April 10, 2008
Obama's Linguistic TrapBy Lee Cary
Senator Barack Obama set a trap during Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker unwittingly stepped into it.
Of the three presidential candidates participating in Senate committee hearings on April 9, 2008, Obama's performance generally received the most favorable reviews based on his perceived amiable demeanor and absence of senatorial grandstanding. He was seen as, in a word, smooth.
Unlike Sen. George Voinovich (R. OH), Obama felt no need to tell us he prays to the "Holy Spirit" for a resolution to the war in Iraq. Unlike Sen. Barbara Boxer (D. CA), he didn't assume that when Middle Eastern government officials kiss each other on the cheeks they're in love. Neither did Obama participate in the senatorial jocularity always offered by Sen. Joe Biden (D. DE). And since he can't, Obama didn't remind us, as did Sen. Chuck Hagel (R. NE), who was once a buck sergeant in Vietnam, that he's familiar with the role of a four-star, Army, combat, field commander. In contrast to most of his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats [although it's often hard to tell the difference on that committee], Obama's performance was urbane and understated. Just how smooth he really was requires a close examination of the hearing's transcript.
Most Senators, typically, didn't so much ask questions as make statements. Obama did both at the same time as he executed an enthymeme -- a categorical syllogism with an unstated premise. No one seemed to notice at the time that it was also an invalid syllogism.
Here's how Obama's Enthymeme played out.
Let's break it down and highlight some of the moves in Obama's Enthymeme. He began by setting the first half of his Major Premise.
Because Petraeus and Crocker were there to testify and, most definitely, not to debate, Obama's "at the center" assertion went unchallenged. Petraeus and Crocker sat mute.
An exchange between Obama and Petraeus ended with their agreement that, according to Obama,
Then the conversation seemed to meander off into a tangential discussion of the integration of Sunni Arabs "into Iraqi security forces or other government positions" (Petraeus). But Obama may have intended it to establish another indicator of emerging stability -- this one relevant to Iraqi fighting capabilities. At the time, though, where Obama was headed was unclear.
Obama turned to Crocker to establish a case for stability in the Iran-Iraq relationship asking Crocker,
Crocker pointed out the destabilizing influence caused by an "Iranian strategy of backing extremist militia groups and sending in weapons and munitions that are used against Iraqis and against our own forces." That led to a brief exchange as to whether the Iraqi government is aware of Iran's involvement. Then Obama asked,
In his response, Crocker used the wrong words.
"Normal relationship?" Oops. Those words, along with Petraeus' estimation of al Qaeda in Iraq at 2,000, completed the unstated Minor Premise of Obama's Enthymeme: The key factors determining U.S. combat troop withdrawal are normal and manageable.
After yet again reminding us that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, Obama aimed to drive his syllogism home with this convoluted, rhetorical [by Obama's own admission] question to Crocker.
This was the denouement to his line of questioning -- one that impressed some commentators, like Fred Barnes speaking on FOX News.
Looking somewhat confused and perhaps realizing that he'd stepped into a trap, Crocker nevertheless gave a reasonable answer.
Immediately, Biden came to Obama's defense interrupting with,
Obama quickly piled-on with,
But that was the question! Crocker gave the best answer to an invalid syllogism that concluded with a hypothetical assertion: "...if we were able to have the status quo right now without U.S. troops." Essentially, Crocker answered: Your question is based on what I take to be an invalid assertion, namely that the status quo today would continue in the absence of U.S. combat troops.
Unfortunately for Crocker, he had no articulate defenders on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he seemed confused by the question. Looking tired after a full day of testifying before two Senate committees and three presidential candidates, he summarized, "This is hard and this is complicated." Understandable, but not explanatory.
With a full night's sleep, what could Crocker have said? Perhaps this:
Petraeus, the War Fighter, said it best,
Meanwhile, Obama, the Linguistic Gymnast, proves that he's as skilled at twisting words as William Jefferson Clinton.