to imply – a policy shaped to the nature of a presumed ultimately self-destructive phenomenon.
- To complete the linguistic circuit from the high to the low, we can observe that in the language of the street, or perhaps the language of the President’s “anger translator,” to degrade IS is to fuck IS up, to chingar IS, or perhaps to smash IS, like a bug. [↩]