Outrage is not an argument

Among the pundits, Charles Krauthammer has a particular authority on questions of bio-medical ethics. As a member of the president’s commission on Bioethics and a medical doctor, he displays a level of scientific understanding and a grasp of the philosophical analysis of the relevant moral concerns which is not generally considered a necessary prerequisite for the national publication of one’s opinions.

This doesn’t stop him, however, from running afoul of the canons and standards of argumentation with which we concern
ourselves here.

Last Friday (Source: WaPo 10/15/04) he jumped on the Senator Edwards bashing bandwagon with an editorial on stem cell research and Edwards’ sloppy comments during a speech earlier last week in Iowa. Here’s the relevant sentence from the speech:

>”If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

It was undoubtedly a poorly formulated claim on an issue that the Kerry campaign has been treating with some degree of care. Krauthammer doesn’t, however, give any credit to Edwards’ intentions.

>In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately, for personal gain, raising false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable.

So Krauthammer argues that John Edwards deliberately raised false hope in the catastrophically afflicted for personal gain. We can concede the further, seemingly uncontroversial, claim that such an act is “despicable.” Whether such a “despicable” act is a disqualification for the vice-presidency is a question we cannot address here.

Krauthamer thus needs to show (1) intention to deceive and to profit from the deception and (2) the falsity of the hope.

In a presidential campaign it is easy to infer the second part of (1) from the very fact that Edwards said what he said as a candidate. He seeks to profit from everything he says. But it is much harder to show that Edwards intended to deceive, or to raise “false hope.” Before we turn to consider whether these are “false hopes” or not, it is worth commenting on this political rhetoric.

Politicians like to talk about ends and not the means to attain them when they are campaigning. To put it simplistically, means are boring and often difficult to understand, while ends are inspiring and seductive. From Kennedy’s call to land a human being on the moon, the war against terrorism, or the goal of bringing democracy to the middle east, politicians propose lofty goals leaving the implementation to the policy makers. Hopefully those ends are attainable and beneficial. But there is nothing unusual about politicians promising great benefits that are just down the road–in fact, if they were to abstain from this it isn’t entirely clear what they could still talk about.

But, perhaps there is something particular about the case of the “catastrophically afflicted”? The hopes and desires of the catastrophically afflicted are presumably much more easily played upon by the unscrupulous than our desires to reach the moon (as shown by the failure of Bush’s Kennedy act earlier this year). I cannot easily determine whether promising jobs, affordable housing, or health care, are more like the case the the catastrophically afflicted than the desire to go to the moon. Nevertheless, until we decide whether Edwards was fostering a “false hope” or not we can leave this question aside.

Krauthammer “deconstructs” Edwards’ “outrage” with three points:

>First, the inability of the human spinal cord to regenerate is one of the great mysteries of biology. The answer is not remotely around the corner. It could take a generation to unravel. To imply, as Edwards did, that it is imminent if only you elect the right politicians is scandalous.

This involves a significant mis-characterization of Edward’s claim. He is certainly not arguing that the mere fact of electing Kerry will solve the “great mysteries of biology.” He is, of course, arguing that the ability of researchers to do so has been hampered by Bush’s appeasement of the religious right: Electing Kerry will result in a policy that does not depend upon particular religious beliefs, but instead secular arguments about the status of and necessary protections for embryos. And this in turn, if we believe some scientists working in the field, could bring about clinical trials of some therapies by the end of the decade. Admittedly not imminent, and admittedly not certain, but also not quite as absurd as Krauthammer endeavors to make it seem.

>Second, if the cure for spinal cord injury comes, we have no idea where it will come from. There are many lines of inquiry. Stem cell research is just one of many possibilities, and a very speculative one at that. For 30 years I have heard promises of miracle cures for paralysis (including my own, suffered as a medical student). The last fad, fetal tissue transplants, was thought to be a sure thing. Nothing came of it.

Certainly we do not know what the outcome of this research will be, and Edwards is wrong to state the outcome so assertorically. Nonetheless, there seems good reason to believe that promising therapies may be derived from this research, and that clinical trials of some therapies could begin within a decade. Even Christopher Reeve–who is supposedly being exploited by this sentence–said that with increased funding it is possible–according to unnamed researchers–to have clinical trials for therapies for spinal injuries in six or seven years. (On this, see the discussion of the California stem cell funding ballot initiative in the recent issue of the New Yorker.)

But, this is a matter for experts to decide. If the therapies are unlikely then we should reject funding *on that basis* not on the basis of a religious view that life begins at conception. As they stand, Krauthammer’s arguments look like either arguments from ignorance or fairly weak inductions. We do not know for certain whether the therapies derived from this research will be useful. But from this claim we cannot conclude that therefore the hope is “false” as Krauthammer wants. Only perhaps that Edwards should be more measured and state the point in terms of possibilities not necessities.

So there doesn’t seem to be good reason to believe that Edwards is fostering “false hopes.” Undoubtedly he is fostering hope, and the ground of the hope (that we will discover these cures) should not, perhaps, be promised. But neither of these things make the “hope false.” Or more precisely, neither of the arguments that Krauthammer advances are strong enough to show that the hope is false.

Edwards did not formulate this cautiously and the picture he draws is easy to caricature. Nonetheless, his intentions seem somewhat clear. Bush has limited access to stem cell lines and federal funding. Kerry would reverse that decision, enabling researchers access to the funding that is needed to determine whether these therapies will be available or not. In this case, Edwards is arguing in favor of a means (looser strictures on funding for stem cell research) on the basis of the promise of what might be attained.

The third criticism that Krauthammer advances is the weakest:

>Third, the implication that Christopher Reeve was prevented from getting out of his wheelchair by the Bush stem cell policies is a travesty.

There are two concerns with this. First, there seems no reason to think that this is an “implication” of what Edwards said. Second, contrast this with Reeve’s own words several years ago: “If we’d had full government support, full government funding for aggressive research using embryonic stem cells from the moment they were first isolated, at the University of Wisconsin in the winter of 1998, I don’t think it unreasonable to speculate that we might be in human trials by now,”

Krauthammer’s point here, however, is to defend the Bush position against the suggestion that it has retarded the development of useful therapies. He does this by arguing that there is no ban on stem cell research and that there is not that much likelihood of many of these therapies being developed from stem cell research. On this question we would need to ask the researchers who are affected by the Bush policies, few of whom seem to agree with Krauthammer on either of these points.

But more to the point, Krauthammer himself supports a position essentially identical to Kerry’s and opposed to the Bush administration’s, though he seems to bend over backward to allow his conservative friends to have some purchase on the issue, requiring that their religiously motivated views be treated with an undue degree of respect in this political debate, (and has even attempted to fashion a “secular” argument against stem cell research which he himself does not seem to find convincing (the centerpiece of which is a fairly bad slippery slope argument that is easily countered, see his argument in the New Republic in 2002).
 
So what is Krauthammer’s argument ultimately? It seems to be that the Kerry campaign wants to use the stem cell research issue for their own political ends. Since the justification of their policy is the possibility of therapies that will help the catastrophically afflicted, their arguments, however carefully they are formulated, will always run afoul of Krauthammer’s concerns. But this does not seem to be a reasonable restriction on political argument. Policies must always be justified by their promise, whether that promise is certain or not.

Perhaps then we are brought back to the wisdom of Bill Clinton–“it all depends on what ‘is’ means”: a sentence perhaps only a lawyer or a philosopher could love. Nonetheless, it contains a lesson that it would behoove Edwards to learn. If he had had said “may possibly walk” rather than “will walk,” there would be less for his political opponents to latch on to in order to divert the debate on this important question of policy. Then we would be having a conversation focussed on the substantive differences between and relative merits of Bush’s and Kerry’s policies, rather than on the supposed immorality of the use of these differences in a stump speech.

Missing the point

The Duelfer report states conclusively that two of the primary rationales for going to war in Iraq were seriously wrong. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and he had no ties to al Qaeda. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped David Brooks and George Bush from claiming that the report somehow justifies the war in Iraq. What is interesting is that each of them offers the same round-peg-square-hole kind of argument. To be more precise, each of them commits the fallacy of *ignoratio elenchi*, which is Latin for “missing the point,” in such a textbook way that it’s worth looking at their arguments together.

In short, the fallacy of missing the point occurs most often in cases of drawing extreme conclusions when the evidence would more properly suggest a more moderate conclusion.

First, let’s look at David Brooks. After a reciting litany of reasons the sanctions regime was not only faltering but that it had also strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power, Brooks concludes:

But we know where things were headed. Sanctions would have been lifted. Saddam, rich, triumphant and unbalanced, would have reconstituted his W.M.D. Perhaps he would have joined a nuclear arms race with Iran. Perhaps he would have left it all to his pathological heir Qusay.

We can argue about what would have been the best way to depose Saddam, but this report makes it crystal clear that this insatiable tyrant needed to be deposed. He was the menace, and, as the world dithered, he was winning his struggle. He was on the verge of greatness. We would all now be living in his nightmare.

Note that from the uncertainty of the “perhaps” of the first paragraph here cited Brooks derives the certainty of Saddam’s return to greatness, his need to be deposed, and that we would *now* be living in his nightmare. Never mind the practical impossibilities of Saddam reconstituting anything with an inspections regime that had not only been effective, but that was still in place at the start of the war. The real problem with Brooks’ argument is that when the evidence suggests corruption in the U.N. oil for food program, and Saddam’s uncanny ability to play it to his advantage (none of which actually produced weapons of mass destruction or ties with al Qaeda), Brooks concludes that the whole thing was a failure and needed to be scrapped. Considering the aims and successes of the sanctions and inspections, one would more reasonably conclude that the system only needed to be fixed. So the evidence does not suggest anything like the extreme measure of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and occupying Iraq.

So much for Brooks. We have another version of this same fallacy from last Friday’s Presidential debate. When asked whether despite the absence of WMDs the invasion of Iraq was still justified, Bush had this to say:

And I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein – as did my opponent – because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. And the unique threat was that he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like Al Qaeda, and the harm they inflicted on us with airplanes would be multiplied greatly by weapons of mass destruction. And that was a serious, serious threat. So I tried diplomacy, went to the United Nations. But as we learned in the same report I quoted, Saddam Hussein was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions. He was trying to get rid of sanctions for a reason. He wanted to restart his weapons programs.

The attempt to get rid of sanctions, “game” the oil-for-food program, and the intent to get weapons of mass destruction do not constitute an actual imminent threat. At worst, they show the various U.N. programs to have been successful. At most, they might justify a revision, but not a wholesale rejection, of them. Furthermore, granting the increase in the perceived threat of the Hussein regime after 9/11, this rejection was not an actual live option. To suggest that letting Hussein go free and unhindered is to compound the fallacy of missing the point with a false dilemma: there were many other options between ineffective sanctions and war.

Kerry’s Soviet-Style World-View

By now it seems likely that David Brooks has never met a dichotomy that he didn’t like. Impressed by the difference between his weekend perambulation in the country and a drive back into the city, Brooks muses:

>I was struck again by how powerfully the physical landscape influences our view of politics and the world.

This leads Brooks to one of his standarad reflections on the differences between the rural commitment to “Goldwateresque virtues” and the urban commitment to the “Kennedyesque virtues.” No sociological subtleties, and no empirical evidence is needed. Not even any historical contextualization is needed for Brooks to conclude that there are two types of people in this country. Looking at a map with the red and blue states colored in for us, this sort of limpid generalization seems plausible. The south and the rural west we’re told are red and the northeast and coastal west, home to our biggest cities, are blue. Need we go any further?

Again at some level of generalization this seems reasonable. But we only need to start thinking about states such as Florida, Ohio, Illlinois, Wisconsin, and perhaps ultimately the majority of the states to realize that this dichotomy is far too simplistic to be either useful or interesting.

But now Brooks suspects that this same opposition might explain the debate we are having about foreign policy as well: perhaps, the physical landscape powerfully influences our views of foreign policy. However implausible this sounds at first, it will only get worse:

>the foreign policy debate between George Bush and John Kerry is really a conflict between two values: freedom and internationalism.

O.K. Once again at some level of generality there is little to quibble with here. What’s interesting is that Brooks cites an article by Adam Wolfson in the Weekly Standard which discusses the difference between the two candidates’ foreign policies. Wolfson, in fact, argues that both come from the same source, liberalism. But the dichotomy is much more to Brooks’ tastes.

>When Bush talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about spreading freedom. What he’s really talking about is a decentralized world. Individuals would be free to live as they chose, in their own nations, carving out their own destinies.

>When Kerry talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about alliances and multilateral cooperation. He’s really talking about a crowded world. People from different nations would gather to work out differences and manage problems.

One thing to note, however, is that Brooks replaces Wolfson’s distinction between the democratic and the internationalist sides of liberalism with his own opposition between internationalism and freedom. These latter are not really coordinate, however, as they compare a means with an end. Yet it serves an important rhetorical purpose: Brooks can suggest, though of course not state outright, that Kerry’s internationalism is at opposed to a commitment to freedom.

This move is important. Brooks is transforming the debate into a disagreement about values rather than policy, and simultaneously he is suggesting that Kerry values constraint more than freedom.

>Put this way, the argument we are having about international relations is the same argument we are having about domestic affairs, just on a larger scale. It’s a conflict between two value systems. One is based on a presumption of a world in which individuals and nations should be self-reliant and free to develop their own capacities – forming voluntary associations when they want – without being overly coerced by national or global elites. The other is based on the presumption of a crowded world, which emphasizes that no individual or nation can go off and do as it pleases, but should work instead within governing institutions that establish norms and provide security.

Yes, perhaps, *if* you put the debate this way, this is true. But in fact, this is not the debate we are having. Bush and Blair justify the invasion of Iraq on the basis of U.N. resolutions and on the basis of the claim that “the world is better off. . ..” Kerry and Clinton do not reject, as far as I can tell, the value of democratization–and in fact, this was a cornerstone of Clinton-era foreign policy. The question, however, has always been about the best means to attain the end of democratization. Kerry and other democrats have a certain skepticism, born from experience, about the possibility of promoting democracy with the barrel of a gun. And this probably explains to some degree the preference, at least notionally, among democrats for humanitarian interventions rather than interventions to install a government.

>Seen in these terms, this election is not just a conflict of two men, but is a comprehensive conflict of visions. Both these visions have been bloodied of late. Still, they do address the central issue confronting us: How do we conceive of an international order in the post-9/11 world? Bush, the conservative, conceives of a flexible, organic, spontaneous order. Kerry, the liberal, conceives of a more rationalist, planned and managed order.

Now we find that the problem is in fact how best to conceive internationalism and not as Brooks suggested earlier what we should be striving for as a nation in our foreign policy. Of course, this also serves a rhetorical purpose as the contrast between the two sorts of “order” suggests. By changing the terms of the disagreement, Brooks has painted Kerry into some sort of soviet style socialist foreign policy.

I have a feeling that the logic underlying these rhetorical moves could be better illuminated than I have done here. Brooks’ whole argument seems to rely on a series of equivocations, and tracking more precisely how he equivocates might be an illuminating task. Nonetheless, I will leave this commentary with one last quotation that is not interesting for its logic, but only because it is perhaps the worst last sentence in op-ed. history:

>This debate could go on for a while since both sides represent legitimate points of view, and since both sides have concrete reasons to take the positions they do.

Not only that, however, it is also strikingly disingenuous. Brooks offers himself as the “reasonable conservative”–an understanding and fair minded judge of the both parties’ policies and values. When we look carefully at the logic and rhetoric of this piece, however, his pretense to neutrality becomes absurd. The language in terms of which he chooses to describe the differences between the two candidates betrays a suggestion of cynicism in his studied neturality.

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)](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49281-2004Sep25.html), 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.”

Finally,

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.

Your argument is invalid

%d bloggers like this: