Precision in language makes life easier for everyone. Problems can be solved, or at least addressed calmly, when everyone knows what everyone else is actually talking about. Sure someone will be angry, and another appalled, but this time, if each speaker is precise, about what is actually there, not what they imagine, things will be fine. And that’s not how politics work.
George Orwell knew this. George Orwell wrote this:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.
And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.
And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
In this case, the speaker’s language was not precise. Consider that tribal chanting. That is what it is:
Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
That may be the whole point. Henry Kissinger once said that successful diplomacy depends on “purposeful ambiguity” – don’t pin things down too hard so everyone saves face. That may be true, but Orwell saw that as destructive. That’s what his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language was all about. That was illustrated three years later in Nineteen Eighty-Four – this is what will happen in real life if this goes on much longer.
Some politicians, however, still aim for precision, confusing everyone. Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, who served in the Senate from 2007 to 2013 and was Secretary of the Navy under Reagan from 1987 to 1988, is one of those people. And he’s more than a decorated former Marine Corps officer:
In the private sector he has been an Emmy Award winning journalist, a filmmaker, and the author of ten books. In addition, he taught literature at the United States Naval Academy and was a Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics. As a member of the Democratic Party, Webb announced on November 19, 2014, that he was forming an exploratory committee to evaluate a run for President of the United States in 2016. On July 2, 2015, he announced that he would be joining the race for the Democratic nomination for president, but stepped down from running in the primaries on October 20, 2015, stating that he was “not comfortable” and “unhappy” with many of the party’s political positions.
He was fine with their economic and social policies, but on foreign policy he had to split with the Democrats and walk away. His most famous novel was his 1978 Fields of Fire – and he wrote the story, and was the executive producer, for the 2000 film Rules of Engagement – Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson in and at war. But no one knew what to make of Webb himself. He had been a senior Marine Corps officer. He was precise in everything he did, and in everything he said. In the Marine Corps, ambiguity kills.
That’s why Webb is now saying this:
Strongly held views are unlikely to change regarding the morality and tactical wisdom of President Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani as he traveled on a road outside the Baghdad airport after having arrived on a commercial flight. But the debate regarding the long-term impact of this act on America’s place in the world, and the potential vulnerability of U.S. government officials to similar reprisals, has just begun.
How did it become acceptable to assassinate one of the top military officers of a country with which we are not formally at war during a public visit to a third country that had no opposition to his presence? And what precedent has this assassination established on the acceptable conduct of nation-states toward military leaders of countries with which we might have strong disagreement short of actual war – or for their future actions toward our own people?
Ambiguity kills, after all, but this has been going on for quite a while:
In 2007, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling on the George W. Bush administration to categorize Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as an international terrorist organization. I opposed this proposal based on the irrefutable fact that the organization was an inseparable arm of the Iranian government. The Revolutionary Guards are not independent actors like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. They are part of the Iranian government’s formal military structure, with an estimated strength of more than 150,000 members. It is legally and logically impossible to define one part of a national government as an international terrorist organization without applying the term to that entire government.
Definitions define conduct. If terrorist organizations are actively involved against us, we attack them. But a terrorist organization is by definition a nongovernmental entity that operates along the creases of national sovereignties and international law. The Revolutionary Guards are a part of the Iranian government. If they are attacking us, they are not a terrorist organization. They’re an attacking army.
The 2007 proposal did not succeed. But last April the State Department unilaterally designated the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist entity. Although more than 60 organizations are listed in this category, this is the only time our government has ever identified an element of a nation-state as a terrorist organization. And the designation was by many accounts made despite the opposition of the CIA and the Defense Department.
A bad idea, previously rejected, was put in operation, but precision matters:
The assassination of the most well-known military commander of a country with which we are not formally at war during his visit to a third country that had not opposed his presence invites a lax moral justification for a plethora of retaliatory measures – and not only from Iran. It also holds the possibility of more deeply entrenching the U.S. military in a region that most Americans would very much prefer to deal with from a more maneuverable distance.
No thinking American would support Soleimani’s conduct. But it is also indisputable that his activities were carried out as part of his military duties. His harm to American military units was through his role as an enabler and adviser to third-country forces…
Now, despite Trump’s previous assertions that he wants to dramatically reduce the United States’ footprint in the Middle East, it seems clear that he has been seduced into making unwise announcements similar to the rhetoric used by his immediate predecessors of both parties. Their blunders – in Iraq, Libya and Syria – destabilized the region and distracted the United States from its greatest long-term challenge: China’s military and economic expansion throughout the world.
Some may disagree with Webb on the threat posed by China, but here, Trump started a war with another sovereign nation. Calling the guy a terrorist makes Trump and a lot of Americans feel good, but the sugar-high of the actual kill will fade fast when someone takes out Mike Pompeo. So this has to stop:
At a time when our political debates have come to resemble Kardashian-like ego squabbles, the United States desperately needs common-sense leadership in its foreign policy… If partisanship in foreign policy should end at the water’s edge, then such policies should be forged through respectful, bipartisan debate.
The first such debate should focus on the administration’s unilateral decision to label an entire element of a foreign government an international terrorist organization. If Congress wishes to hold Iran to such a standard, it should then formally authorize the use of force against Iran’s government.
Otherwise this is just giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind. What are we talking about? That’s always the question, and Paul Waldman sees this:
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East has brought out the worst in so many conservative supporters of President Trump. But even if that prospect seems to have been put off for now, it’s likely that the ugly impulses that have surfaced will emerge again and again as we approach the elections in November. Democrats should decide now how they want to respond.
And here’s the problem that Waldman sees:
Rep. Douglas A. Collins said that Democrats are “in love with terrorists, we see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families.” I have a vague memory of a presidential candidate attacking a Gold Star family in 2016; can’t quite recall who that was.
“The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership,” said former U.N. ambassador and future presidential candidate Nikki Haley. After it was pointed out to her that literally zero Democrats were mourning Soleimani’s death, she argued that “mourning” means wishing he were still alive and anyone who criticized the decision to kill him wishes he were still alive and is therefore “mourning” him. That, of course, is not what “mourning” means.
When Rep. Pramila Jayapal said the administration had presented no evidence of an “imminent threat” that necessitated Soleimani’s assassination, Rep. John Rutherford of Florida responded by saying, “You and your squad of Ayatollah sympathizers are spreading propaganda that divides our nation and strengthens our enemies.”
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said, “The alarmists and apologists show skepticism about our own intelligence and sympathy for Soleimani.”
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina tweeted that “the vast majority” agrees with the killing, while “Democrats are falling all over themselves equivocating about a terrorist.”
And there it is, but it’s not selling:
Republicans are quite certain not only that the American public shares their belief that the Soleimani assassination was the right thing to do, but that anyone who disagrees must love terrorists.
There will be much more polling in coming days, but as it happens, the first poll out from USA Today finds that 55 percent of the public say the killing of Soleimani and its aftermath made the United States less safe, with only 24 percent saying it made us more safe.
That was clear:
There was overwhelming agreement – in each case by more than 6-1 – that the attack made it more likely Iran would strike American interests in the Middle East (69%), that there would be terrorist attacks on the American homeland (63%), and that the United States and Iran would go to war with each other (62%).
By 52%-8%, those polled said the attack made it more likely that Iran would develop nuclear weapons.
Waldman adds this:
America, it seems, is a nation of Ayatollah-sympathizing, terrorist-loving Soleimani-mourners. Or maybe most people just don’t buy the proposition that unless you support every decision Donald Trump makes you’re a traitor.
That should sound familiar:
Going all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts, advocates for war have accused those who don’t share their enthusiasm of being traitors. More recently, the September 11 attacks were followed by endless accusations from Republicans that any Democrat who failed to support whatever the Bush administration wanted to do was supporting al-Qaeda, and later, Saddam Hussein. As George W. Bush himself said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
The difference now is that Democrats don’t appear particularly frightened of that charge.
But how should they respond to the specific accusation that if they disagree with Trump, they love terrorists?
That sort of thing can be tricky:
In the past, they’ve responded by trying to show they can be tough. That’s why so many Democratic leaders voted for the Iraq War, at a time when memories of 9/11 were still fresh and nearly two-thirds of the public supported the war.
But now they have an opportunity. While Republican rhetoric may be the same, the public is on the side of Democrats and against a deeply unpopular president. So instead of whimpering in fear and trying to change the subject, they can actually call attention to the execrable charge and make Republicans the issue.
For instance, a presidential candidate could say:
“I refuse to allow you to say that the majority of Americans who question President Trump’s erratic decision-making are terrorist sympathizers. And when I’m president, I’ll treat Americans with respect for a change. When Republicans disagree with me, I’ll explain why I think they’re wrong, but I won’t call them traitors. I think we’ve all had enough of that kind of poisonous politics.”
But will any Democratic candidate say that? Waldman thinks someone should say that, because that’s good politics:
This is about what kind of rhetoric is going to be tolerated and what should be condemned. This is the perfect opportunity to get Republicans on the defensive for their hatefulness.
And it isn’t going anywhere, no matter happens with Iran. As we get closer to the election and the possibility of Democratic victory becomes real, Republicans will get more extreme in their words. Their predictions of cataclysm (the governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, recently said that if Democrats win the Senate “we will take that first step into a thousand years of darkness”) will regularly bleed over into accusations that if you don’t support Trump then you wish for the apocalypse and therefore hate America.
That kind of rancid bile shouldn’t go unchallenged for a second.
But it will go unchallenged. We’re talking about Democrats here, although Alexandra Petri has a bit of fun with this:
Millions of Americans who opposed President Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike were devastated to learn that, actually, they loved the terrorist leader and could not possibly oppose this move for any other reason.
“Honestly,” Ann American said, “I could not have picked the guy out of a lineup a week ago, and my reservations around his killing were that it felt like a dangerous escalation that could lead to war, but it turns out that I’m actually a big fan of his who is sorry that he is dead. That’s the only reason I’m upset about this. Who knew! And I hate America? I need to buy very different lawn decorations.”
Maybe humor helps:
Homes were rocked by the revelation. “I thought I was in love with my wife,” Greg Gregson said. “We’ve been married 30 years, and I thought we had something, but …” Greg sighed. “I guess that wasn’t really love. All this time, I’ve been in love with terrorists. But the really devastating thing is – so has she. I just wish we’d been able to talk to each other instead of finding this out the way we did, by watching Rep. Doug Collins speak to Lou Dobbs on the Fox Business channel. She is upstairs packing her things while I drink this iced tea and shed bitter tears.”
And there’s this:
The entire Democratic primary field was shaken by the revelation, especially Pete Buttigieg, who assuredly would not have joined the military had he realized his deep passion for America’s destruction.
That’s cute, but that doesn’t change this:
President Trump opened his re-election year in the Midwest on Thursday, hoping to translate his confrontation with Iran into strength on the campaign trail as he boasted about killing the head of its elite security forces and derided Democrats for seeking to restrain his power to go to war.
For his first campaign rally of 2020, Mr. Trump returned to Ohio, where he has devoted much of his travel over the past three years to cement support that will be crucial to rebuilding the unlikely Electoral College coalition he assembled in 2016.
So it was Toledo this time:
Standing in front of a giant American flag, the president celebrated his decision to order a drone strike killing the Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, calling him “the world’s top terrorist” and insisting that he was planning to attack American embassies despite doubts about the intelligence. “He was a bad guy,” Mr. Trump told a cheering crowd at the Huntington Center, a minor-league hockey arena. “He was a bloodthirsty terror and he’s no longer a terror. He’s dead.”
Hours after House Democrats passed a resolution intended to limit Mr. Trump’s ability to wage war without congressional permission, the president said Speaker Nancy Pelosi had her priorities wrong.
“I see the radical left Democrats have expressed outrage over the termination of this horrible terrorist,” he said. “And you know, instead, they should be outraged by Suleimani’s savage crimes.”
At the mention of Ms. Pelosi, who he said is “not operating with a full deck,” some in the crowd shouted: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
This was neither the time nor the place for reasoned discourse:
“Who do you like better, Trump or Abraham Lincoln?” he said, recalling the survey question. Some in the crowd shouted out their answer: “Trump! Trump!” although many others did not join in, perhaps quiet Lincoln admirers.
Mr. Trump said he shared the result of the poll with his wife, addressing her by her title. “I said, ‘First Lady, I just beat Abraham Lincoln in a poll,'” he said.
Orwell would get it, but then, maybe Donald Trump gets it:
Toward the end, after an extended attack on Democrats as corrupt, crime-loving socialists who are “stone-cold crazy,” Mr. Trump suddenly stopped and reflected on his own language. “Gee,” he said, “now I sort of understand why they hate me.”
What’s this? Is this some sort of new self-awareness? No, that’s just gloating. This was just giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind. Orwell was right all along.