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The State Department Is 'Deeply Concerned'

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2010.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2010.

Considering the month of April alone, the State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about each of these situations: justice in Turkey; peaceful challenges of official Chinese policies; restrictions of freedom in Egypt; a Ugandan raid on a U.S.-funded medical facility; the humanitarian crisis in Burma and certain actions of the Republika Srpska, among other various and diverse issues — many extremely serious.

On the well-being of Korean-American missionary Ken Bae, who has been detained by North Korea since 2012, a State Department spokesperson said: "We remain deeply concerned about his health. We continue to urge North Korea, North Korean authorities to grant Mr. Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds."

Not surprisingly, the State Department also continues to be "deeply concerned" about activities throughout the Middle East. "The United States is deeply concerned by the dire and tragic situation in Homs" in western Syria, a spokesperson said recently.

Crawl into the archives and you will discover that the State Department has officially been "deeply concerned" about mayhem in the Middle East for a long, long time. When a report on human rights abuses in Bahrain was issued by an independent commission in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "We are deeply concerned about the abuses identified in the report." In 2005, Secretary Condoleezza Rice was "deeply concerned" about civilian suffering in Lebanon because of Israeli operations. In 1999, a spokesman representing Secretary James A. Baker said that "on Lebanon, the United States government is deeply concerned over the heavy exchange of shelling and consequent loss of life March 14 in Beirut."

Evidently, the phrase "deeply concerned" has cropped up in American political and diplomatic discourse for decades. "We are all deeply concerned with the welfare of Greece," said Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947.

Realizing this fact, here are our questions: When is "deeply concerned" chosen as wording in a State Department briefing or statement or warning? In diplospeak, what does it mean? And what does it not mean?

Now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Kori Schake — a former deputy director for policy planning at the State Department — says the phrase represents the middle ground in diplomacy, like the "just right" reaction in Goldilocks.

Each time Secretary of State John Kerry or a department spokesperson speaks of being "deeply concerned," Kori says, "It's more than a passing concern, but not 'gravely concerned.' "

Detailing the many usages of the words last month, she says, actually shows "how much the State Department believes its work is communicating bilaterally with countries — since to utilize the phrasing so often about so many issues on which we are doing little suggests they expect no cross-checking."


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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.