Once more into the argument’s breach

Over the past several weeks, the Weekly Standard has been running a series of articles on the evidence for the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in some significant way working together to achieve their ends. The series seemed to be kicked off by Hugh Hewitt’s subtlely titled “Breeding Stupidity” (Source: WeekStand 7/14/05). Hewitt is attempting to refute two positions on the left:

>The first is that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were not connected.

>[The second] Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists.

The first is rejected on the basis of evidence and argument that I hope to return to in the future.

The bulk of breeding stupidity involves the second claim, which we have examined in several forms over the past couple of weeks. It involves the question of the causes of terrorism. Here Hewett argues that the “left” does not have adequate evidence for the claim that Iraq is breeding terrorists. Invoking an interesting distinction, he argues:

>The fact that foreign fighters are streaming across Syria into Iraq in the hopes of killing America is not evidence supporting the “breeding ground” theory. “Opportunity” to act is not the same thing as “motive” for acting. There is zero evidence for the proposition that Iraq is motive rather than opportunity, but the “motive” theory is nevertheless put forward again and again.

Distinguishing between the “opportunity” to fight the U.S. in Iraq and being motivated to fight the U.S. by the invasion of Iraq is a subtle distinction. Nonetheless, Hewett doesn’t argue his point, he simply asserts the absence of evidence that Iraq is motivating terrorists.

>As recently as Wednesday the Washington Post account of the aftermath of the London bombings included the incredible–and unsubstantiated in the article–claim that the “the profile of the suspects suggested by investigators fit long-standing warnings by security experts that the greatest potential threat to Britain could come from second-generation Muslims, born here but alienated from British society and perhaps from their own families, and inflamed by Britain’s participation in the Iraq war.”

But, the WaPo cannot be right because Tony Blair rejects this view:

>Blair disputed the idea “that the London terrorist attacks were a direct result of British involvement in the Iraq war. He said Russia had suffered terrorism with the Beslan school massacre, despite its opposition to the war, and that terrorists were planning further attacks on Spain even after the pro-war government was voted out. “September 11 happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before any of these issues and that was the worst terrorist atrocity of all,” he said.

Even putting the argument in the mouth of Tony Blair does not make the argument any stronger. As I have had occasion to show several times recently the equivocation between the specific act and the general phenomena makes this argument fallacious as can be easily seen in this quotation.

But, Hewitt offers three further reasons:

>While it is theoretically possible that some jihadists were forged as a result of the invasion of Iraq, no specific instance of such a terrorist has yet been produced.

>Reports in the aftermath of the London bombings indicated that the British intelligence service estimates more than 3,000 residents of Great Britain had trained in the Afghanistan terrorist camps prior to the invasion of Afghanistan–which suggests that the probability is very high that most of the jihadists in England date their hatred of the West to some point prior to the invasion of Iraq.

>And though two of the London bombers appear to have traveled to Pakistan for religious instruction post-March 2003, there is not the slightest bit of evidence that it was Iraq which “turned” the cricket-loving young men into killers. In fact, it is transparently absurd for anyone to claim such a thing.

The first argument is an argument from an absence of evidence. If this is being used to defend the claim that “Iraq is not a breeding ground of terrorism” then it is fallacious–an instance of a fallacy of ignorance. But, charitably and despite the recalcitrance of his rhetoric to logical control, we can take this as a restatement of the claim that the belief is being held without adequate evidence.

The second argument is interesting. Once again, the argument works by showing that there was some involvement with radical and militant islamists prior to the invasion of Iraq, which would imply that that invasion could not have caused the prior involvement. What the argument seems to ignore is that thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people may have “trained in these camps.” Yet, presumably the vast majority do not commit terrorist acts for one reason or another. So the important causal question, is what prompts particular trained militants ultimately to act? And then, is the Iraq war giving these militants more motivation to act?

The final argument is a textbook example of “begging the question”: The kind of example that we explain to students they will almost never encounter so unsubtely deployed.

Hewitt finishes his article with some speculation as to the motivations for this belief, having convinced himself that there is no evidence in favor of it.

>Of course it’s a convenient stick with which to beat the Bush administration. But it has a far more powerful lure than that.

>As the bloody toll of the Islamist movement grows and its record of horrors lengthens from Bali to Beslan to Madrid to London, the incredible cost that can only be attributed to the Afghanistan metastasis that went unchecked from the time of bin Laden’s return there in 1996 until the American-led invasion of 2001 becomes ever more clear.

The real motivation according to Hewett is to conceal the causal role that four years of a Democratic administration’s “inaction” on bin Laden played in all of the terrorism that has occurred since or presumably will occur in the future.

>Christopher Hitchens sharply rebuked the “motive” school of terrorist psychologists: “I thought I heard you making just before we came on the air, of attributing rationality or a motive to this, and to say that it’s about anything but itself, you make a great mistake, and you end up where you ended up, saying that the cause of terrorism is fighting against it, the root cause, I mean.” [emphasis added]Hitchens’s point, which must be made again and again, is Blair’s point: The killers are killers because they want to kill, not because the coalition invaded Iraq, or Afghanistan, or because there are bases in Saudi Arabia, or because Israel will not retreat to the 1967 borders.

This argument, even concealed under Hitchen’s rambling blather, is unconvincing, as we have attempted to show over and over again. In order to argue that administration policies are not causing terrorism, Hitchens and others retreat to the position that nothing is motivating terrorism. One could argue quite plausibly that Iraq is not the sole cause of terrorism, but the administration’s shills cannot admit this much as it would suggest that Iraq plays some causal role.

Beneath all of the Hewett’s bluster we find that his argument is ultimately and simply the assertion that there is no evidence that Iraq is breeding terrorists. But the absence of evidence does not show the claim is false. If the alternative claims (1996-2000 Afghanistan is the cause or there is no cause for terrorism) were at all plausible, or had any evidence adduced for them, then it might be unreasonable to continue to hold this claim. But, this is as far as our analysis can take us.