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The strategically ambiguous George W. Bush

By Bryan Keefer
June 12, 2003

President Bush's recent claim that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq highlights two disturbing trends in rhetoric from the White House. The first, as we have pointed out, is the Bush administration's record of factual misstatements and distortions. The second is the administration's - and especially President Bush's - history of strategically ambiguous statements that, while technically or arguably true, imply connections between two things which he cannot directly demonstrate.

Take, for example, Bush's declaration about the discovery of biological weapons on Iraq. According to a White House transcript of a May 30 interview with Polish television, the President declared that:

We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories. You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said, Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons. They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two. And we'll find more weapons as time goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them.

The trailers Bush refers to, however, have not provided direct evidence of weapons themselves. Instead, analysts have surmised that the most likely use for the trailers is the production of such weapons (though this conclusion remains controversial) -- hardly enough to back such bold claims as "[w]e found the weapons of mass destruction." Though White House Press Secretary Ari Flesicher has suggested that Bush uses "weapons" and "weapons programs" interchangeably, there is clearly a difference between evidence suggesting weapons were produced and actual weapons (link requires Salon Premium subscription or viewing of an advertisement).

Just as importantly, however, is the way Bush is building the claim. He takes one reasonably well-founded assertion about what the trailers were used for, then rhetorically implies that the discovery of the trailers is equivalent to finding weapons themselves, stating that we will find "more weapons" (emphasis mine) and repeating the word "weapons" three times after mentioning the labs. The final sentence, "But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them," is a classic example of a rhetorical fudge -- the "them" could refer to either the trailers or weapons themselves. By combining them in this way, Bush implies that weapons have actually been found, but he does so in such a way that he can claim he was only discussing manufacturing devices.

Bush has offered similar rhetorical linkages between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of September 11th. As we have noted, there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was involved in those attacks in any way. In an October 7, 2002 speech in Cincinnati, Bush announced that:

We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy -- the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.

Bush's statement brackets assertions implying an operational connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda -- a connection that is still hotly debated -- with vague assertions that because "that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy" and that "after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks," Iraq is guilty for those attacks by association.

Bush also attempted to create such an impression in a March 21 letter to the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate stating the reasons for the military invasion of Iraq (this letter replicated language from a certification mandated by Congress in the resolution authorizing military action):

I have also determined that the use of armed force against Iraq is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Again, Bush is strategically connecting Iraq to the September 11 attacks with his rhetoric, claiming that the attack on Iraq is part of a campaign against "international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." Certainly, Bush's statements are at least partially responsible for the persistent public misperception that Iraq and Saddam were involved in the September 11th attacks.

While Bush used this strategy of rhetorical association most egregiously in connecting Iraq to September 11, he has used the same tactic to promote other policies. In a series of appearances to promote the recently signed tax cut, for instance, Bush implied that the cuts would actually increase revenue for the government.

Nearly all economists -- including the President's own Council of Economic Advisors and his nominee to head the group -- agree that tax cuts almost always reduce revenue (though some of the reduction may be offset by economic growth triggered by the cuts). While Bush is careful to never directly state that his tax cut will directly create increased revenues, he uses strategic language to connect the tax reductions to future growth in government revenue.

For example, he stated on January 7 that tax cuts "are essential for the long run... to lay the groundwork for future growth and future prosperity. That growth will bring the added benefit of higher revenues for the government -- revenues that will keep tax rates low..." He made a similar assertion is his stump speech on May 2 campaigning for the tax cut:

And the other way to deal with the deficit is to put policies in place that increase the revenues coming into the Treasury. And the best way to encourage revenues coming into the Treasury is to promote policy which encourages economic growth and vitality. A growing economy is going to produce more revenues for the federal Treasury. The way to deal with the deficit is not to be timid on the growth package; the way to deal with the deficit is to have a robust enough growth package so we get more revenues coming into the federal Treasury...

This, in essence, is the same strategy: using rhetorical linkages in place of factual arguments. Bush plays on two facts: tax cuts are likely to stimulate some growth in the economy, and a growing economy will produce more tax revenue at a constant level of taxation. By repeating the phrase "more revenues coming into the Treasury" alongside a push for his tax cut, Bush implies a link between tax cuts and increased government revenues.

Finally, Bush has made similar attempts to link the budget deficit to the war on terrorism in general and the war in Iraq in particular. Based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) calculated in April that, relative to the surplus of $360 billion for fiscal 2003 that CBO predicted in 2001, $340 billion has evaporated because of the recession and technical adjustments to the estimate, $205 billion has been lost due to tax reductions, $90 billion has gone to the war in Iraq, homeland security, and the broader war on terrorism, and $70 billion has gone to non-war related budget increases, leaving a deficit of $345 billion. (CBO recently estimated that the fiscal 2003 deficit would climb over $400 billion, due to lower-then-expected revenues and the $61 billion in new tax cuts for 2003 which go into effect this year; as of publication, CBPP had not updated its predictions.)

Yet Bush has repeatedly suggested that the war is in large part responsible for the current budget deficit, while carefully avoiding any mention of tax cuts. For example, on May 6 he stated:

And, yes, we've got a deficit because we went through a recession. You see, a recession means you get less money coming into your treasury. When the economy goes down, there's less tax revenues coming to the Treasury.
Secondly, we've got a deficit because we're at war. And one thing is for certain about this Commander-in-Chief, we will spend whatever is necessary to win the war. We owe it to every soldier in the American military to make sure they've got the best pay, best equipment, best possible training. We owe it to the families of the military to make sure that they're as well protected as possible. So our expenditures went up because of the emergency in war, and revenues went down. That's the ingredients for what they call a deficit.

As with the examples above, what Bush is saying isn't technically untrue. But the detailed enumeration of the expenditures for the war, combined with his conclusion "So our expenditures went up because of the emergency in war, and revenues went down," not only omits the second-largest cause of the deficit - tax cuts - but also suggests that without the spending on the war, there would be no deficit (which is untrue). The casual listener would be left with the impression that it is the war in Iraq that is in large part responsible for the deficit. (Bush made nearly identical claims in speeches on April 24 and May 5).

In two other cases, Bush has even suggested that the war is responsible for the recession itself. On May 2, he claimed that "A recession means the economy has slowed down to the extent where we're losing revenues to the federal Treasury. We got a recession because we went to war." And on May 12 he made a nearly identical statement that "We have got a recession because we went to war." Not only is such a claim false - an official committee at the National Bureau of Economic Research has dated the beginning of the recession to March 2001 - but it also contradicts a series of questionable claims by Bush that the recession started in January 2001. While it is possible that Bush unintentionally misspoke, the implication is the same as the quotes above: the war is responsible for the economic downturn.

Bush has become a master of making statements that are factually true but misleading, while escaping criticism for doing so from the press corps. This is partly a result of the deference generally granted to the president. Bush's reputation for imprecise speech may also make reporters reluctant to criticize his words so closely. And because his claims are often phrased in complicated and confusing ways, they are difficult for the press to directly refute. Nonetheless, the implications of the President's strategically ambiguous statements must be addressed.

Update 6/21/04 10:26 PM EST: The analysis of Bush's letter to Congress has been updated to note that it replicates the language of the certification mandated in the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, and to quote the relevant portion of the passage in full.

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