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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Will Economics Still Prevail Over Politics in Asia?

Most people today closely associate Asia with robust economic growth, fueled by expansion in infrastructure, manufacturing, and services.  Even though there have been bumps along the way, notably during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–1998, both before and after that crisis hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty.  Throughout the 1990s, many Asians even spoke of a special set of Asian values that contributed to their success.  And while some values have proved to be double edged, many came to see at least one of them reflected in Asia’s general attitude toward international relations—a preference for consensus over confrontation.  That preference, the theory goes, gave rise to the notion that economic development should take precedence over political competition, paving the way for greater regional and regime stability.

Indeed, it may be better said that much of Asia came to choose economic development over political competition not because of any special set of values, but rather because of weariness with many decades of conflict.  Now, after three decades of relative peace and economic prosperity, armed conflict seems a distant possibility to many Asians.  Even on Taiwan, which faces increasing diplomatic isolation and periodic Chinese threats of forced unification, most Taiwanese are relatively nonchalant about the possibility.  And, until recently, something similar could be said of Japanese, who viewed Russia’s territorial claims on their northern territories with greater concern than those of China on the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, if you happen to be in Beijing).

Besides, after the Cold War ended, many Americans believed that their continued engagement with Beijing and in the region would relieve the tensions associated with China’s rise and defuse the need for any arms race in Asia.  From the Chinese perspective, their country’s rise would not be a cause for concern among its neighbors, as it would be simply reasserting its traditional (and rightful) place in Asia.  Indeed, China’s rise would benefit all Asians.  And, in any case, surely no country—least of all China which has so greatly benefited from the extended period of peace—would have much incentive to upset its own economic growth with the potential for conflict.

But clearly those expectations have their limits.  China has grown increasingly strident in its maritime disputes with Japan and the countries that ring the South China Sea.  Meanwhile, China’s dam building on the Mekong River without the consultation of its Southeast Asian neighbors has not endeared the country to those on the Indochina peninsula.  And with Chinese influence spilling into the Indian Ocean, India has grown nervous too.  It turns out that not all of China’s neighbors share its unreserved fondness for the way things were during imperial China’s heyday.  Hence, tensions across Asia have increased as Chinese behavior has become more assertive, matching its enhanced economic and military prowess.  And so, many Asian countries have begun to rearm, most recently Japan, which shifted its military focus southward and boosted its defense budget for the first time in over a decade.

For a time, it did seem as though the prospect for war in Asia had been entirely banished to the shadows.  However, it has become apparent that the ever-greater certainty of peace had bred a sense of complacency that long-simmering tensions would ultimately be amicably resolved or indefinitely postponed.  Today, some of those tensions have resurfaced.  Politics still matter and once again threaten to take primacy over economic ties.  Hopefully, with the renewed attention devoted to them, Asia can put some of these tensions to rest and return to its economic development.  Otherwise, they are likely to augur ill for the future.

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