Donald Trump on ISIS: Being Wrong, and Saying It Wrong, Too

Is it the nature of things that action should partake of exact truth less than speech?

-Socrates, The Republic

Language can perform several functions: it can be informative but also expressive and vocative.[1] It is true that Donald Trump more often than not uses language in a manner that is expressive and especially, vocative. He rarely speaks to inform his audiences, instead using emotional appeals to change (or reinforce) our preferences, i.e., to him. Mr. Trump’s admirers seem intuitively to get that, while his detractors do not. The latter demand his words function solely to inform.

Mr. Trump appears to put great stock in ambiguity, as Rich Lowry wrote several weeks ago:

“Trump favors strategic ambiguity—on everything. He says he doesn’t want to be too explicit about his foreign policy because it will tip off our adversaries about our intentions. He apparently doesn’t want to tip anyone off at home, either.”[2]

Ambiguous, however, is not synonymous with imprecise. Ambiguous language generates two different meanings. Put another way, ambiguous language can be understood in two different ways. One meaning is often incompatible with the other. So his admirers hear him one way and his detractors another. Neither meaning was intended to inform. And each is heard to express something different and thus dissonant.

This is not an apologia for Mr. Trump. Something must condition and control political deliberation—that is, after all, language’s informative function, something too often missing in Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric.

When he fails to inform, Mr. Trump leaves no guideposts to determine which, between two possible meanings, he intended. Invariably, admirers choose the favorable one and detractors the other. Precision in political rhetoric—here the speaker is Protagoras, in Plato’s eponymous dialogue—encourages citizens to listen to persons whose relevant knowledge of a matter can inform them. So informed, we ground our political judgments in shared experiences. Informative language by necessity precedes expressive and vocative language—restated, knowledge grounds the appeal to our sensibility. If politics indeed is an art, then the art of politics is the ability to inform first, and then persuade.

It is here Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric falters—it is all emotion and evocative appeals ungrounded by information. This does not mean Mr. Trump himself is uninformed or ignorant. But it does leave him looking intemperate and lacking an informed grasp of the matter at hand. His admirers claim to “get” his meaning while his detractors find that fanciful. Those still undecided are simply left puzzled. Neither his admirers nor his detractors understand what the other does (or does not) understand about whatever it is Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s usual defense is that he is a businessperson who lives in a practical world of action. But that does not, to paraphrase Socrates, excuse imprecise language in his case anymore than it does in anyone else’s.

Take what Mr. Trump said recently about President Obama. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS,” he said, adding for effect, “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”[3] He later explained his remarks this this way: “All I do is tell the truth, I am a truth teller.”[4]

Perhaps. But if so, he is one who elides large parts of the backstory. However, if his point was that the Obama Administration watched ISIS emerge—and that is very different than his preposterous claim—then he has ample evidence on which to make an informed case to the American electorate. Of course his own views on whether the U.S. should have remained in Iraq in the late 2000s also then should be fair game.

For lost in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical sloppiness is this: the Obama Administration was indeed warned about the emergence of what became ISIS. We know this from information pried out of the Obama Administration by Judicial Watch. Consider this from a heavily redacted August 2012 Defense Department Information Report marked “Secret” (since declassified):

“D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:

                1. This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters, ISI could also declare an Islamic state though its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”[5]

In August 2012, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, and her office is listed on the distribution roster.

The referenced ISI is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq. In January 2014—eighteen months after the report was written—ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra (aka al-Nusra Front) would henceforth be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or “ISIL”. The document’s final un-redacted line of text warns of “the renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena” [sic].

There is another now-declassified secret Defense Department Information Report obtained by Judicial Watch, this one dated October 2012 and covering the period 1 May-1 September 2012. Its anonymous author states “weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port there to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”[6] The heavily redacted document goes on to identify the type and number of weapons “shipped from Libya to Syria in late August 2012.” That of course is the same month in which the Obama Administration was warned the Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq might “declare an Islamic state.”

To repeat, this is no defense or Mr. Trump. He chose his words and bears responsibility for allowing himself to appear ill informed. How much different, though, might the week have been had Mr. Trump taken care to point out what we know from these formerly secret reports: that in August 2012, the Obama Administration including Secretary Clinton was warned about the emergence of what became ISIS—fully a year and a half before it ultimately happened—during the same month in which weapons were shipped to the region from Libya? Someone should have cautioned the Obama Administration at the time that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction,” wrote Lord Byron. But truth in the everyday sense of facts is not so strange, though facts may indeed tell a strange tale. Here, that strange tale is why warnings went unheeded while arms were brought in from Libya. That tale, however, is not the one Mr. Trump chose to tell. The documents cited here do not require interpretation: their plain meaning is quickly apparent.

If language is indeed code as Ferdinand de Saussure insisted, then we must wonder about a tendency to evade the informative in favor of raw emotional appeals. We heard one uncoded answer to that question from 50 senior Republican national security officials. It was not favorable to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump would do himself—and all of us—a great service by sticking to the truth, no matter how strange, and rejecting fiction, no matter how enticing.

Notes

[1] Karl Bühler identified these functions in his 1934 book Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache.

[2] Rich Lowry (2016). “Trump Wants to Make a Deal.” National Review [published online 13 May 2016]. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/435338/donald-trump-foreign-policy-everything-else-ambiguous-design. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[3] ” Donald Trump Calls Obama ‘Founder of ISIS’ and Says It Honors Him.” The New York Times [published online 10 August 2016]. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/us/politics/trump-rally.html. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[4] CNBC transcript 11 August 2016. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/08/11/trump_obamas_failed_policies_make_him_founder_of_isis.html. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[5] See: https://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[6] http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pgs.-1-3-2-3-from-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version1.pdf. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

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Why the US doesn’t have a Muslim problem, and Europe does

I’m first generation American, with a Pakistani-born father. My dad and his older brother both left Pakistan at the same time, but that is where their similarities end. My uncle, an engineer working for the German Space Agency, never felt German. His son avoided mandatory German military service and struggled with finding his identity. My father, on the other hand, came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, ran a successful business, raised two sons (one of whom joined the United States Navy), and proudly votes in every election be it local, state or federal. The contrast between these two brothers is why Europe has a Muslim problem. It’s not the influx of Muslims; rather, it’s Europe’s inability to welcome and assimilate immigrants. The resulting racial tension creates a perfect recipe for ISIS recruitment among disenfranchised young men. America is doing it right, and we cannot repeat the European model.

Officials believe that over 5,000 Western Europeans have made their way to Syria to support ISIS. However, the actual number is considerably higher according to the Soufan Group, with several European countries contributing a disturbing number of fighters to ISIS: France (1700), Russia (2400), UK (760) and Belgium (470)[1]. For a country like Belgium with only 11 million citizens, having almost 500 citizens join ISIS is a shockingly high number. Furthermore, large pockets of Muslims are concentrated in cities like Brussels where more than a quarter of Belgium’s Muslim population resides. These heavily concentrated Muslim enclaves, according to a 2007 report from the Centre of European Policy Studies, are more likely, than the EU general population, to be poor, segregated and crime-prone neighborhoods[2].  But the question remains, why is this trend of European Muslims joining ISIS happening now?

With the crisis in Syria, Europe has received a massive influx of Muslim refugees. However, with 19 million Muslims in Europe, have the refugee numbers contributed to ISIS’ recruiting efforts? The short answer is no. Of the UN reported 4.2 million Muslim refugees, only 850,000 have fled to Europe. While this is a large number of refugees a large number are women and children, with only 62% being men[3]. The reality is that the Muslim migration started long before the crisis in Syria. In fact it grew as a result of an influx of foreign workers taking advantage of lax guest worker programs after the Second World War. Originally meant to be temporary, these workers became permanent and brought with them waves of descendants. Once settled these immigrants did what first generations immigrants do: they had babies. As a result the Muslim population has been steadily growing, not from immigration but by births. The increase in the number of Muslims is a pattern that is expected to continue through 2030, when they are projected to make up 8% of Europe’s population.  Even though the population has been steadily growing the consistent poverty has contributed to racial tensions between Muslims and Europeans even well before the Paris attacks.

Unlike Europe, the US has a very different track record with Muslim immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center there are 3.3 million (or 1% of the population) Muslims living in the US. Furthermore, in the US Muslims make up 10% of US physicians, are the 2nd most educated group after the Jewish population, are as likely as other American households to report an income of $100,000 or more, and over 6,000 serve in the military[4].  The report found that Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated into American society and . . . largely content with their lives.” Unlike European Muslims the report also found that 80 percent of US Muslims were happy with life in America, and 63 percent said they felt no conflict “between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”[5] Furthermore, this integration into American culture and society, according to the report, is evident in the rates they participate in various everyday activities such as following local sports teams or watching entertainment TV — all similar to those of the American public generally. Lastly, most telling of their loyalty and sense of inclusion, according to the Pew report, is that half of all Muslim immigrants display the US flag at home, in the office, or on their car.[6] It is this sense of inclusion that in large parts contributes to the fact that only an estimated 250 Americans have joined ISIS – a number far less than the number of Belgium citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq.

My uncle was one of the immigrants who came to Europe under the guest worker program. Unlike current refugees, neither her nor my father were fleeing war; instead they left to pursue professional careers. My uncle was an educated and a skilled worker who climbed the ranks of German’s fledgling space agency to hold a senior scientist post. While he was professionally successful, his children, who were both born in Germany, struggled. They still feel they are outsiders, not quite German but definitely not Pakistani — a feeling that is repeated as they have children of their own. This experience juxtaposed with that of my father shows a clear difference. Even though I was raised in a predominantly white New York City suburb, I was never considered anything other than American. It is treatment that is extended to my children who, like the subsequent descendants of immigrants, are only aware of the ethnic roots as a distant fact. This is the fundamental difference between European and American Muslims: the ability for American Muslims to assimilate. It is an ability that is key to winning the battle with ISIS, which relies on a steady stream of volunteers. As such, as long as Europe continues to make it difficult for Muslims to integrate and assimilate, ISIS will have a pool of disenfranchised and angry young Europeans from which to recruit.

Naveed Jamali is a Senior Fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an author of How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent.

NOTES

[1]The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, http://soufangroup.com/wpcontent/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate_FINAL3.pdf, (December 8, 2015).

[2]Richard Youngs and Michael Emerson, “Political Islam and European Foreign Policy: Perspectives from Muslim Democrats of the Mediterranean”, https://www.ceps.eu/publications/political-islam-and-european-foreign-policy-perspectives-muslim-democrats-mediterranean,  (28 November 2007).

[3] FactCheck.org, “Facts about the Syrian Refugees”, http://www.factcheck.org/2015/11/facts-about-the-syrian-refugees/, (Posted on November 23, 2015).

[4] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”, http://www.pewresearch.org/files/old-assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf, (May 22, 2007).

[5] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

[6] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

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President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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Who Conducted the Paris Attacks & Stormed the Bataclan Theater? ISIS? Al Qaeda?

*Posted on 13 November 2015, 1900 hours EST*

Information regarding the Paris Attacks on Friday night November 13th remain limited at this point.  While we should remain open to almost any possiblity, this would presumably appear the work of jihadists. I’ve returned to my framework for “Assessing Jihadist Plots In The West” which I created after the Charlie Hebdo attack this past January. I’ve updated my evidence matrix that I utilize for assessing the likelihood of responsibility for different types of plots. I generally look for four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  • An Al Qaeda Central (AQC) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed plot from Yemen or potentially Pakistan (AQAP is AQC at this point);
  • An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq;
  • An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West; or
  • An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months. 

There could always be a fifth scenario, a completely unaffiliated different ideological movement that wants to conduct an attack (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. ISIS is the likely candidate right now, even based on the limited information that we have as seen in my chart below.  

Here are some things I’m looking for right now:

  • Planning – This appears to be one of the more well planned attacks. Were there reports of reconnaisance before these attacks?  
  • Targets Not Symbolic – The restaurant and the theater attacked don’t appear to be particularly symbolic. Al Qaeda directed plots tend to go for spectacular targets, these are not. So I lean ISIS and I wonder, did any of these perpetrators work at these locations or frequent these spots? Is that how they got the idea to hit these locations?
  • A Suicide Bombing? And Several Armed Assaults? – This would be a significant advancement. We would be talking about explosives in the country, assault weapons, lots of planning. The French have a serious problem on their hands.  
  • Weapons Training – Early reports suggest these shooters were calm and calculating. That would suggest weapons training and preparation, leading one to look for former foreign fighters from Syria or other theaters. 
  • Communications – Al Qaeda did tight control of targeting of attacks with affiliates. I don’t believe this is the case with ISIS. In the case of the ISIS Sinai affiliate, I don’t have any evidence that ISIS Central in Iraq and Syria directed the airline bombing. Instead, I get the feeling the situation is the reverse, an affiliate or some global supporters and former foreign fighters execute an attack and then communicate back to central command (Baghdadi and top aides) what happened. Will we see that in this case, post attack reports of chatter back to Iraq and Syria?
  • Media Reporting Is Making ISIS Into ONE BIG THING! – I’ve been really frustrated the past few weeks as news reporting continues to push the theory, without evidence, that ISIS in Iraq and Syria, all affiliates that have pledged to ISIS and all global fanboys of ISIS act in unison under a central command. This was more the case with al Qaeda, but we don’t know this to be true of ISIS. Thus, the public is becoming crazed with fears of an all powerful ISIS which is both untrue and unhelpful.  

Below I’ve posted my latest assessment matrix and I’ve noted where there appears to be evidence to support one scenario over another with the marker #ParisAttacks. Here are my notes on this method, known as Analysis of Competing Hypothesis:

When assessing jihadi attacks in the West these days, I look at several factors to begin distinguishing perpetrators, which I’ll discuss here. In government, this might be called a quick and dirty Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH for short). The scenario with the most supporting evidence tends to be the most likely. NOTE: This will evolve throughout the day as more evidence comes in; I have not settled on one perpetrator over the others and I’m still compiling information. Also, a good ACH takes time and the evidence is weighted and assessed for being confirmed or suspected. I don’t have time to do that this morning so am just doing an initial draft here. In a vetted ACH approach, the evidence would be noted as consistent or inconsistent. I’m just posting red #ParisAttacks markers where I’ve heard news reporting that supports that hypothesis.

Here’s my first cut at an ACH chart for this round of Paris Attacks and I’ll be tweeting evidence (@selectedwisdom) that should be included in the chart as the night and next day progresses. 

 

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