Neither running nor hiding

Is there a logic, or perhaps an illogic to “spin”? Or, more generally, how does “spin” work? “Spin” takes accepted facts and represents them in a positive or negative way. To accuse someone of “spinning” is to accuse them of a biased representation of the facts. Bias plays an interesting role in arguments. The mere existence of bias does not by itself allow us to conclude that the conclusion drawn on the basis of the representation of the evidence is false: To do so would be to commit an *ad hominem* fallacy.

Safire begins his Monday column “How Bush Won Round 2” (NYT 10/11/04) by committing precisely this fallacy:

>When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been “a draw” – you know George Bush won that round.

One, of course, knows nothing of the sort. Fortunately Safire does not rest his case on this argument. The only thing, however, that can determine who won the debate is an evaluation of it according to some accepted set of criteria That is, we need first to determine: What exactly constitutes winning a debate? Who is in a position to decide who won the debate? In the absence of such criteria, the conclusion that Safire wants to establish will escape him.

Bush’s hackneyed use of Joe Louis’ “He can run, but he can’t hide” seems curiously impressive to Safire and on the basis of this cliche, Safire seems to have confused the Louis/Conn fight in 1946 with Kerry/Bush in 2004. I could comment on the weak analogy running consistently through Safire’s column. It probably provides some persuasive force, if there is any, to Safire’s argument while concealing this as a rhetorical device. But ultimately the analogy is just silly. There was no knock-out in the eighth round. There was no strategic miscalculation in thinking Bush was tired leading to the non-existent knock-out. And Bush is surely not to debate what Joe Louis was to boxing.

Nevertheless, setting aside this attempt to transform the debate into epic, Safire rests his case on two things.

>Bush’s debate plan was to keep boring in on the Kerry record: flip-flopping this year on the war, but all too consistently liberal for 20 years on tax increases.

There was little new on the first point–though Safire has set the bar for President remarkably low by commenting:

>This not only showed that Bush knew these allies personally, but could also pronounce Kwasniewski’s name. . ..

The rest of Safire’s argument on the war is that Kerry contradicts himself on Iraq policy. These arguments have been examined before and certainly do not suggest decisive victory for Bush.

On taxes his case is even thinner amounting to two points:

1. Kerry’s channeling of Bush’s father by promising no new taxes on anyone making less than $200,000, an admittedly less impressive oedipal strategy than in his first debate quotation of Bush-41’s explanation for the foolishness of occupying Iraq.

2. A supposed “blunder” concerning Bush’s $84 of revenue from a lumber company.

This latter point is entirely misconstrued and illegitimately dismissed by Bush and Safire (see Media Matters). But, even if it were true it is very thin ground on which to base victory in the debate.

Safire’s final comments concern Bush’s attempt consistent attempts to conflate voting for a particular bill and standing on a particular issue–like in the debate about Iraq this is a conflation of questions about ends and means to those ends. Consistently, in political debates, disagreements about means are translated into disagreements about ends. So for example:

>In an anguishing moment, Kerry said he was against partial-birth abortion (as are most voters, including many pro-choice) and then explained why he voted against the ban that is now law. Countered Bush: “He was given a chance to vote and he voted no. . . . It’s clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Kerry, of course, voted against the bill, as he explained not because he promotes partial-birth abortion, but because the constitution as it is currently interpreted by the Supreme Court requires a provision in the law that protects the right of a woman to have even this procedure when her health is threatened. In the absence of such a provision the law is in a sense illegal.

Variations on this argument are consistently used by the Bush campaign (voting against 87 billion for the troops, not voting for the bill that capped punitive damages in medical liability cases etc..) to create a straw man against which to campaign. This is, of course, fallacious as Safire surely knows.

Undoubtedly Safire is spinning the debate. His argument is extremely selective and relies on a weak analogy between the debate and a prize fight. Undoubtedly as well, Safire has a bias towards one candidate. This bias, however, is not the reason that his argument is implausible, but only perhaps, the reason he finds such an implausible argument persuasive. Nevertheless, I cannot say whether Bush or Kerry “won” the debate, and in fact, the question is probably not of interest to anyone other than the media who would like to sell politics as another spectator sport.

It depends on what the meaning of liberal is

Part of the problem with labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” consists in the fact that they have all manner of (often negative) political and social connotations. For this reason, calling Kerry a “liberal” or Bush a “conservative” has such rhetorical effectiveness. And juxtaposing one of these terms with a geographical or institutional region strengthens the verbal blow–the Massachusetts liberal, the liberal media, the Bible Belt conservative, for instance. In the end, however, they are little more than a shortcut for a lazy, uninquisitive mind, which likes to dwell at a level of generality where facts are made to fit neatly into predetermined categories, such that easy categorical disjunctions can be enacted–liberal *or* conservative. And this is more or less what George Will
is up to in his column in the *Washington Post*.

In short, Will sets out to explain “Conservatism’s 40-year climb to dominance” in light of two sources: its congruence with American values and “anomalous” religiosity and the “elaborate infrastructure” of think tanks and similar institutions. But Will fails to note–among other things that simply tell against the truth of the phenomenon he is trying to explain–that 40 years is a long time–in fact, in the Bible that’s just what it means–and a lot can happen to labels in 40 years. To claim that “conservatism” has won dominance over a 40 year struggle is to say, at the very least, that there exists a coherently self-identical movement expressed by a growing but organized body of adherents. If “conservatism” has won a victory over “liberalism,” then first of all we must at least be talking about the same teams.

But by Will’s own characterization of liberalism, we are hardly talking about the same teams. Herbert Hoover–hardly the paragon of Willian liberalism today–called himself “a true liberal” and Eisenhower, hardly a member of a liberal party by Will’s characterization, reckoned himself in that number. This cuts the other way as well. While Barry Goldwater may share party affiliation with some current conservatives, it would be wrong to say that Bush and Goldwater (and Reagan and Nixon) are conservatives in the same sense. So to claim the ascendancy of conservatism over liberalism isn’t to say that one coherent and unified ideology has defeated another (and judging by the popular vote in the last Presidential election as well as other well established data, that isn’t even clearly the case), but rather one meaningless label employed by conservative pundits (oops!) has triumphed over another.

Second, just as one might challenge the diachronic unity of the labels he traffics in. More to the point, one might also challenge the synchronic unity of such terms. Just who is a liberal (and who is a conservative) nowadays in the sense that Will intends? Both parties have, to the disillusionment perhaps of a the greater portion of the electorate, adopted the rhetoric and ideology of the other. Bush’s heavy political (but perhaps not monetary) investment in public education and other expansions of entitlement programs suggest much less than conservative ideology in the Goldwaterian sense. Besides, the Republican party encompasses quite a broad coalition of extreme social conservatives, moderates, and libertarian elements. Claiming that its recent victories (again the 2000 election–when it lost the popular vote–combined with Clinton’s two victories hardly constitute evidence of “dominance”) are a sign of core conservative values grossly oversimplifies the kinds of coalition-building necessary to win Presidential elections. But worse than that, it does violence to language.

What do the terrorists want in a president?

At the center of the Bush re-election campaign is a constellation of arguments that attempt to show that electing Kerry is tantamount to losing the “war on terror.” Some of these arguments focus on Kerry’s character specifically his lack of resolve; Some focus on his supposed unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to protect the United States when it runs in the face of world opinion. The most interesting and probably the most pernicious arguments, however, are those that suggest or outright assert the identity of Kerry’s electoral success and the terrorist’s success. This raises hackles. There seems to be something suspicious, manipulative, and morally suspect about this argument and with good reason, some have recognized a certain similarity to the political tactics of Joseph McCarthy.

Charles Krauthammer (Source: WaPo 10/08/04), however, is incredulous that anyone could even doubt that the terrorists aren’t cheering for Kerry.

>Do the bad guys–the terrorists in their Afghan caves and Iraqi redoubts–want George Bush defeated in the election?

>Of course, the terrorists want Bush defeated. How can anyone pretend otherwise?

Even though we don’t know who the American people want with our incessant polling and analysis, Krauthammer believes that the evidence is so overwhelming that we can know with virtual certainty the electoral preferences of the terrorists.

Michael Kinsley “with his usual drollery” ridiculed this argument in a recent WaPo editorial [(Source: WaPo 9/25/04)](, suggesting first that we have no reason to conclude that Osama bin Laden would prefer one candidate over the other, and second that there is little reason to think that he would prefer Kerry rather than Bush.

But we should examine Krauthammer’s evidence for this conclusion:

>We know the terrorists’ intent and strategy. We saw it on display in Spain, where a spectacular terrorist attack three days before the national election set off the chain of events that brought down a government that had allied itself with the United States. The attack worked perfectly. Within weeks Spain had withdrawn its troops from Iraq.

>Last month, terrorists set off a car bomb outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the middle of a neck-and-neck Australian election campaign and just three days before the only televised debate between the two candidates. The prime minister, John Howard, is a staunch U.S. ally in both Afghanistan and Iraq. His opponent, Mark Latham, has pledged to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas.

It seems at first reasonable, perhaps, to conclude that these two acts directed as they were against members of our “coalition” have as their goal affecting the electoral outcomes in these countries. In one case, at least, we know that it did. Whether it was the intention of the perpetrators is perhaps a different question. This could almost become a version of the *post hoc propter hoc* fallacy, if there was not any other evidence (as in fact there is) to support it: The Madrid bombing affected the outcome of the Spanish election. The bombing occured right before the Spanish election. Therefore the intention of the bombing was to affect the Spanish election.

Nevertheless, I am not equipped to to examine the truth or falsity of these premises, only their logical connection to Krauthammer’s conclusion. Let’s grant Krauthammer that the perpetrators of these acts intend or intended to influence these elections. Does that provide any reason to suppose that the terrorists want Bush to lose the election?

I think the interesting step in the argument occurs in a series of rhetorical questions:

>Why are we collectively nervous about terrorism as the election approaches? Because, as everyone knows, there are terrorists out there who would dearly love to hit us before the election. Why? To affect it. What does that mean? Do they want to affect it randomly? Of course not.

Here Krauthammer suggests that the terrorists want to perpetrate an act similar to the Madrid bombing. By analogy this suggests that they want Bush out of office, just as they wanted Jose Marie Aznar out of office. Undoubtedly we are collectively afraid of a similar act on the eve of the presidential election. But do we have reason to be afraid? And more importantly does our fear have any significance in the argument for Krauthammer’s conclusion?

I suspect that this fear plays a significant part in any willingness to grant Krauthammer’s inference. It is extremely hard to separate the truth of the statement once we are afraid of it: the fact that we are afraid of it, suggests immediately to us that it is true (or else we would no longer be afraid). A child who is afraid of the monster under the bed is afraid because he or she thinks that there is or might be a monster under the bed. Our fear of a terrorist attack to upset the election, however, does not mean that the terrorists want to upset the election with an attack. (Of course, it is still possible that there is a monster under the bed).

In a nutshell Krauthammer argues:

1. Terrorists influenced the Spanish election against the incumbent.
2. Terrorists have committed a terrorist act directed at Australia on the eve of the election.
3. Spain, Australia and the U.S. are enemies of the terrorists.
4. We are afraid of a terrorist attack right before the election.
5. Therefore, the terrorists want Bush defeated.

Yet after seemingly drawing this analogical inference, (buttressed by the appeal to our fears) Krauthammer has to point out that the essential point of analogy in fact doesn’t hold in the case of the U.S.

>As Sept. 11 showed, attacking the U.S. homeland would prompt a rallying around the president, whoever he is. America is not Spain. Such an attack would probably result in a Bush landslide.

If this is so, then perhaps there is no reason to infer that because the terrorists aimed to remove Aznar (again assuming that is true) they are aiming to remove Bush. (And we can note in passing that the document found on the internet from December 2003 outlining the strategy of undermining the coalition explicitly distinguishes between Britain, Poland and the U.S. and the remaining nations. The strategy of affecting policy through terrorism is formulated only for the latter (Source: New Yorker, August 2, 2004)).

But once he has drawn the analogy, he believes that he has shown its truth and thus uses the fact that the terrorists want to oust Bush to explain the escalation of violence in Iraq:

> The enemy is nonetheless far more likely to understand that the way to bring down Bush is not by attack at home but by debilitating guerrilla war abroad, namely in Iraq. Hence the escalation of bloodshed by Zarqawi and Co. It is not just aimed at intimidating Iraqis and preventing the Iraqi election. It is aimed at demoralizing Americans and affecting the American election.

There are many things wrong with this last step, but I will limit myself to two comments:

First, even if it is plausible that part of the intention among some of the insurgents in Iraq is to affect the election, it is seemingly implausible that this is the motivation of the increase in attacks. The causes are far more complex than Krauthammer suggests. Does he really believe that if Bush won, or if there was not an election this year, the insurgency would stop or even just decrease or not have increased in the first place? There is a fundamental confusion about correlation and causation here I think.

Second, there is good reason to question Krauthammer’s use of this elastic and amorphous term “terrorist” to include both al Qaeda and its associates, and the various factions fighting the insurgency in Iraq. It is entirely possible that Osama bin Laden and the insurgency in Iraq have very different desires and interests in this case. Osama bin Laden has it seems been immeasurably benefitted by the invasion of Iraq (as Kinsley plausibly argues) and might prefer it to continue indefinitely. The insurgents are presumably less pleased with Bush’s occupation.

So what reason do we have to believe that Krauthammer is right? None whatsoever is supplied by Krauthammer. His argument is ultimately an appeal to the obviousness of the claim contained in the quote with which I started. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. This does not, of course, mean that he is wrong. Only that he has not given us reason to believe that he is right.

Will to compare

Among the hundreds of thousands of student victims of the whims of the all powerful teachers’ union, all students of Logic 101 have been subjected to the following counterintuitive stipulation: “some” is a quantifier; it tells you how many. But how many does “some” mean? Well, and here’s the counterintuitive part, it means *at least one*–not necessarily more than just one. Those same students, those victims of the powerful agents of a government-sponsored Democratic political lobby, also know that “some” is infinitely distant from “all.” So when some use some it may mean only some, that is, one.

That said, in today’s *Washington Post* George Will
attempts to “understand some of the Democratic rage about the specter of a second term for George W. Bush.” In turns out that the “some” here refers not to an unspecified number of Democrats, but rather to an undetermined quantum of their motivation for fearing a second term of George Bush. In case you thought that this undetermined quantum of rage was directed at profound or even superficial concerns over the domestic policies of the current administration, you’d be sorely disappointed. For Will’s analysis concerns the political survival of the Democratic party as an entity, not, as it might seem, the agenda of the Democratic party; if Bush gets reelected, Will muses, then his policies might produce fewer Democrats.

Now of course on the other hand we are only talking about *some* of the rage. So that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle. But the unspecified quantum of rage doesn’t constitute the worst feature of Will’s argument today. It’s the fact that he pits *some* of the motivation for the “rage” of *some* Democrats against the policies of the current administration (not a “some,” but an “all”); this specious comparison juxtaposes the selfish and shortsighted Democratic motivations with principled Republican stands on policy. *Some* of the Democrats’ rage results from the gutting of their base that would happen under the policies of a new Bush administration. Take the worst of the selfish and shortsighted Democratic base (and the one which for completely selfish reasons is closest to our heart) for example, the teachers’ union:

The public education lobby — one in 10 delegates to the Democratic convention was a member of a teachers union — wants government to keep impediments in the way of competition. That means not empowering parents with school choice, including the choice of private schools, which have significantly lower per-pupil costs.

Here–and throughout the rest of the piece–Will compares the ruinous and obtusely self-serving motives of the Democratic base with the reasoned stands of the Republican party. The Democrats, of course, want only to continue to exist and further their own self-interest. The Republican platform, on the other hand, is characterized here by the apparent soundness of its policy and the purity of its motivations. One more example:

Welfare reform, the largest legislative achievement of the 1990s, diminished the Democratic Party’s dependency-bureaucracy complex. That complex consists of wards of government and their government supervisors. And Bush’s “ownership society” is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it.

That felicitous formulation, from Jonathan Rauch’s masterful analysis of Bush’s domestic ambitions (National Journal, July 26, 2003), follows from two axioms of which conservatives are fond: Give a person a fish and you give the person a meal; teach the person to fish and you give a livelihood. And: No one washes a rental car. Meaning people behave most responsibly about what they own. Hence Bush’s menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.

Here again the policies of the Bush administration clash with the entirely political motivations of Democratic operatives. But, as we have argued here before, for comparisons to work, the items compared must be of the same category. So Will should either compare the selfish motives of the Republican party with the selfish motives of the Democratic party, or the policies of the one with the policies of the other. Now of course in the end just because there might in fact be *some* Democrats who fit Will’s description doesn’t make his comparison any less specious.

Therefore, everyone is a neo-conservative

Last Thursday’s debate seemed to frustrate conservative pundits. There was little to criticize in Kerry’s answers and less to praise in Bush’s. In his editorial yesterday (Source: NYT 10/04/04), William Safire chose a third alternative, praising Kerry. According to Safire, Kerry’s foreign policy has undergone a “sea change.”

> On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neoconservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush. . . Last week in debate, John Kerry – until recently, the antiwar candidate too eager to galvanize dovish Democrats – suddenly reversed field, and came down on the side of the military hard-liners.

So Kerry apparently has joined the ranks of the “neo-conservatives” among whom surely Safire intends the intellectuals and apparatchiks who were the masterminds behind the Iraq war. In order to judge this claim, we would first need a clear idea of what constitutes neo-conservatism. We can’t investigate this thoroughly, but perhaps a few general characteristics will help. In its recent appearance in politics, the neo-conservatives have been identified with the activist and interventionist foreign policy that led to the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives believe that “national interests” are not geographically defined and that fostering them requires the perception of and intervention on the side of our “friends” against our “enemies.” (This latter shibbolethic opposition is derived from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and ultimately Plato’s Republic) (see Irving “grandfather of neoconservatism” Kristol’s description here.

William Safire knows that “neo-conservativism” cannot be reduced to particular strategic decisions. It is a political ideology defined by a certain understanding of the national interest and the broadest requirements for fostering that interest. But, this doesn’t stop him from caricaturing both Kerry’s position and neo-conservative ideology in order to salvage the debates as a supposed victory for Bush’s policies as voiced by Kerry.

His case rests on four claims:

> “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground,” Kerry volunteered. “And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists. … You’ve got to show you’re serious.” Right on, John!

This, of course, confuses strategy and motivation. With 135,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground and the insurgency flowering, we might conclude that an offense is the best defense for our troops. This, of course, has little to do with ideology and much to do with strategy.

> Next, to grand strategy: Kerry was asked by Jim Lehrer, “What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?” In the past, Kerry has given a safe never-say-never response, but last week he gave a Strangelovian answer: “The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike.” He pledged never to cede “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary” to protect the U.S.

“Just war” theory has always allowed pre-emptive attacks based on “imminent threats.” The difference bettween Kerry and the neo-conservatives is over the question of whether a “gathering” threat or some other vaguely defined description of a supposed threat is grounds for preemption (such as “weapons program related activities”).

> On stopping North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Kerry abandoned his global-testing multilateralism; our newest neocon derided Bush’s six-nation talks and demands America go it gloriously alone.

This claim is a sort of false dichotomy: It is not the case that in order for Kerry to believe that multilateralism is generally preferable that he must eschew either bilateralism or even perhaps unilateralism. Safire assumes that if you reject unilateralism in the case of Iraq you must reject it always. This is an unreasonable assumption.

> And in embracing Wilsonian idealism to intervene in Darfur’s potential genocide, Kerry’s promise of troops outdid Pentagon liberators: “If it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it. …”

Once again, nothing strange in this. Being willing to assist in a multi-lateral humanitarian intervention does not make one a “neo-conservative” unless Safire is expanding the definition to include virtually every leader and politician in the world except Pat Buchanan.

Certainly there are analogies between the neo-conservative foreign policy seemingly ascendant in the Bush administration and some of Kerry’s positions. But that no more makes Kerry a “neo-conservative” than Bush’s reluctance to attack Iran would make him a convert to Gandhi’s pacifism. As Safire formulates the argument, it is laughably fallacious.

At best–and this is an act of interpretive charity that goes beyond his own expressed intentions–he might be understood to argue that Kerry has approached some neo-conservative positions. But, since Kerry was seemingly never opposed to those positions in themselves (only their inappropriateness under specific circumstances or the inept bungling of their implementation), there is nothing really interesting about these similarities.

Finally, we can note that a complete reading of the debate transcript shows that Kerry also accepts several strategic goals that are at direct odds to the policy formulated by the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration. Most importantly, he calls for the U.S. to commit itself to no long term presence in Iraq. Since part of the neo-conservative strategy has been to occupy Iraq at least in the 14 bases currently under construction, it is easy to see that for all of the similarity in Iraq policy, there is also significant dissimiliarity that Safire has conveniently ignored in order to make his case, a fallacy of “suppressed evidence.”

Contrast then compare

It may come as no surprise to some readers that Saturday’s *New York Times* presents another of David Brooks’ dichotomous observation pieces. This time, however, Brooks attempts to inject his usual trope with a healthy dose of balance; he expresses a hope (“in weak moments”) that the opposition neutralize itself in the proper combination of two complementary sorts of minds: Kerry’s (“rationalistic”) and Bush’s (“creedal or ethical”).

If we are really talking about balance, then the two sorts of mind must be compatible, not mutually exclusive. If we are talking about exclusive opposition, then the opposite is the case, that is, the one type of mind cannot have the characteristics of the other. A false dichotomy results when one treats the compatible as an instance of the incompatible. Strictly speaking, that’s not what we have here, since Brooks professes the false hope that the two might on some twin earth exist together on the same ticket. And if they can exist together on the same ticket somewhere, then they can exist on it here.

Instead of the false dichotomy, we have an interesting variation on that theme. To force the contrast between the two, Brooks compares their positions regarding different issues and their answers to different questions in the debate. Take the following for instance:

When John Kerry was asked how he would prevent another attack like 9/11, he reeled off a list of nine concrete policy areas, ranging from intelligence reform to training Iraqi troops, but his answer had no thematic summation. If you glance down a transcript of the debate and you see one set of answers that talks about “logistical capacity” or “a plan that I’ve laid out in four points,” or “a long list” of proposals or “a strict series of things” that need to be done, you know that’s Kerry speaking. [emphasis added]

The question, as it is reported by Brooks, concerns the *how*, or the *means* of preventing another attack. That is a process question. And Kerry has answered it by referring to concrete and specific matters of process. One might even assert that these concrete proposals constitute the *thematic summation* of Kerry’s answer. Now this gets compared in the following way with Bush:

If, on the other hand, you see an answer that says, “When we give our word, we will keep our word,” you know that is Bush. When you see someone talking about crying with a war widow, you know that’s Bush.

This makes Bush look like an idiot. For if the issue for Kerry is how he responds to questions of process, then we should expect–since a comparison is being made–Brooks to present us with Bush’s answer to the *same* question, or at least the same type of question. It’s rather like comparing the dinner and dessert choices of two diners–Kerry likes steak for dinner, but Bush likes apple pie for dessert. The reader is left to wonder what Bush likes for dinner and what Kerry likes for dessert.

Now what’s the question?

The op-ed page of today’s *New York Times*
offers its readers, among the usual fare, three proposed questions for each of the participants in tonight’s Presidential debate. Naturally, the proposed questions for Bush come from Kerry supporters, and vice-versa. Among these questions, William Kristol of the *Weekly Standard* proposes the following oft repeated, rhetorically effective, but logically troublesome question for Kerry:

You have said that we cannot cut and run from Iraq and that we could “realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.” But if you now consider the war to have been a mistake, how could you, as president, “ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake”?

That this question is a *rhetorical* trap is obvious. *Jeune* Kerry, dour and uniformed, asked it in his testimony before the Senate in 1971. It wasn’t a real question then, and it’s not real question now. It’s a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s a question with no possible answer.

This “question” of Kristol’s is a brilliant rhetorical strategy, thick as it is with references *Weekly Standard* readers find compelling: Kerry’s protests against the Viet Nam War, his *apparent* modification of positions on Iraq (“you *now* consider. . .”), and his stated aim of extracting the U.S. from Iraq.

Those matters aside, there is no way Kerry can answer this question without falling into the *complex question* trap Kristol has prepared for him. If he explains how he can ask the last man to die for a mistake, then he contradicts the young John Kerry and at the same time affirms that the soldiers are now dying for a mistake. If he says that he won’t ask anyone else to die for a mistake, then he claims that the soldiers who have died have died in vain. So there is no way that Kerry can answer *that* question without looking like a dope.

But there’s more to Kristol’s question than his attempt to force Kerry into a 30 year-old self-contradiction. The preamble to the question is meant to suggest Kerry holds a series of inconsistent positions. It might help to examine the explicit claims in greater detail.

1. We cannot cut and run from Iraq;

2. We can realistically aim to have our troops home in four years;

3. The war was a mistake.

Kristol aims to show that Kerry cannot consistently hold all of these positions at once. One appears inconsistent with two–setting a timetable for disengagement is another phrase for cutting and running. One also seems inconsistent with two and three in the following sense. The war was either a mistake or it wasn’t. If it was a mistake, then we should not be there *now* (let alone four years from now). If we are there now or four years from now, then it’s not a mistake. Something, Kristol believes, has to give. But what has to give is not Kerry’s position, but rather Kristol’s simple minded formulation of it. While challenging the question may not constitute a very smart political ploy–as Kerry is so often accused of offering answers too complicated for the ordinary pundit–it would certainly uncover the logical trap Kristol is setting for him.

Here is how Kerry might respond:

1. To *have invaded* Iraq in March 2003 was a mistake, a grave one. But the fact is that mistake has already been committed.

2. But to “cut and run” *now* would make matters worse, for it would leave Iraq in a chaos of our making. In other words, the mistake has been accomplished, what remains are the *consequences* of the mistake. Cutting and running would constitute a new mistake.

One and two, then, are clearly not inconsistent. The only way they can be made to be inconsistent if one vaguely determines the temporal boundries of the term “mistake.” For Kerry, the “mistake” of the Iraq war refers to an event in the past. For Kristol, however, Kerry’s claim that it is a mistake means that everything associated with it *now* is a mistake. These are two fundamentally irreconcilable meanings of the term “mistake.”


3. Therefore, a clear and realistic timetable for withdrawl is not inconsistent with either two or three above. And the only way Kristol can make this inconsistent is if he conflates “cutting and running” with “clear and realistic timetable for withdrawl.” But these two hardly mean the same thing.

Once Kerry clarifies these matters, Kristol could then ask him a real question.

. . . or the terrorists win.

Earlier this week (Source NYT 09/27/04), William Safire at the end of a long discussion of the terrorist kidnappings buried an interesting version of Krauthammer’s argument against Kerry’s foreign policy credentials. Unlike Krauthammer’s relatively transparent ad hominem fallacy, Safire’s deserves careful evaluation (Mouthpiece for the terrorists? and If it walks like a duck). It is a masterful blend of innuendo and nuanced accusation–far subtler than Krauthammer’s claim that the Kerry campaign is “saying the same thing” as the terrorists. Even more importantly, this argument has surfaced lately in a speech by the Vice President as a piece of the administration’s argument against Kerry’s foreign policy qualification.

Perhaps Safire was reading his Jean Baudrillard last weekend and decided to devote his column to the interesting way in which terrorism implicates the media in its very effects. As Baudrillard (among many others I am sure) argued years ago, terrorism is “spectacular.” Its primary effects occur not within the “real,” but rather within the “imaginary” or “symbolic.” These effects, however, can only stretch as far as the “events” can be communicated. Thus, the media becomes, whether wittingly or unwittingly, complicit in the very strategy of the terrorists. The media, of course, are caught in a double bind since they have an obligation to present the events.

Safire is content with the usual position on this difficult problem:

  • “Nobody should order reporters and editors to ‘downplay’ a gut-wrenching human interest story. . ..”
  • “But responsible journalists should consider the wisdom of allowing media-savvy terrorists to play them like a violin.”
  • “So do we have to become conduits for this grisly, real-death kidnap choreography? We are obliged to report it, but we need not go along with the terrorist propaganda in milking the most horror out of it.”

It’s safe to reject the obviously wrong alternatives: censorship or becoming the media arm of al Qaeda. But things are more complicated when we are not dealing with the media’s obligation to report, but with the political use of these kidnapping in the election.

>John Kerry, who has evidently decided to replace Howard Dean as the antiwar candidate, last weekend helped to magnify the terrorists’ kidnap weapon. In a scheduled commercial Kerry personally approved, just before charging that George Bush had no plan to get us out of Iraq, the Democratic campaign underscored the message Zarqawi has been sending: “Americans,” said Kerry’s announcer, “are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded.”

>Though undoubtedly accurate, that paid evocation of horror by a political candidate is a terrible blunder. That’s the sort of emotional appeal you would expect from President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines who pulled 51 troops out of Iraq, caving to the demand of kidnappers, emboldening them to grab fresh victims.

While the media may be obligated to present a sanitized and non-sensationalistic account of the kidnappings, the use of the same images in a campaign ad “magnif[ies] the terrorist kidnap weapon.” The accuracy of the ad is not contested, nor does Safire claim that it “sensationalizes” the facts, so instead he suggests that this use of the fact is a “terrible blunder.” (And we might do best to leave aside the slightly repellant taste of sexism lingering in the comparison of this statement of fact to the “emotional appeal” of President Arroyo, which I take to be a suggestion that Kerry is a woman.) What Safire needs here is a clear reason why it is wrong (or a “blunder”) for the Kerry campaign to state this fact but it is right for the media to report this fact.

>It’s bad enough for some thoughtless media outlets to become an echo chamber for scare propaganda; it’s worse when the nominee of a major party approves its use to press his antiwar candidacy.

>We are dealing with the most brutal propaganda weapon yet devised. Strong governments counter it by refusing to pay money or policy ransom to the kidnap-killers. Nonpartisan media’s response should be to report the events conscious of manipulation and not to overlook the reaction of Iraqi and worldwide Muslim disgust.

So Safire might argue that it isn’t the simple reporting of the facts in the ad, but the connection of these facts with the implicit conclusion–“therefore, we should withdraw,” or “therefore Bush has made mistakes.” It is their use as a means to Kerry’s political goal that is troubling for Safire. But, it is not at all clear why Safire thinks Kerry is not obligated or at least entitled to draw from these facts the prudential inference that it may not be in our interest to continue to occupy Iraq.

The only suggestion Safire makes is that this is the same thing as the terrorists want, and so in drawing this inference we are agreeing with the terrorists. Both my colleague and I have analyzed this equivocation in the Krauthammer’s earlier editorial. This argument at least as it stands is silly.

It is, at the same time, perplexingly seductive and disentangling precisely why is difficult. It seems to involve the presupposition: “accepting terrorist demands is in the long term against our interest.” If we negotiate with terrorists or accept their demands then we suggest to others that this tactic can be effective and this will then lead to more terrorism. Terrorists, thus, can only be fought. This further seems to imply, for many, that once a group adopts terrorist tactics their goals, whatever they may be, must be rejected as well. To agree to the goal is to condone the tactic. So even if it is in our interest to withdraw from Iraq, we cannot because this would be “letting the terrorists win.” We do not probably need the horror at Beslan to show us why this argument can lead to perverse results and thus to give us pause in accepting it. Too often it is used as part of a “false dichotomy” that suggests anything but attacking and fighting terrorists is capitulating. Certainly, this is how Safire is using the argument.

Ultimately, this argument is part of the ad hominem argument against Kerry’s fitness for the presidency: Kerry cannot be trusted because either he is so reckless as to put his own election efforts above the safety of the U.S., or because this reveals the willingness to capitulate to or even endorse the terrorist demands. Calling it an ad hominem argument is not to say that it is fallacious. If it were the case, or if Safire could provide reason to believe that Kerry is either complicit in the terrorist strategies against the U.S., or that he cynically uses tragedy (like say the 9/11 attack) to pursue his own political goals, then we would have good reason to question his fitness for the presidency. Ad hominem arguments are only fallacious when the claims about a person are not logically relevant to the conclusion being drawn from them.

I do not want to suggest that there is nothing in Safire’s concerns. There are certainly difficult questions involving the place and use of the media in times of war and especially terrorism. And there are also difficult and important questions about the character traits that each of our candidates possesses. But, in the final analysis it seems to me Safire stretches a legitimate question about terrorism and the media in order to make it serve his ad hominem argument against Kerry.


The imaginative arguer can intuit connections between otherwise distinct facts or events; she can identify the proper analogates with a certain amount of precision and shed light on otherwise obscure phenomena. And she knows that analogies, like other arguments in inductive or informal logic, are tricky creatures. Their conclusive force depends on the degree to which the analogates can be reasonably compared. When the analogates cannot be reasonably compared, then the analogy is a false one. But determining whether an analogy is strong or weak requires more of the critical reasoner than most other kinds of inductive arguments. For she must have a command over the facts relevant to the strength of the analogy. Such an analysis of the facts takes time and effort, things which most newspaper readers–even careful ones–have in short supply.

Fortunately for us, David Brooks relieves his readers of the painstaking work of researching the analogy that constitutes the core argument in his op-ed today (NYT 09/28/04). After expending more than three quarters of the space allotted for his twice-weekly column working up an analogy between the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s with Iraq *and* Afghanistan today, Brooks points out that

“[o]f course the situation in El Salvador is not easily comparable to the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

So the reader need not expend any energy pointing out that El Salvador had not been invaded by a foreign power (like Afghanistan and Iraq); that the insurgents in El Salvador had a clearly articulated “positive” agenda; that this positive agenda consisted in part in the advocacy of the very democracy Brooks claims they challenged; that Afghanistan and Iraq have in common primarily the fact that they have been invaded by us; that the insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq is aimed primarily at ousting or humiliating a foreign occupier. Pointing out such things is tedious and Brooks’ admission that such a comparison is not easy saves us a lot of time that we could have otherwise spent on puzzling over his conclusion:

It’s simply astounding that in the United States, the home of the greatest and most effective democratic revolution, so many people have come to regard democracy as a luxury-brand vehicle, suited only for the culturally upscale, when it’s really a sturdy truck, effective in conditions both rough and smooth.

Certainly the snobs who claim that only the “culturally upscale” are suited to democracy have taken quite a licking here. But one might wonder whether any such people exist, or whether they exist in such numbers, strength and influence to be considered worthy of mention. But perhaps, as is more likely the case, the reader is supposed to attribute this shallow, snobby view to those who are concerned that the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the holding of elections difficult, dangerous, or impossible. But more to the point, the claim that democracy may flourish in “*conditions* rough and smooth” (here contrasted with “luxury” and “cultural upscaleness”) ignores legitimate questions of economic and political stability (such as, for example, voting) so often considered to be the minimal requirements for the existence of truly democratic institutions.

If it walks like a duck

Today I’d like briefly to add a few more wrinkles to my colleague’s very clear and perhaps overly charitable analysis of Charles Krauthammer’s abominable and wildly fallacious op-ed of last Friday. In particular, I would like to discuss Krauthammer’s rather devious attempt to identify John Kerry with the terrorists in virtue of the fact that they can be construed to share vaguely similar objectives. While such a strategy often results in the more obviously fallacious ad hominem argument, the frequency of its employment in recent political discourse, and its outrageously erroneous logical structure, warrants a separate discussion.

How does Krauthammer go about this? First he needs to find common ground for Kerry and the terrorists. To this end, after pointing out that two recent terrorist attacks aimed at allies of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (specifically Australia and Spain) seemed geared toward undermining support among coalition members, Krauthammer makes the following startling observation:

That [Abandon America and buy your safety] is what the terrorists are saying. Why is the Kerry campaign saying the same thing? “John Kerry’s campaign has warned Australians that the Howard Government’s support for the US in Iraq has made them a bigger target for international terrorists.” So reports the Weekend Australian (Sept. 18).

Americans Overseas for Kerry is the Kerry operation for winning the crucial votes of Americans living abroad (remember the Florida recount?), including more than 100,000 who live in Australia. Its leader was interviewed Sept. 16 by The Australian’s Washington correspondent, Roy Eccleston. Asked if she believed the terrorist threat to Australians was now greater because of the support for President Bush, she replied: “I would have to say that,” noting that “[t]he most recent attack was on the Australian embassy in Jakarta.”

She said this of her country (and of the war that Australia is helping us with in Iraq): “[W]e are endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels.” Mark Latham could not have said it better. Nor could Jemaah Islamiah, the al Qaeda affiliate that killed nine people in the Jakarta bombing.

First of all, the conclusion (which appears in the first paragraph), “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing,” raises logical eyebrows of its own. For just what is “the same thing”? If it means that the U.S. has erred in invading Iraq, then lots of people (many of them not terrorists) are saying that. If he means that countries who continue to support U.S. policy in Iraq are more likely targets for terrorists, then, again, lots of non-terrorists are saying that. In addition, that is an observation well supported by the evidence (take Jakarta and Madrid, for instance), and not, as Krauthammer might be taken to suggest, a threat on Kerry’s part (for more on that see Friday’s post). So the Kerry campaign, on the analysis of this particular op-ed, is alleging (and correctly too, if we are to take Krauthammer’s own claims about the Madrid and Jakarta bombings as true) that the invasion of Iraq has done more to foment terrorism than end it.

But whether or not Kerry is or is not saying the same (or a substantially similar) thing as the terrorists is beside the point. Why don’t we, for the sake of argument, suppose that to be the case. If we do, we can unveil the more subtle (for Krauthammer avoids directly stating it) but nonetheless devious identification of the Kerry campaign and the terrorists. This identification occurs in two different places in the passage just quoted.

First, there is the obvious “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing.” And second, we have the less overt, but more pernicious, “Mark Latham [and Jemaah Islamiah] could not have said it better.” In the second instance, the real terrorists may be offended that “disregard for international law and multilateral channels” is being attributed to them as a justification for their terrorism. But never mind that terrorists rarely if ever have such legalistic motives, for Krauthammer’s obvious intention here is to identify the Kerry campaign in some rhetorically underhanded way with terrorists; after all, they both say the same thing. Aside from being just plain false (or too vague), this claim depends on an absolutely specious inference from accidental property to substantial identity.

Let’s illustrate this distinction with a counterexample. Both Bush and Bin Laden consider Saddam Hussein to be their enemy. And let’s say that they even say similar things about him. We should hardly be justified in concluding that their agreement on Saddam is anything more than purely coincidental (they dislike Hussein for radically different reasons). If this is not the case, then, in Krauthammer’s eyes, Bush has a lot of explaining to do.

Your argument is invalid

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