It Ain't Lyin' If...

The recent debate over Iraq's alleged relationship with al-Qaeda has led the media into a semantic quagmire: Are "connections" the same as "collaboration?" What about "control?" It's reminiscent of similar debates as to whether the administration ever called the Iraqi threat "imminent" or merely "immediate."

I studied philosophy in college, which I never thought would come in handy in any sort of professional pursuit. In the course of doing so, however, I did take several courses on the subject of semantics and studied Paul Grice's theory of "conversational implicature." As aptly summarized by Kent Bach, the point is this:

What a speaker implicates is distinct from what he says and from what his words imply. Saying of an expensive dinner, "It was edible," implies that it was mediocre at best. This simple example illustrates a general phenomenon: A speaker can say one thing and manage to mean something else or something more by exploiting the fact that he may be presumed to be cooperative, in particular, to be speaking truthfully, informatively, relevantly, and otherwise appropriately. The listener relies on this presumption to make a contextually driven inference from what the speaker says to what she means.
For our purposes, the point is that a canny speaker can mislead his audience without necessarily saying anything false. If I tell you, "They're not all in the meeting yet" when, in fact, no one is in the meeting, I haven't lied to you about anything. If no one is there, then, indeed, they're not all there. Nevertheless, any reasonable listener will have understood me to mean that some, but not all, of the expected attendees are then. Again, if I say, "Some people are in the room" when only one person is in the room, I'm not speaking falsely, I'm simply speaking uncooperatively. You'll infer that more than one person is in the room although, strictly speaking, I said no such thing.

Bill Clinton, who has also returned to the news cycle lately, gave us a particularly elegant example. Queried under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and wishing neither to perjure himself nor admit to having conducted an affair, he stated that there "is no sexual relationship" with her. This was true. At the time he uttered the phrase, there was no sexual relationship between the two. The purpose of saying this, however, was quite clearly to get the prosecutors to believe that he had denied that there ever was an affair, which was false.

For the purposes of defending oneself against perjury charges in a quasi-criminal proceeding, this sort of argument may suffice. In Bush's case, however, perjury is not on the table. Rather, the question is whether or not he has led the American people in a responsible manner. In this context the important issue is not whether the administration's various claims can, when taken one by one, somehow be defined as factual. The relevant question is whether or not the picture they sketched enhanced or detracted from the public's understanding of the major issues of the day. Various assertions about ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda must, therefore, be put into the broader context of what the administration was saying about the war. This broad picture included the claim that the invasion of Iraq was an act of preemptive self-defense, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States, that the Iraq War was part of the war on terrorism, that the desire to invade was motivated by the sense that the country had waited too long before responding vigorously to al-Qaeda, and that the lessons of 9-11 were an important factor in the president's thought process.

The point of all this was to lead the American people to believe that the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terrorism in a rather straightforward sense: Saddam Hussein was likely to give al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States. Though many voices put forward many arguments for war in the months before the beginning of the invasion, this was the main case put forward by the administration. Not that we needed to invade to avenge a meeting that took place years ago in Khartoum, but that the long-past Khartoum meeting was evidence of the continuing likelihood that Iraq would become a WMD supplier for al-Qaeda.

Simply put, there was never any evidence whatsoever to back up the administration's theory on this point. We know that in the past Saddam has simultaneously sponsored terrorist groups (directed against Israel) and possessed WMD (in the form of chemical weapons), but that he never gave such weapons to terrorists because he didn't trust them. We also know that in the past Saddam has passed up on the opportunity to use WMD against American forces, out of fear for what the retaliation would mean for his regime. We know -- as the 9-11 Commission has recently reiterated and the administration has reluctantly admitted -- that Iraq never had an operational relationship with al-Qaeda and never cooperated with them on attacks against the United States or any other country. Last, but by no means least, we know that Iraq's ties with al-Qaeda were less significant than al-Qaeda's ties with such American allies as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. None of the scattered data points the administration's defenders now wish to point to -- a few inconclusive meetings, and an ambiguous relationship between Iraq and Abu Zarqawi (whose relationship with al-Qaeda is, likewise, ambiguous) -- even begins to support the assertion that Iraqi WMD and al-Qaeda terrorism constituted any sort of symbiotic threat to the country.

That the administration is bothering to pretend they never said any such thing is a testament to how little they respect the intelligence of the American people, and how confident they are that the media will not point out facts that can be found in plain sight. What, exactly, was the purpose of constant references to Iraqi sponsorship of anti-Israeli terrorism that never came with the qualifier that this was anti-Israeli, rather than anti-American terrorism? Why note that Qaeda-affiliated groups were operating "in Iraq" without mentioning that they operated in the part of Iraq outside of Saddam's control? Why call Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism?" Why cite "September the eleventh" as a motivating factor for war? The answer is obvious: The administration wished the American people to believe that the government of Iraq was complicit -- if not in 9-11 itself -- then in al-Qaeda terrorism in general. If the war was preemptive, and part of the war on terrorism, then what was it supposed to preempt if not a terrorist attack?

As the president put it in September 2002, "the danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that al-Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world." Technically speaking, the president didn't say he had any evidence that this would happen, so the fact that there was no evidence it was likely to happen doesn't show that he was lying. But if he wasn't trying to mislead people, then he and his administration are simply in the grips of a paranoid worldview -- leaping at wholly imagined threats and throwing tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines into battle. Under the circumstances, I find the theory that the president is a liar relatively comforting. I'd be more comfortable still if he simply stopped saying things that aren't true.

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