White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; 1:00 PM
What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, April 9 at 1 p.m. ET.
The transcript follows.
Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.
Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. My column today, which will be out shortly, is about yesterday's absurd tap-dance by the two chief standard-bearers for the war in Iraq -- and how the inevitable conclusion from their testimony is that President Bush has succeeded in making the U.S. withdrawal exclusively the next president's problem.
But I could use your help. I'm looking for the right word to describe an argument that is irrefutable -- and yet completely absurd. It's not a paradox, it's not a tautology, it's not an oxymoron -- what is it?
The ultimate example, in my mind, was when Bush argued that Saddam Hussein's refusal to disclose his weapons of mass destruction meant that he had them. If you accepted the logic of that charge -- and it seems like almost everybody did -- then there was no way for Saddam to prove he didn't have WMD, even though that was in fact the case.
I'm seeing echoes of this sort of illogic in the arguments by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker yesterday. If things are going badly, we have to stay -- but if things are going well, we have to stay. Our commitment is open-ended, but there aren't willing to describe any circumstance in which it would end anytime soon. The way forward is conditions-based, but they won't tell us what the conditions are.
And I guess in addition to the right word to describe this kind of argument, I guess I'm also wondering what the proper response is.
Weston, Conn.: How often do you speak directly to administration officials who actually work in the White House? If you position your column as "what's going on in the White House," I'm trying to understand if you're getting the executive branch's view directly so I can decide if I should spend time reading your column. Thanks, Dan.
Dan Froomkin: I almost never speak directly to administration officials -- but I think that's no small part of why I'm able to tell you what's actually going on. I am under no pressure to cozy up to our channel my administration sources. The other part is that I provide links to dozens of people who are speaking with them directly, as well as to original documents, etc. So what's your decision?
Hammond, Ore.: Hey Dan, here's one for you: The Bush administration always has maintained that there will be no permanent military bases built in Iraq. How is it that McSame -- oops, I mean McCain - can have his "100 year" Iraq presence, like Japan and Korea, without permanent bases? Nobody is covering this, so I punt to you. Any thoughts or comments?
Dan Froomkin: You have put your finger on another one of the great rhetorical dodges that my colleagues are letting the White House get away with. If you really mean "permanent" then we don't have any permanent military bases anywhere. So they can easily say they have no desires for any anywhere. That said, there are I believe at least four bases in Iraq already that certainly look and feel permanent. The question I guess we should ask is whether the government intends to keep those bases for the next few years... and the answer to me seems obvious. See my May 31, 2007 column.
Dan Froomkin: Today's column, No Exit, is now on the site. Go read it and come right back.
Washington: Four legs good, two legs better.
Dan Froomkin: You are suggesting that the answer to my question is "Orwellian"? That's pretty close.
Denver: Hi, Dan, from a big fan. I rarely hear anymore about the strains that the U.S. military is facing. Not so long ago there were several stories about how the war on terror would affect the military's readiness for future conflicts. Is the media simply ignoring this issue, or has the military markedly improved recruitment and training? Thanks!
Dan Froomkin: Neither. There have been lots of stories about the strains the military is facing. They probably don't get the play they deserve, but they are out there. Oh, and Bush himself won't address it. Steve Coll wrote a few days ago in the New Yorker about Army Vice Chief of Staff General Richard A. Cody's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week: "In normal times, when an active four-star general implies in public that the Army is under such strain that it might flounder if an unexpected war broke out, or might require a draft to muster adequate troop levels, he could expect to provoke concern and comment from, say, the President of the United States. Some time ago, however, George W. Bush absolved himself of responsibility for his Iraq policy and its consequences by turning the war over to General David H. Petraeus, Cody's four-star peer, and the champion of the 'surge' policy, who will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week."
Stamford, Conn.: Hi Dan -- from Monday's column, quoting Bush: "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' " Slow her down? What's next, "get 'er done"? Good riddance won't come soon enough for this redneck buffoon. Thanks for the great work!
washingtonpost.com: No Closer to Success in Iraq (washingtonpost.com, April 7)
Dan Froomkin: Beats "Bring 'em on."
New York: Hi Dan. I think the word you're looking for -- from the philosopher Karl Popper regarding scientific proof -- is "unfalsifiable." I remember Bush answering a question from David Letterman back in 2000 about his support for the death penalty: "I'll continue to support it unless you can prove it doesn't work."
Dan Froomkin: Unfalsifiable. I like that. But it doesn't quite capture the absurdity of it.
Chaska, Minn.: Is it just me or is the White House abandoning Petraeus to Congress? Since the new fighting has occurred, you really can hear the crickets chirping at the White House. When do we ask Petraeus the unspoken question? "Gen. Petraeus, isn't the main reason we are not abandoning Iraq the need for the president to not leave because it would acknowledge the failure of his Iraq War policy?"
Dan Froomkin: Oh, the crickets will stop chirping tomorrow. Bush is set to "speak to the nation" about Iraq sometime during the day, and I'm sure his praise for Petraeus will be fulsome.
Petraeus is being a very good soldier, in lots of ways. But he's not necessarily being a great general. Robert Scheer writes in his syndicated column today that it "is an abdication of civilian control of the military, the basic principle of American constitutional governance, to assign a central role to an active duty general to make the decision to end the war. It betrays the legacy warnings of our two most famous wartime generals, George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"American history offers no greater heroes, not because of their considerable success in battle but because they gained the wisdom to sound the alarm against unbridled militarism so passionately and effectively. The farewell addresses of both those departing generals-turned-president still stand as the essential bookends for what has been written about the limits on military adventure required for democracy's survival. Washington's plea to the nation 'to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism' sets the standard for enlightened political discourse. A close second is Eisenhower's warning that, 'In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.'"
Washington: "I'm looking for the right word to describe an argument that is irrefutable -- and yet completely absurd." Dan, I think the word you're looking for is "fallacious."
Dan Froomkin: That's admirably blunt. Producer Chris suggests "Panglossian."
New York: Hi Dan. Another example of The Logic That Shall Not Be Named: History will vindicate him -- and no matter how long history does not vindicate him, he can always say, well, history isn't over yet.
Dan Froomkin: Excellent. That will certainly tide him over for his lifespan.
Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan. If the incoming administration came to you and asked for some ideas about how to improve dissemination of information to the public, what would you suggest?
Dan Froomkin: I believe in transparency. I think the lack of transparency is bad for the country and bad for the president both. To me, that's been one of the great lessons of the Bush Years.
And I am in fact in the midst of writing a piece about how the next White House (whoever's it is) should totally reimagine the use of the Internet. So stay tuned.
Humble, Texas: Dan, I wish I had the word you want for an irrefutable argument, but I don't. Scientifically, the only decent theories are those that are falsifiable, so maybe there is a word lurking in that culture. The weapons of mass destruction situation you refer to reminds me of one of Rumsfeld's comments, when we were unsuccessful at locating the WMD the locations of which we already knew, according to Powell at the U.N. Rumsfeld said something like "that just shows you how good he (Saddam) was at hiding them."
Dan Froomkin: Thanks.
Key West, Fla.: Good day, Dan. Unfalsifiableish might help with the absurdity part. Enjoy reading you on the "Watch."
Dan Froomkin: Heh. Thanks.
Kansas: "It's not a paradox, it's not a tautology, it's not an oxymoron -- what is it?" I think you could call it a Bushism. I remember in the run-up to the war that someone in the Saddam regime was complaining that they could not "prove a negative," i.e. that they did not have weapons of mass destruction. I recall thinking to myself, someone over there remembered material from their college logic class, unlike our leaders.
Dan Froomkin: Sadly, Bushism is already taken.
Portland, Maine: I tried explaining to a conservative that Bush's "Saddam" (or whatever word we settle on) made no sense. I started by accusing this man of stealing my lawnmower. When he claimed he didn't have it, I said that was proof he had taken it. His response to me was that someone should kick me in the ... well, you get the idea. Some arguments can't be won even when they are won ... another conundrum!
Dan Froomkin: A "Saddam"! I like it. And you obviously gave up too easily.
Here it is: You could call it "Russell's teapot" (after the philosopher who wrote this): "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."
So, if the administration says it's true over and over, then you'll be marginalized if you dare to doubt it. But you'll raise some ire if you use this example, as it actually came up in the context of questioning the existence of God.
Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I'm not gonna touch that one.
Baltimore: The word you're looking for is "illusory."
Dan Froomkin: Illusory is also good. But how would I use it in a sentence? "Bush's illusory argument"? Doesn't quite work. His logic is illusory, though. That works.
Arlington, Va.: Disthetical? Pseudo-coherent? Nontological? (Theories about the nature of being or the kinds of things that don't exist.
Dan Froomkin: I love these. They sound fabulous. I'm going to have to set up some sort of poll so we can pick a winner...
New York: Dan, how about "Catch-22 logic" as the term you are seeking, or maybe some variation on it that evokes the humor and confounding nature of the situation? I just love these Bush/McCain assertions about "victory" and "defeat" in Iraq, which are justified by concerns about pride and not about anything except passing the bush -- oops, buck -- by W....
Dan Froomkin: You are absolutely right that there is a strong "Catch-22" logic at work here. Thanks. Come to think of it, that's exactly what Fred Kaplan called it in Slate yesterday: "The way that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker formulated the problem, cutting troops below the current level of 140,000 is not even a conceivable option. They laid out a Catch-22: If things in Iraq get worse, we can't cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can't cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains."
Helena, Mont.: Dan, I think this is just more Bushisms -- remember, when there was a surplus and the economy was good, we needed a tax cut; when economy went bad, we needed a tax cut. They have solutions that are universal to any problem. So it is with Iraq -- we need to have troops there. If things are going badly, that's why we need troops there; if things are going well, it is evidence that our troops are needed.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Good point about the universal solutions.
The word you're looking for: Not to get all esoteric here, but in philosophy it's called the "burden of proof" logical fallacy.
Dan Froomkin: Maybe... I'm going to look through this List Of Fallacious Arguments later to help me figure it out.
Bethesda, Md.: Is it like if the dunk test for a witch? If she survives she's a witch but if she dies she isn't?
Dan Froomkin: Yes.
Fairfax, Va.: I think Obama may be on to something in terms of making us aware of how empty Bush's use of the word "victory" is when Obama posed a choice between a perfect outcome he described versus a "sloppy, messy" outcome. Obama specifies what victory could mean using words that we can relate to. I would like to see our White House reporters try the same type of questions, as well as some direct ones like "please tell us what those strategic national interests are that we are fighting for in Iraq"?
washingtonpost.com: Obama Questions Petraeus on Iraq (washingtonpost.com, April 8)
Dan Froomkin: I thought it was an excellent question, and cut to the heart of Bush's absolutist thinking style. What's "good enough" in Iraq? And more to the point, how have we gone five years without a vigorous debate about it?
I think the theme here is that when Bush is at his most absolute, you can't really argue with Bush on his own terms, you have to examine the underlying logical fallacy of his arguments, and ask entirely new questions.
Pangloss: Panglossian suggests no ill intent, which I for one do not think is accurate. The only thing "Pangloss" about this administration is that it is not Candid-e. Ha ha.
Dan Froomkin: Ha. Thanks.
Washington: How about Catch 22.385204, section 705(wh), rule 71, column 9? Or just call it Cheneyist.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks.
Chicago: Dan, given the power wielded by Vice President Cheney during this current administration (admirably chronicled in The Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angler" series of articles) and Cheney's apparent belief that he knows better than anyone ("So?"), do you think it possible/probably that Cheney eventually will write a "tell-all" memoir boasting about how he ran the White House and established policy during the Bush 43 presidency? Or do you think that he will be content to stay in the shadows of history forever? Or do you think that eventually his "puppeteer" role will be exposed by the press and historians? How much open credit will Cheney want to take for this administration's successes (whatever they may be) during his lifetime? How much open and notorious blame do you think he will be willing to take for its failures?
Dan Froomkin: What a great question. Offhand, I would say it depends on how long he lives. I can't imagine him writing any such thing any time soon ... but 20 years from now, when he's eager to establish his place in history, maybe.
Which, considering the state of his ticker, probably means no.
Washington: It occurred to me that a general who was trying to win a war and remove troops afterward would have goals and targets that he is working toward that would allow him to declare success and begin removing troops. The absence of such goals and targets suggests that this is just an occupation. There is no goal or target other than staying there, and tamping down violence while we are there. Right?
Dan Froomkin: I don't think that's true of Petraeus. I suspect he has an idea of how best to get out of Iraq but it will take so long that he'd rather not say it out loud. See this Tom Ricks blog on washingtonpost.com.
As for Bush, however, the absence of such clear goals and targets does suggest that his main goal is to run out the clock. And guess what? Mission Accomplished.
Newtown, Pa.: Given that most members of congress are lawyers, why can't they use interrogation techniques -- i.e. yes or no answers only? Or are they afraid to be accountable for the question?
Dan Froomkin: One problem is that they're mostly interested in hearing themselves talk. Another problem is that very few of them were prosecutors. Or they've forgotten how to cross-examine a hostile witness, or never knew. I am married to a prosecutor. I am convinced she could have made mincemeat of either of these guys.
Re: Cheney's Memoirs: It will depend on the statute of limitations.
Dan Froomkin: Ha! Thanks.
Re: Obama's Question: I agree that it was a good question and agree that you need to ask new questions when Bush is at his most absolute, but how can you get Bush to acknowledge and answer the questions? Also, asking questions to this White House about possible criminal acts and about perfectly innocent things will get the same response: silence.
Dan Froomkin: Good point. I have long maintained that the only opportunity to shake Bush off his talking points is in the long-form sit-down interview. But he doesn't do those often, and when he does, they're almost exclusively with people who serve up softballs.
And you're wrong about silence. They respond with lots of sound.
Hellerian Arguments?: Or Vonnegutian, depending on how apocalyptic some of their absurdities turn out to be.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks.
Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.: Circulundrum, from circular and conundrum.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks.
Alexandria, Va.: How's "proofiness" for your word?
Dan Froomkin: Ha! I love it. Someone should send that to Colbert.
New York: What the situation is truly reminiscent of is the scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," when King Arthur stumbles upon a small village with a "witch." Part of their evidence is that she looks like a witch because she has a long nose -- but then the villagers admit that they dressed her up like that!
Dan Froomkin: The pop culture analogies are priceless... but not flattering.
Cave Creek, Ariz.: In the "Princess Bride", Vizzini tortures logic -- but does not waterboard -- in his battle of wits with Wesley about which drink was poisoned. Perhaps we can apply this today to Bush by calling it a "Vizzinism."
Dan Froomkin: Inconceivable!
Washington: When my son was in third grade, he was sharing what he'd been learning about punctuation. He invented a new one that our family frequently uses as a sort of quotation mark for dubious statements: the "prepostrophe."
Dan Froomkin: I'm laughing so hard I'm going to disturb the neighbors. Oh my.
Closed or Circular Logic?: For instance, if you support the troops you want them to win, so you want them to keep fighting until they win, regardless of how long it takes or how many of them die. If you don't accept the premise, you don't support the troops. It's circular thinking that treats any ideas not already approved as already discredited. Communism, Freudian psychology, etc., fall into this pattern. Argument by foregone conclusion.
Dan Froomkin: See my Dec. 14, 2006, column, Doing It for the Soldiers: "Bush is certainly far from alone in being moved by the sacrifices of those in uniform. And nobody wants to believe that soldiers have died in vain.
"But if they have, sending more soldiers to die after them doesn't make it better -- it only makes it worse."
Chicago: Sorry to interrupt the fun, but with the implicit approval of the clerics for Sadr to maintain his Mahdi Army, isn't Iraq now a Civil War with multiple actors? What will it take the White House and the press to acknowledge this simple fact?
Dan Froomkin: Yes, more or less. As retired Gen. William Odom put it recently about what the surge has wrought: "How can our leaders celebrate this diffusion of power as effective state building? More accurately described, it has placed the United States astride several civil wars. And it allows all sides to consolidate, rearm, and refill their financial coffers at the US expense."
But this is, as you point out, not a universal view. Certainly this White House will never accept it.
Emmitsburg, Md.: Dan, I listened to a good deal of the testimony yesterday by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and was struck by Petraeus's indifference to whether our presence in Iraq had caused an increase in terrorism globally. He cavalierly brushed aside any concern about that because, he said, his mission was strictly Iraq. I cannot believe a military man like Gen. Petraeus does not understand that an increase in terrorism on the global stage most certainly affects "his mission." Yet, today, no one seems to be talking about this outrageous disconnect. I'm wondering if the general is so much in the Bush camp that he dares not say anything that suggests President Bush has caused far bigger problems with his unnecessary and inept adventure in Iraq than the problems of the war itself. I would appreciate your take.
Dan Froomkin: What you are describing is one of the reasons there are so many concerns about Petraeus's outsized role in the decision-making. He's not looking at the big picture -- but that's not his job.
As Michael Abramowitz wrote in Sunday's Post: "In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. In so doing, Bush's working relationship with his field commander has taken on an intensity that is rare in the history of the nation's wartime presidents.
"Bush's reliance on Petraeus has made other military officials uneasy, has rankled congressional Democrats and has created friction that helped spur the departure last month of Adm. William J. 'Fox' Fallon, who, while Petraeus's boss as chief of U.S. Central Command, found his voice eclipsed on Iraq."
Dan Froomkin: Wow. That was lively. Thanks very much for all your questions, comments, and suggestions. I'll definitely use some of these in my column tomorrow. (If you want credit by name, or have other suggestions, e-mail me at email@example.com).
See you again here in two weeks, and every afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.
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