Will someone please buy George W. Bush a dictionary? It’s not that he needs to expand his vocabulary–though a synonym for “evildoer” might be useful–but his administration has been misusing common words and, in the process, perverting political discourse.

Days ago, The Washington Post reported the Bush administration’s recently drafted nuclear posture review–the master plan for developing and structuring the U.S. nuclear force–notes that nuclear weapons will be part of the U.S. “offensive deterrence.” Offensive deterrence? Is this Orwellian, or merely Strangelovian?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “deter” this way: “to prevent or discourage from actions, as by means of fear or doubt.” Throughout the nuclear era, deterrence has generally been taken to mean that a nuclear power could stop another nuclear power from launching a nuclear attack by vowing massive retaliation. That is, nuclear arms would be fired in response to a nuclear assault. The value of these weapons, then, was in threatening their use, not actually using them.

The United States always refrained from explicitly pledging it would not strike first with nuclear weapons, in order to keep its options open. But deterrence, supposedly the guiding principle of its nuclear buildup, could be portrayed as a truly defensive stance–which presumably made it easier (for some) to live with nuclear arsenals that included thousands of warheads.

Over the years, there have been shifts in the U.S. policy of deterrence. During the Carter administration, the United States said that it would not use nuclear weapons in a war against a nation that did not possess nuclear arms, as long as its enemy was not allied or in league with a nuclear power. The point of such a declaration was to encourage non-nuclear nations to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (The United States couldn’t expect other nations to foreswear nuclear bombs if it reserved the right to attack them with these weapons.)

During the Clinton years, this policy was reaffirmed, but a footnote was added: If a country attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons, all bets were off. In other words, hit us with anthrax, and you might be nuked. Still, under this policy, nuclear missiles would remain weapons of retaliation, thus, weapons of deterrence.

The new Bush doctrine of offensive deterrence changes the equation. This phrase refers not only to using nuclear and conventional weapons against enemies that mount nuclear, biological, or chemical assaults against the United States. It also includes the possibility of dropping nuclear bombs on states (or perhaps terrorist outfits) that develop weapons of mass destruction and that are perceived as threats to the United States. In other words, the United States might “deter” an attack by attacking first–not necessarily with nuclear weapons, but not necessarily without.

It is conceivable that such a nuclear strike some day might have to be contemplated–though it is hard to imagine a scenario in which conventional weapons and troops would not suffice. But if military planning of that sort must be carried out, it should be called by its true name–offensive preemption. “Deterrence means shaping the behavior of someone else in a way that they don’t do what you don’t want them to do,” says Christopher Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. “It’s not deterring them by blowing them up.”

In the weeks since parts of the nuclear posture review were leaked to the press, some commentators have asserted the document, despite its rhetoric, does not really amount to a big shift. As Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, says, “it is highly unlikely the United States would use nuclear weapons to achieve anything other than to deter others from using nuclear weapons.” But a phrase like “offensive deterrence”–which raises the prospect, however distant, of the United States launching a preemptive nuclear strike–can have profound consequences. “As long as you recognize the utility of a weapon, other nations will seek those weapons,” says Hellman. “This can be very destabilizing. If the United States says nuclear weapons are useful in practice [beyond retaliation], other nations will want them.” And that can undermine international nonproliferation efforts.

The Bush administration is doing more than tossing around misleading words. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, the Pentagon and the Energy Department have asked the government’s nuclear weapons labs in Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos, N.M., to compete for the opportunity to design a nuclear bomb that could demolish targets underground. This weapon–dubbed the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator–would be used to hit command bunkers or underground facilities developing or storing biological and chemical weapons. These sites might well be in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and the development of the Penetrator does indicate that the Bush gang is looking for new nuclear weapons that could be launched in a first-strike fashion in non-nuclear situations.

“Offensive deterrence” may have a reassuring sound, but it blurs the line between nuclear and conventional weapons. It is slippery and dangerous language.

Most elected officials attempt to manipulate words to their political and policy advantage, but Bush and his lieutenants have amassed an impressive record of perverted phraseology. His “axis of evil” description of Iraq, Iran and North Korea was deceptive. (Axis: “an alliance of powers, such as nations, to promote national interests and policies.”) Do Iran and Iraq plot together? In fact, the Bush Administration is considering setting up anti-Saddam radio broadcasts, and one possible site for the transmission center is in Iran, with Tehran’s permission. Not so strong an axis, is it?

The Pentagon has had a particularly tough time with easy words, such as “mistake” and “detainee.” When U.S. Special Forces in January conducted a raid of two compounds they suspected of containing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and ended up killing 21 pro-government villagers and detaining 27 others, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied the mission had been a “mistake.” Instead, he said it was the result of an “untidy” situation. (Mistake: “an error or a fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness.”) On March 17, there was a near-repeat of that episode, when U.S. troops struck another compound in a tiny desert outpost and snatched more than 30 men believed to be al-Qaeda fighters. The men turned out to be from the pro-U.S. Northern Alliance. They were held for four days, yet Brigadier General John Rosa, a military spokesman, said they had not been “detainees.” (Detainee: “a person held in custody or confinement.”) By the way, many of the men, once released, told reporters that after they had surrendered and tried to explain they were pro-Yankee they were abused–tied up, hit, kneed and held in cages. (What a coincidence. Following the January mis-raid, many of the men wrongly apprehended said the same thing. Yet a Pentagon inquiry found no evidence they had been mistreated.)

The Bush administration’s misuse of language is not reserved for only national security matters. Bush dubbed his most significant domestic policy–a tax cut of $1.35 trillion– “tax relief.” But nearly half of the give-backs are going to the top 4 percent, people with income above $147,000, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Over a third of the tax cuts will end up in the pockets of the top 1 percent, folks who pull in $373,000 a year or more. Only 14.7 percent will be received by the bottom 60 percent, who earn less than $44,000. So how much of the tax cut is truly “relief”? (Relief: “the easing of a burden or distress, such as pain, anxiety, or oppression.”) Certainly, no one likes to pay taxes, not even people who make more than $400,000 a year. But “relief” is not the easing of irritation or annoyance. And when Bush recently unveiled his global warming initiative, he said his plan would “address the human factors that contribute to climate change.” (Address: “to deal with.”) But his proposal actually permits the United States to increase its output of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not dealing with, that’s exacerbating.

On the presidential campaign trail, Bush, in his aw-shucks way, often declared, “I’m a plain-spoken fellow.” If that were true, he would now be saying, “We’re going to be spewing more global warming gases into the air, giving hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthy, threatening countries that are unallied and have no known connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, and revising military doctrine to make the use of nuclear weapons just a bit less unthinkable.”

Why doesn’t he shoot it straight? Perhaps too many people would find such talk offensive. EndBlock

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.