Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Wednesday, July 16, 2003
It all depends on what the meaning of "knows" is.

Alright, here's my take on Yellowcakegate.

I start with the premise that we're entitled to assume that when a president makes a representation of fact to the nation about a matter of public importance, he is representing that his administration and the various information gathering agencies under its control have reviewed evidence of that fact and judged it to be reasonably reliable.

What representation did Bush make?

If I say, "Tony believes X," I am making a representation only about Tony's state of mind. Likewise, if I say "Tony told me X" or "I have a report from Tony that says X", I am making a representation only about the contents of Tony's statement or report and not about the veracity or reliability of the matters asserted therein.

But what if I say, "Tony has learned X"? We're on the edge of an pit of epistemological quicksand here, but without getting too philosophical I think we can all agree that the product of "learning" is "knowledge," and that "knowledge" means more than mere belief. It means belief that is supported by sufficient evidence to be regarded as true, whatever we believe that standard to be. If I say "Tony has learned X," I'm not just saying he believes it, I'm saying that Tony has direct evidence that X is true, such that there's really no reason for him to doubt X short of belief in a Cartesian demon intent on deceiving him.

So now the question arises: How can I, as a responsible president, make a judgment as to whether my statement "Tony has learned X" is sufficiently reliable to offer to the public as part of a discussion of national interest? There are only two approaches I can see.

Option One is to just take Tony's word for it. But in that case, it seems I really ought to be up front that that's what I'm doing. I really ought to say something like, "Tony has told me he has learned X, and I have no reason to doubt him." Because the fact is, I don't have any basis on which to directly evaluate whether Tony's views on X are knowledge, belief, or mere speculation. I'm staking my belief entirely on my trust in Tony's judgment, and my opening premise dictates that I ought to say so.

Option Two would be for me to obtain access to and evaluate the same evidence that forms the basis of Tony's knowledge. Of course, once I did this it would become superfluous for me to talk about Tony's having learned something anymore. At that point, I could just talk about my having learned it. In fact, once I had done this, it would be very strange for me to limit myself to talking about Tony's having learned it. If anything, you'd expect me to say, "I have learned, though Tony, of X."

So when you think about it, in the context of a discussion about whether evidence exists to support a proposition, the sentence "Tony has learned X" is logically suspect from the moment it's uttered. If I know the basis of Tony's knowledge, then it's my knowledge too. If I don't, then I have no basis for asserting he has knowledge.

In other words, this is clearly a weasel phrase. It suggests that there is knowledge out there we can rely on, but simultaneously distances the speaker from vouching directly for that purported knowledge. It is clearly intended to make listeners believe X to be true, yet preserve the ability to say, "Hey, I never claimed X was true." Kind of like saying "we never had sex" but reserving the right to say, "well, I did come on her dress, but she didn't get any pleasure so I didn't consider it really sex."

The record indicates that the CIA told Bush it didn't have reliable knowledge of X. Then it relented and okayed the weasel phrase, because it read it as following Option One. Bush wanted the phrase in the speech because he wanted people to understand it as Option Two. Instead of being scrupulously precise about what we knew and didn't know, he tried to have it both ways. Did he lie? Well, it's hard to say because the phrase was deliberately worded in a way that leads you into logical circles in order to evaluate its veracity. There's an adjective in our political lexicon for this sort of calculated word play. Clintonian.

Which is precisely why the Dems are making such a big deal out of this, and why they have every right to. Whether it really helps them much in the long run I don't know. But they endured how many years of smug sneering attacks from Bush and the Republicans about how they're the kind of straight talking morally upright people who would never think to cavil about what the meaning of is is. Maybe what Bush said was not really a lie. But the very fact that it requires so much parsing to explain why not is what condemns him.

Now. I understand all the various arguments that this isn't a big deal. Yes, it was just one small part of a long speech and a longer argument. The decision to go to war didn't really turn on it. This whole brouhaha has little to do with the merits of the war. It has to do with Bush's credibility. Now in the grand scheme of things, as presidential misrepresentations go, this was pretty minor league. But having pilloried Clinton relentlessly for this kind of thing, the Republicans should have held themselves to a higher standard. They asked for it.

A lot of Bush's support is based on the perception people have of his character. Sure, he's not a flashy intellectual, he doesn't have high falutin' pretensions, he's just a decent man who's made his mistakes in the past, grappled with his personal demons, found God, and finally achieved a strong though humble moral compass. He's a common sense, down-to-earth, call-it-like-he-sees-it kind of guy. The very opposite of the condescendingly self-righteous yet cynically manipulative Clinton crowd. Right? So the question for us observers is this: Was this slip up just a momentary lapse of judgment, or actually a slip of the mask? If the Dems can present a clear, non-shrill case that it was the latter, if they can effectively show that Bush's supposed character is just a fa├žade, they might throw enough doubt into his ranks that a compelling alternative (if there were one) would have a fighting chance. I somehow doubt they'll succeed at this, but you can't blame them for trying. The conservatives have always said character is relevant.

And even though I reluctantly thought this war was justified, I think it's absolutely essential that presidents be held accountable to the highest standards of probity when making and justifying such decisions. I don't care that the Dems are doing it for purely partisan reasons. Partisanship is to politics what competition is to business. It can be unsavory, but it provides the well-needed kicks in the pants that keep us all in line. We all need to be reminded to watch like hawks the justifications governments give for war. And government leaders need to be put on notice that they will have to answer for everything they tell us.

Is this the kind of thing that justifies impeachment? No. Clinton committed perjury and probably obstruction of justice. Bush didn't. Even if you regard his statement as an out and out lie, mere lying is not a crime, even if the subject matter is of far more import than was the use and abuse of Slick's Willy. If every president who lied got impeached, we'd have had more administrations than Italy by now. Sad, but probably true. But is this a hit to Bush's credibility?

Absolutely. It may or may not be a very big hit. But that will depend on whether in retrospect it winds up looking like an exception or the rule.

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