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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