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.


[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]. 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]. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[4] CNBC transcript 11 August 2016. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[5] See: Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[6] Last accessed 12 August 2016.

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The Follies of “Mission Accomplished”

Misión cumplida: lo tenemos,” dispatched Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto over Twitter on January 8, 2016. “Mission accomplished: we have him.” Mexican Marines had just captured Joaquín Guzmán-Loera, or El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader and world’s largest narcotics distributor. Requisite congratulations to his cabinet followed.

The statement mirrored another infamous exultation: U.S. President George W. Bush celebrating Saddam Hussein’s fall on the USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” banner visible behind his podium on May 1, 2003. Eight years and one day later, President Barack Obama announced the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although careful not to declare final victory, Obama’s subsequent rhetoric and ensuing policies made it clear he saw the bin Laden raid as an “achievement” that would justify an American military drawdown.

Bush, Obama, and Peña Nieto all shared an obsession with defeating a specific enemy, and the manner and tone which each presented a seemingly conclusive moment demonstrates a misguided belief in handling modern conflict. No nation can protect and serve its citizenry by telling its people that disarming, detaining, or defeating a singular foe constitutes an effective strategy. Trumpeting tactical actions as terminal successes highlights a state’s weakness, and is a harbinger for intellectual paralysis and policy failure.

When former President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, his advisors had hoped to conjure a scene reminiscent of General Douglas MacArthur’s acceptance of Japan’s surrender on the USS Missouri that ended World War II. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” Bush said during his speech. Almost six bloody years later, he struck a different tone. “Putting ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” Bush said in January 2009, reflecting days before departing the Oval Office.

Although Obama was careful to avoid repeating Bush’s mistake in his remarks announcing Osama bin Laden’s death as a conclusive moment, his 2012 presidential campaign positioned the bin Laden raid as the definitive justification for declaring a premature end to war in Iraq. “The tide of war is receding,” Obama inaccurately forecasted in October 2011. “The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership—including Osama bin Laden.”

Two years later, President Obama contrasted bin Laden with the nascent Islamic State, comparing the latter to a junior varsity basketball team. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden…versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles,” Obama said in January 2014. His comments bizarrely echoed former Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2005 description of Iraq’s insurgency as “in its last throes.” Since the President’s assessment, ISIS attackers have struck Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, Tripoli, Copenhagen, Tunis, Sana’a, Kuwait City, Cairo, a French train from Amsterdam, Ankara, a Russian airplane over Egypt, Beirut, Paris (again), Tunis (again), San Bernardino, and, most recently, Istanbul. Despite Obama’s desire for tidy victory, Islamic State clearly has “the capacity and reach of a bin Laden.” Unlike former President Bush, Obama has yet to repudiate his strategic blunder.

Which brings us back to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who proclaimed El Chapo’s capture as “a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States, and a vindication of the rule of law in our countries.” In February 2010, when I was last in Sinaloa, then-President Felipe Calderón was pursuing the cartel leader just as aggressively, and with just as much public fanfare. In Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacán, street artists caricatured Calderón as a clown (see the picture above), mocking his war against the cartels as a circus. As social media comments attest, Mexicans—especially Sinaloans—see El Chapo’s arrest as a similar farce.

The American and Mexican governments have congratulated themselves over the successful manhunt in northern Mexico. Policy wonks and scholars alike claim Mexico is on the verge of a mythical turning point, comparing its prospective law-abiding future with Colombia’s decrease in violence following Pablo Escobar’s capture. But Mexico has permanent geographic advantages for illicit distribution that Colombia never offered, and the Sinaloa Cartel’s asymmetric success against the Mexican military suggests the drug lords are far from their last throes. “Drug trafficking does not depend on one person,” accurately noted El Chapo, in his widely reported interview with Sean Penn. “It depends on a lot of people. If there were no consumption, there would be no sales.” Capturing Chicago crime boss Al Capone in March 1929 did not end violence from alcohol prohibition. Repealing the ban in December 1933 did.

The recurring folly of presidents announcing a completed mission after capturing an organizational kingpin evolves from the flawed view that national governments can wield authority over non-state entities as if they were linear structures. From tragic narcotics demand to repugnant religious zeal, human desires fuel actions that override legal and political authorities. Capturing or killing a single person (or regime) offers the illusion of instant success, while simultaneously positioning a leader to avoid responsibility for the aftermath.

Foreign policy successes involving ideas and motivations from nonlinear realms of human experience inevitably take time and patience to achieve. Offering tactical victories to the citizenry as cause for celebration or strategic justification insults the intelligence of all adults who know better. People of myriad races and cultures have gone to great lengths to chemically alter their brains for centuries. Religious sacrifice has fueled millions of violent supplicants for millennia. Suggesting policies can hinge on a single leader’s fate affronts the intuitive truth all of us know: the human condition is much more complex than one person’s rise or fall.

David Danelo, FPRI’s Director of Field Research, is the author of The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide and the FPRI E-Book Toward a U.S.-Mexico Security Strategy: The Geopolitics of Northern Mexico and the Implications for U.S. Policy.


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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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The Paradox of History

When one’s conclusions can be no more extensive than one’s premises, one is bound to be at a standstill.  Everything must be foreknown or foreseen…Believing in this with pathetic loyalty, we have not understood for the most part that experience is not the guide of our lives but the trial to which we submit our dreams.”

                                                                                                                                       –George Boas (1920)                                                                           

Like many Americans, I have been reflecting today on the tragedy of an earlier September 11, and on President Obama’s words last evening.  Each in its own way brought to mind Greg Dening’s idea of history making— the transformation of lived experience into narratives.

On the question of narratives, Stuart Gottlieb’s insightful essay “History’s Advice to Barack Obama” takes on “the sort of behavior that the administration keeps pointing to as on the ‘wrong side of history’.”  Gottlieb offers two examples to illustrate the claim: the first, by President Obama, that “ISI[S] has no place in he 21st century”; and the second, Secretary of State Kerry’s about “19th century behavior in the 21st century.”

Reflecting on democracy and the paradoxes of history, Grzegorz Ekiert suggests the truism that “it is difficult to build democracy in a non-democratic neighborhood.” Something “even more difficult to conceptualize,” however, are:

“[L]ong run historical developments and their impact on present political and economic outcomes…the boundaries and borders, that were in place hundred or hundred fifty years ago and disappeared a long time ago, are showing up unexpectedly in the electoral geography.  Those old borders somehow have influenced the ways in which preferences are shaped today.”

Professor Ekiert’s context is East Europe, but his point seems indisputably to apply as well to the contemporary Levant.  It expresses the rule, not an exception to it: that historical borders affect contemporary preferences.  He offers two examples in postmodern 21st century Europe:

        “[I]n Poland when one looks at the number of NGOs in the countryside, one clearly sees that in the old Russian partition, there are significantly fewer NGOs in the countryside than there are in the Austro-Hungarian or in the Prussian partitions.  So you can see that the borders between Poland’s partitions still have an impact…”

        “Or, to take another example, in the middle of the nineteenth century there were many dialects in Germany[.]  A century later…a study of regional migrations discovered that today the mobility within the old dialect boundaries is higher than across dialect boundaries.  These are example of old boundaries that disappeared a long time ago but still have some mysterious power to shape contemporary outcomes.”

The paradox, he continues, is that “long-term continuities are most prominent in places which have a lot of discontinuity…one part of this discontinuity puzzle is that collective memories are kept intact when societies experience rapid and fundamental change.”

One might ask: where is this more the case than the Levant?  A commentary in today’s Al-Jazeera asks, “Obama: Can his plan save the Levant?” (one might append parenthetically “from itself”).  It states, “Briefings ahead of the announcement speak of a three-year conflict that recognises [sic] that the Islamic State group operates across borders but could initially focus on the battle for Iraq.”  Borders?  Lines on a map are Marquess of Queensberry rules in a street fight.  The quaint notion that, in a place like the Levant, borders once done cannot be undone is delusional in the face of an adversary like the Islamic State.  It doesn’t cross borders: it erases and redraws them like a demented Sykes-Picot.  That realization may underlie in some part Turkey’s refusal today to join “the coalition of the willing,” since it has not-inconsiderable experience with both redrawn borders, and rapid and fundamental change.

President Obama has a puzzlingly orthogenic view of capital H “history”: his History moves in a guided and unilinear fashion.  As a guide to statecraft, that view is fundamentally flawed.  It is bad science allowed to mutate into bad historiography: a discreditable “idea of continuous and progressive change,” of “evolution in a ‘strait line’.”  Its dogma is that History is discernably directionable, in the conviction, as Guyer put it, that it is “almost incredible” that what we see today is the product of “generation after generation…of purely accidental mutation.”  It may be comforting to imagine some benign “omega point,” in Teilhard de Chardin’s term, toward which History marches deterministically, if at times unevenly.  It is, however, a dangerously inept compass to guide policy, and a springboard for ill-conceived actions.  To paraphrase Don Corleone, pundits and philosophers can afford to be careless, not wartime leaders.

The point Gottlieb drives home in his essay is that active American leadership and engagement is sine qua non to confronting and defeating “territorial aggressors and anti-liberal ideologies.”  These are “the familiar components of international politics”: it is American liberal norms and institutions that are historically anomalous in a resolutely Hobbesian world.  That is the point about American exceptionalism: that it is the exception.

We are not flotsam in some metaphorical stream of history.  We are actors.  For wartime leaders, that means actively making history, or more clearly, making the history that will not otherwise come to pass.  As the events of twelve years ago proved resolutely, events will not otherwise default to our favor.  

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