How many angels tend petunias on the head of a pin?

Although I intended another installment of the Krugman challenge, I couldn’t resist when I saw Charles Krauthammer taking a page from the Tobacco industry to defend his cherished invasion of Iraq.
>The question posed — does the Iraq war increase or decrease the world supply of jihadists? — is itself an exercise in counting angels on the head of a pin. Any answer would require a complex calculation involving dozens of unmeasurable factors, as well as construction of a complete alternate history of the world had the U.S. invasion of 2003 not happened.

Krauthammer gives us the standard spin control on the NIE (we should remember that that E stands for estimate)–that the question whether the invasion of Iraq increased the numbered of Jihadist can’t be answered. Krauthammer claims

>Any answer would require a complex calculation involving dozens of unmeasurable factors, as well as construction of a complete alternate history of the world had the U.S. invasion of 2003 not happened.

But that simply is not true. We estimate the effects of all sorts of things based on complex calculations with estimates of factors that are difficult to “measure” precisely and the consideration of alternate scenarios. Most policy papers are rife with precisely these sorts of answers. This is akin to the Tobacco industry defense of cigarette smoking: Establish an unreasonable level of certainty required to answer the question and then criticize every argument that fails to reach that level of certainty. This might be a sub-type of the fallacy appeal to ignorance. Strictly speaking the appeal to ignorance should conclude that the NIE is false, but Krauthammer is in effect arguing that since we can’t know with certainty and precision, we can’t have any reason to believe one answer or the other.

>Ah, but those seers in the U.S. “intelligence community,” speaking through a leaked National Intelligence Estimate — the most famous previous NIE, mind you, concluded that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, slam-dunk — have peered deep into the hypothetical past and found the answer.

The argument seems to be even stronger if you can question the accuracy of your opponents other studies. Thus, people sometimes argue that scientists have changed their minds about what is healthy over time. And since they disagree with themselves we have no reason to believe that their current claims are justified. Unquestionably the intelligence community make mistakes–and in this case one that facilitated 20,000+ American casualties–but that is not an argument against these conclusions. It is a sort of ad hominem argument that calls into question the credibility of the arguers rather than the argument itself. Sometimes these sorts of arguments are justified, but it isn’t clear that because the intelligence community made a mistake about invading Iraq that we should reject all subsequent intelligence estimates. (And one wonders whether Krauthammer would make the same argument below when he agrees with part of the NIE).
>Everyone seems to have forgotten that Iraq was already an Islamist cause celebre and rallying cry long before 2003. When Osama bin Laden issued his declaration of war against America in 1998, his two principal justifications for the jihad that exploded upon us on Sept. 11, 2001, centered on Iraq: America’s alleged killing of more than 1 million Iraqis through the post-Gulf War sanctions and, even worse, the desecration of Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina by the garrisoning of infidel U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia (as post-Gulf War protection from the continuing threat of invasion by Hussein).

Here Krauthammer argues that the NIE is wrong that Iraq has become a cause celebre for Islamists because it already was one before 2003. This is equivocating. Where the NIE claims that Iraq is a cause celebre in the sense of bringing thousands of foreign fighters to attack American trooops in Iraq, Krauthammer reads cause celebre as reason to attack America. Iraq may have been a rallying point within the Islamist anti-American rhetoric prior to 2003, but it is only since the invasion that it has been a reason for thousands of foreign fighters to leave their homes to attack American troops.

>Moreover, does anyone imagine that had the jihadists in Iraq remained home they would now be tending petunias rather than plotting terror attacks?

But, Krauthammer ultimately likes part of the NIE–the part that says that we must defeat the Jihadists in Iraq after having attracted them there. This he think is the new justification for the continued presence of American troops in Iraq. After having created thousands of Jihadists who would otherwise be “growing petunias” at home, we must stay until we kill them or they might go home to grow petunias.

>It is clear that one of the reasons we have gone an astonishing five years without a second attack on the American homeland is that the most dedicated and virulent jihadists have gone to Iraq to fight us, as was said during World War I, “over there.”

2 thoughts on “How many angels tend petunias on the head of a pin?”

  1. That last remark of K’s might deserve special analysis of its own for how royally dumb it is. Perhaps our readers also might look forward to some discussion of Krugman’s article on Wal Mart (which I can’t yet read as I can’t get over the wall . . . ).

  2. If you ask me, it’s not a matter of “complex calculations” but of common sense. If I were a trying to win people over to jihad, which enemy would be the better recruiting tool: a U.S. soldier occupying a Middle Eastern country, or a U.S. civilian half a world away?

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