Obama's Linguistic Trap

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.

Major Premise: The stability of two key factors -- Iranian influence on Iraq and the threat from al Qaeda in Iraq -- will determine when U.S. combat troops can be withdrawn from Iraq.

Minor Premise:  Both factors are now stabilized. (Part of this unstated premise was implied when Crocker characterized the cheek-kissing reception given Iranian President Ahmadinejad by President Maliki in Iraq as "normal relations."  And, the premise was completed when Gen. David Petraeus told Sen. Boxer that al Qaeda operatives in Iraq now number about 2,000.) 

Obama's Conclusion: The achieved stability of those key factors means that U.S. combat troop levels in Iraq can now be dramatically decreased.

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.

"I want to just start off with a couple of quick questions [he disarms by minimizing importance] because, in the parade of horribles that I think both of you have outlined should we leave too quickly, at the center is al Qaeda in Iraq and Iran.  So I just [more disarming] want to focus on those two things for a moment."

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,

"Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they're [al Qaeda] not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq."  

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,

"Just as it's fair to say that we're not going to completely eliminate all traces of al Qaeda in Iraq, but we want to create a manageable situation, it's also true to say that we're not going to eliminate all influence of Iran in Iraq, correct?"  

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,

"If, in fact, it is known...that Iran's government has assisted in arming special groups that are doing harm to Iraqi security forces and undermining the Iraqi government, why is it that they're being welcomed the way they were?" [So we're back to Middle Eastern politicians cheek-kissing that Senator Boxer brought up.  Was this part of the trap coordinated between the two senators?]

In his response, Crocker used the wrong words.

"In terms of the Ahmadinejad visit, you know, Iran and Iraq are neighbors.  A visit like that should be in the category of a normal relationship."

"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.

"And so my final -- and I'll even pose this as a question and I won't -- you don't necessarily have to answer it -- maybe it's a rhetorical question -- if we were able to have the status quo [i.e. stability ref. the two determining factors in the Major Premise of his syllogism] right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success?"  

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.

"Senator, I can't imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown."

Immediately, Biden came to Obama's defense interrupting with,

"That wasn't the question."

Obama quickly piled-on with,

"No, no, that wasn't the question."

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:

"Senator, first of all, today's status quo is not acceptable for the long term, but we are making measurable progress toward one that will be.  It's like this, sir. Most of us have, at some time in our lives, been prescribed an antibiotic by a physician to fight off bacteria. The doctor always reminds us that, even when we start feeling better after a couple of days of taking the medicine, we need to keep taking it until it's all gone.  If we stop now, we risk a relapse where the bacteria come back even stronger than before. And that, sir, is the situation we face in Iraq.  Too soon to stop now."

Petraeus, the War Fighter, said it best,

"We have the forces that we need right now, I believe. We've got to continue. We have our teeth into their jugular, and we need to keep it there." 

Meanwhile, Obama, the Linguistic Gymnast, proves that he's as skilled at twisting words as William Jefferson Clinton. 
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.

Major Premise: The stability of two key factors -- Iranian influence on Iraq and the threat from al Qaeda in Iraq -- will determine when U.S. combat troops can be withdrawn from Iraq.

Minor Premise:  Both factors are now stabilized. (Part of this unstated premise was implied when Crocker characterized the cheek-kissing reception given Iranian President Ahmadinejad by President Maliki in Iraq as "normal relations."  And, the premise was completed when Gen. David Petraeus told Sen. Boxer that al Qaeda operatives in Iraq now number about 2,000.) 

Obama's Conclusion: The achieved stability of those key factors means that U.S. combat troop levels in Iraq can now be dramatically decreased.

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.

"I want to just start off with a couple of quick questions [he disarms by minimizing importance] because, in the parade of horribles that I think both of you have outlined should we leave too quickly, at the center is al Qaeda in Iraq and Iran.  So I just [more disarming] want to focus on those two things for a moment."

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,

"Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they're [al Qaeda] not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq."  

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,

"Just as it's fair to say that we're not going to completely eliminate all traces of al Qaeda in Iraq, but we want to create a manageable situation, it's also true to say that we're not going to eliminate all influence of Iran in Iraq, correct?"  

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,

"If, in fact, it is known...that Iran's government has assisted in arming special groups that are doing harm to Iraqi security forces and undermining the Iraqi government, why is it that they're being welcomed the way they were?" [So we're back to Middle Eastern politicians cheek-kissing that Senator Boxer brought up.  Was this part of the trap coordinated between the two senators?]

In his response, Crocker used the wrong words.

"In terms of the Ahmadinejad visit, you know, Iran and Iraq are neighbors.  A visit like that should be in the category of a normal relationship."

"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.

"And so my final -- and I'll even pose this as a question and I won't -- you don't necessarily have to answer it -- maybe it's a rhetorical question -- if we were able to have the status quo [i.e. stability ref. the two determining factors in the Major Premise of his syllogism] right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success?"  

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.

"Senator, I can't imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown."

Immediately, Biden came to Obama's defense interrupting with,

"That wasn't the question."

Obama quickly piled-on with,

"No, no, that wasn't the question."

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:

"Senator, first of all, today's status quo is not acceptable for the long term, but we are making measurable progress toward one that will be.  It's like this, sir. Most of us have, at some time in our lives, been prescribed an antibiotic by a physician to fight off bacteria. The doctor always reminds us that, even when we start feeling better after a couple of days of taking the medicine, we need to keep taking it until it's all gone.  If we stop now, we risk a relapse where the bacteria come back even stronger than before. And that, sir, is the situation we face in Iraq.  Too soon to stop now."

Petraeus, the War Fighter, said it best,

"We have the forces that we need right now, I believe. We've got to continue. We have our teeth into their jugular, and we need to keep it there." 

Meanwhile, Obama, the Linguistic Gymnast, proves that he's as skilled at twisting words as William Jefferson Clinton.