If you like politics, then the second debate between President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, was a real humdinger. Both men argued passionately and persuasively. If you despise politics, then the debate exemplified all the things you loathe. Both men repeatedly interrupted, squabbled, pointed fingers and complained about not getting enough time, or enough say, or enough easy questions that were blatantly set up by their supporters. (Actually, they did not complain about the last one. Those complaints must have come from me, whilst I was shouting at my TV screen.) Worst of all, both men said a lot of things that, you must hope, neither really believed. In itself, that reveals a lot about democracy. To win an election, the candidate’s goal is to tell voters what they want to believe, but not to share their beliefs.
There were many times where the candidates said things they could not possibly want to believe, though they might want voters to believe them. For example, Romney insisted that the failure of Obama’s energy policy was proven by the high prices that Americans pay when fuelling their cars. In reality, those prices have consistently mirrored the price of crude oil. Anyone with an ounce of economic sense will understand why that is. Crude oil is sold on a global free market, and prices on that market tend to be influenced by the most obvious of economic factors: supply and demand. So if Mitt “I understand business” Romney intends to lower fuel prices for Americans, he is going to do it by interfering in the free market (unlikely) or by pumping so much oil that it significantly increases total global production (even less likely). We are also forced to assume that Romney is not so keen on lowering prices that he would reverse the sanctions that have reduced Iran’s oil production to its lowest level in 23 years. On the other hand, Obama kept explaining how it was the fault of the Republicans that he had failed to do so many of the things he promised voters in 2008. It seemingly slipped his mind that the Democrats controlled Congress until 2010. So there was very little to like about the debate, unless you watched it as a partisan. As a partisan, you could enjoy the spectacle of blows being landed to the left and to the right. Anyone with a genuine interest in what the candidates believe, or what they might do, was forced to shrug their shoulders and wonder if they will risk another ninety minutes by tuning into the third and final debate.
Although political debates are often sadly devoid of fact, this particular debate reached a nadir that even politicians generally avoid. The very lowest ring in political hell is dedicated to the most extreme form of political torture: the wrangle over who-said, he-said, she-said, you-said. Most schoolchildren go through a phase of pointing fingers and telling tales about who said what, and what they meant. Most schoolchildren grow out of it. The ones who do not grow out of it may grow up to be a world leader.
There was an ominous herald for the descent into farce. He rose from the audience. He introduced himself, and talked about the ‘brain trust’ he shared with his colleagues at work. Upon checking the name of his employer, it turns out he works for a supplier of phone equipment to small businesses in New York. And what did he ask about? What causes sleepless nights for the brain trust at Global Telecom Supply, a clearly non-global business? Is it the American economy? Or stifling government regulation? Might it be the unauthorized use of wire taps? Or maybe the need to depend on immigration for highly skilled workers? No. None of these are of interest to this American business, with its American employees and American customers. The greatest concern of this NY phone supplier is… the situation in Libya, and the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi. Libya. I kid you not. Hence, before he even asked the question, we knew two things about this particular audience member. First, he is so shameless that he uses a Presidential debate as an opportunity for a free TV advert. Second, he is so stupid that it does not occur to him he may have been annoying the 50% of Global Telecom Supply customers who are Democrats. Presumably none of the owners are Democrats, or else they might ask their own questions about what the brain trust does during working hours. And nobody died in Benghazi just so this chump could appear on national television. Nevertheless, the brain trust had spoken, and the candidates had to respond. This is what they said:
To reiterate, the answer quickly descended into a farcical inquisition about whether Obama had described the attack in Benghazi as an act of terror on the day after it occurred. Obama said he did. Romney said that it took Obama fourteen days to admit the attack was terrorist in nature. Both insisted they knew what Obama had said, when giving his speech in the Whitehouse Rose Garden on the following day.
Romney: I think it’s interesting the President just said something which is the day after the attack he went to the Rose Garden, and said it was an act of terror.
Obama: That’s what I said.
Romney: You said, in the Rose Garden, the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? (Raises eyebrows)
Romney: I wanna make sure we get that for the record, because it took the President fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
Obama: Get the transcript.
To call this argument ridiculous is to do a disservice to ridiculous arguments. This argument is sub-moronic. It would be too demeaning for a pair of twelve year olds in a playground. As Obama states, this argument can easily be settled by checking the transcript. The debate moderator, Candy Crowley, then intervened to clarify who was right. In short, she said that Obama “did in fact” describe the attack as an act of terror. But after the debate was over, when you might think intelligent people would simply pull out a manuscript and end the stupidity, they do the opposite. They keep on debating as if the facts cannot be checked. For example, consider this observation by Charles Krauthammer on Fox News:
…we’ve got Candy Crowley’s intervention, which is essentially incorrect, supporting Obama on the transcript. He did not call it a terror incident.
So who was right? We have Obama and the debate moderator on one side, Romney and various pundits on the other. Some of these people are wrong, and we can look at the transcript of Obama’s speech and reach a simple conclusion. Note that it is possible that there were many other contradictory statements by Obama or by the Whitehouse, either made around the time or afterwards. But that was not the question that arose in the debate. In the debate, there is a simple one-off fact that can be checked. There is no need to balloon this into a wider discussion, because Obama made a specific claim and Romney disputed that specific claim. And by keeping this specific, we can disentangle the silliness and work against the tactics that assume lies can be stated during a debate because nobody will check them. So I went back to the video and transcript of Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden.
In his Rose Garden speech, Obama never uses the words “act of terror” and “Benghazi” in the same sentence, although that would be the most natural inference the audience could have drawn from Obama’s statement during the debate. This observation is insufficient to brand Obama as a bare-faced liar. Obama does refer to the “terrible act” in Benghazi. The question is hence whether the speaker, and the audience, would have understood that this “terrible act” is also an act of terror.
In his Rose Garden speech, Obama routinely used the word “attack” to describe the events in Benghazi. This is relevant, because Romney also used the word “attack” during the Presidential debate, and used it with emphasis in order to imply a difference to the language that Obama had used. Obama’s use of the word “attack” is relevant to gauging the general tone and meaning of his words during his Rose Garden speech. The overall tone of Obama’s speech was quite different from how Romney characterized it. Romney mentioned “spontaneous demonstrations”. Obama did not use words like that. In the speech, it is clear that Obama is describing an attack on the embassy, not a demonstration. He talks about an attack three times in the first eleven sentences:
Yesterday, four of these extraordinary Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi…
The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack.
And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.
Throughout the rest of the speech, Obama keeps referring to the killing in this vein, as an “attack”, with its perpetrators described as “attackers”. Obama did briefly talk about religious tolerance, but it would be a strange mental leap to get from reasserting the importance of religious tolerance to suggesting that events in Benghazi were a somewhat understandable demonstration which was prompted by a filmmaker’s intolerance. Obama talked very singularly about an “attack”, so Romney’s implied confusion is not bedded in the Rose Garden speech. If there is a hint of confusion in Obama’s speech, the confusion is about what kind of “attack” took place, not about the spontaneity of a demonstration or anything as soft-headed as that. And, to reiterate, maybe Obama was confused about whether to describe the events as demonstrations or attacks in other speeches, but he showed no confusion of that type in this particular speech, which is the one that Romney disputes because it threatens to undermine his assertion that “it took the President fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror”.
During the speech, there is no single sentence containing a simple atomistic statement to the effect that the act in Benghazi was motivated by the desire to terrorize. But Obama did talk about “acts” and “terror” in sufficiently close conjunction that there is a viable interpretation where Obama means to use the phrase “acts of terror” as inclusive of the “terrible act” in Benghazi. The most precise question is hence to determine if, when Obama used the word “terror”, he was using it to refer to the attack in Benghazi, to the 9/11 attacks, or to both. In that respect, Obama’s language is ambiguous. The wording does not conclusively prove that Obama intended to describe the Benghazi attack as terrorist in nature. But nor does it condemn Obama as saying or even implying the opposite. At worst, Obama was silent on the nature of the acts in Benghazi, saying neither that they were or were not terrorist. However, that is the least favourable interpretation possible. So when Charles Krauthammer said Candy Crowley’s intervention was “essentially incorrect”, he forgot to mention the essence of his own argument – that a partisan knows, a priori, to take the dimmest possible view of any person with contrary political views.
The real key to Obama’s speech occurs when he said:
Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks.
Before this point, he had often referred to the “attack” on Benghazi, but this was the first time he mentioned a second, different attack. After a couple of sentences, Obama then followed up with:
And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.
Here we have the heart of the potential ambiguity. Unless he is very precise, anything that Obama says after this point may refer to the 9/11 attacks, or may refer to the attack in Benghazi, or may refer to both. A few sentences later on, Obama said:
No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.
This is the only time in the speech where Obama uses the word “terror”. When he says “no acts of terror”, is he referring solely to 9/11, or possibly to Benghazi as well? At this point, I cannot agree with anyone who claims that Obama definitely did not intend to use the phrase “acts of terror” to cover both those events. They cannot possibly know that from the text, and it is willfully obtuse to insist that the “acts” only refer to 9/11 and cannot refer to anything else. Even the logical form of the statement goes against that interpretation. Obama is using a negation to construct a universal assertion; his statement about terror is about all acts of terror, whether past, present or future. It is not just about 9/11. Apply this maxim to the Oklahoma City bombing, or to some hypothetical threat of a terrorist attack, and you still reach the desired conclusion: the nation’s resolve will not be shaken, its character will not be altered and its values will not be eclipsed.
In discussing the ambiguity of interpretation, I do not think this is just a matter of political (i.e. unnatural) wordplay. One can arrive at a natural reading of a man’s words without recourse to his (or your own) partisan political beliefs about healthcare, the military, taxes or whatever. It strikes me that both possible readings of Obama’s speech are natural, but that one is less natural than the other. The fact that Obama refers to “acts” in the plural helps to keep the door open to a wider scope for reference. Whilst it is possible to think of 9/11 as several terrorist acts, this is less elegant than thinking that the ‘acts’ include both 9/11 and the Benghazi attack.
I am swung towards the interpretation Obama gives for himself during the debate, for two reasons. First and foremost, Obama offered an interpretation of his own words. He says he meant to describe the Benghazi attack as a terrorist act. I am sure that many people feel they can peer into the contents of Barack Obama’s soul. They are wrong. Only one man can do that. If there were two equally likely interpretations of a man’s words, I would accept the speaker’s professed and preferred interpretation. This would be my ultimate tie-breaker. In this case, Obama has broken the tie and told us what he meant; we should not call him a liar if the evidence sits perfectly balanced within the scales. Second, and crucially, the two possible interpretations are not equally likely. One is slightly more likely than the other. This is because of what Obama said in the sentences immediately after he mentioned “acts of terror”. He immediately brings the speech back to the subject of the four people who died in Benghazi. This would be jarring and crass if the desired interpretation is to talk about one topic, stop, then talk about a second unrelated topic. Few people talk like that. Consider the following, simple construction:
My dog died. I was feeling very depressed. I lost my job.
It is possible that the speaker only felt depressed about his or her dog dying. Perhaps they are overjoyed at being freed from a hated job. But this limited context suggests that the speaker’s theme covers both the death of the dog and the loss of employment. That would be the most natural reading, in the absence of any additional sentences which provide evidence that the speaker has different feelings about the two events.
Obama might have mentioned 9/11 in passing, like it was a matter of coincidence with the Benghazi killings. But if 9/11 is just a coincidence, then why mention it all? The speech is ostensibly about the events in Benghazi, not a thousand other, unrelated, things that also happened ‘on this day in history’. By bringing up 9/11, Obama is choosing to create an association between 9/11 and the events in Benghazi. An unfavourable reading of the speech must assume that this association was accidental and unintended. I doubt that Whitehouse speeches are written as carelessly as that. If Obama wanted to deliberately avoid an association between the Benghazi attack and terror, then he could have simply avoided any mention of terror or any terrorist acts. The association is very natural just because of how one sentence followed the other. Even so, one might still possibly believe in the intentional separation of these concepts, if there was a long and deliberate pause in Obama’s delivery. Such a pause would create a separation between the ideas being conveyed by the two sentences. There was no pause when Obama spoke.
Crucially, Obama then says that justice will be done “for this terrible act”, meaning the attack in Benghazi. I think it is implausibly strained to assert that when Obama talks about “acts of terror” he solely refers to 9/11, and then he coincidentally chose to use the word “act” to refer to the Benghazi attack. If Obama did not mean for the latter “act” to be understood as one of the “acts of terror”, this would not only have been a very lazily written speech. With the benefit of hindsight, this would also have been an extraordinarily lucky piece of speechwriting. That is because it now suits Obama to find a speech where he linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism. What a piece of fortune this ambiguity would be, if Obama had meant to say that the “terrible act” in Benghazi was a terrible non-terrorist act, but that he accidentally left himself the option to claim it was terrorism after all. It would be as if Obama meant to say something stupidly offensive and unnecessary, and he did such a bad job of saying it that he inadvertently said something that also had the potential for a pretty reasonable interpretation as well.
In the midst of political competition, with both rivals landing blows on every unguarded cheek, a debate moderator has no time to indulge in the kind of detailed analysis I have just performed. It is to the benefit of the viewer if she calls out facts that put an end to childish squabbles. That is what Candy Crowley did. And contrary to what Charles Krauthammer said, she was essentially correct. (This incident also taught us something else about language and interpretation – that Charles Krauthammer does not know the meaning of the word “essential”.)
Of course, there is another, truly cynical interpretation of Obama’s ambiguity. Rather than deliberately associating the Benghazi violence with terror, or stupidly discussing them both whilst intending them to be thought separate, there is a third way to interpret Obama’s intentions, though there is no third way to interpret his words. Perhaps Obama deliberately chose to be ambiguous. Perhaps he was undecided about how to describe the attack. He hence selected words that created an association with terrorism without being so explicit that he could easily be quoted. Unquotability might be the most potent defense that a politician can deploy, when facing a potential barrage of attack ads. Ambiguity was hence Obama’s way of giving himself a future option to make favourable claims about what he said in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, without being definitively tied down to one position or another. This would require us to believe Obama has a truly diabolical mastery of language. I cannot rule it out. If this is the correct interpretation of Obama’s mind, I would greatly admire Obama’s skill whilst despising his motives. But as noted above, I cannot look into Obama’s soul. This is where the analysis of his words must end.