Source (NYT 09/14/04): David Brooks certainly likes his dichotomies: Just this Saturday he was busy dividing people into
“spreadsheet-people” and “paragraph-people.” This sort of dichotomous thinking runs a particular risk
of logical fallacy, the fallacy of false dilemma: Roughly, this is the fallacy of “black and white”
thinking. That is, a conclusion is justified by claiming that there are two alternatives and then ruling one of them
out for some reason. Formally this is a valid argument. But, if the disjunctive premise (either a or b) ignores other alternatives (c,d,e etc.), then the argument may commit the fallacy of “false dilemma.”
Once again, in Brooks’ editorial, we find a dichotomy complete with handy tag-names: gradualists and confrontationalists.
The debate on how to proceed in Iraq is not between the hawks and the doves: it’s within the hawk
community, and it’s between the gradualists and the confrontationalists.
Now this looks, at first blush, like a false dilemma. Surely there are other positions in this debate. What about those
doves? Certainly for those who read progressive and liberal media (Nation, Progressive et al.) there are more than
Brooks’ two positions.
But when we pay careful attention to Brooks’ premise we notice that he limits it to positions that are actively
taking part in the “debate on how to proceed in Iraq.” With charity we might claim that Brooks is speaking of the policy
circles in Washington, for whom negotiation, retreat, or abandonment are not politically viable alternatives. Many
might wish that there was a candidate who could put forward a determinate plan for disengagement with the insurgents,
but Brooks can charitably be said to be on plausible grounds if he is describing the debate within the policy establishment.
But now his argument takes a curious turn. Rather than arguing against one alternative and then inferring that the
other is preferable, he offers refutations of both alternatives.
First the confrontationalist.
The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them
out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there’d be a debilitating political backlash.
Then the gradualist:
The confrontationalists can’t believe the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror.
By moving so slowly, the U.S. is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow. With U.S. acquiescence, fascists are
allowed to preen, terrorize and entrench themselves.
- Either gradualist approach is best or confrontationalist is best.
- The confrontationalist approach is not best, because it will foster the resistance it is meant to remove.
- The gradualist approach is not best, because it will allows the resistance to grow and strengthen.
- Therefore, ?
But where does this leave Brooks? What conclusion can we infer from a disjunctive both of whose disjuncts are false.
Brooks seems at a loss at this point. His conclusion is half-hearted and tepid:
It’s depressing to realize how strong the case against each option is. But the weight of the argument is on
the gradualist side. That’s mostly because people like Ayad Allawi deserve a chance to succeed. These people in the
interim government are scorned as stooges and U.S. puppets, but they’re risking and sometimes giving their lives for
their country. Let’s take the time to give them a shot.
The deciding factor on the military and political strategy in Iraq for Brooks, is not the number of American casualties. It is not
the cost of the war, nor the geopolitical-political instability that it is causing. It is not the calculation that eventually we will be able to withdraw honorably if we can just stick it out. No. It is that the interim government is really trying.
This argument might make perfect sense at a little league game as a reason to offer the coach when he is ready to pull your son after his third or fourth error. But it defies imagination that it could be seriously offered as a reason to decide our foreign policy.
Now while I applaud Brooks’ clear formulation of the arguments against both the gradualist and the confrontationalist approaches, what undermines this achievement is the conclusion that he draws from his analysis.
It seems to me that Brooks’ conclusion should be re-formulated as:
A. Since there is no good choice, and we must choose one of the two, trivial reasons (Allawi is really trying) can decide the matter. This is roughly to say “flip a coin.”
But notice that he has moved from:
- There are only two positions within the policy debate.
- There are no other positions than the two within the policy debate.
Although at first, it appears that Brooks does not commit the fallacy, in order to conclude what he concludes he must strengthen his initial premise, which was merely factual at first (there are only two positions in the policy debate) to an evaluative claim (there are only two viable positions in the policy debate). When he does this he commits the fallacy of false dilemma.
Interestingly this could probably also be described as committing the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi, of missing the point. This is a fallacy of relevance, in this case the relevance of the conclusion. It occurs when a set of premises justifies one conclusion, but the arguer replaces that conclusion with a tenuously related conclusion instead.
Brooks’ argument should naturally be taken as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the fact that there are only two inadequate alternatives being discussed by the Bush administration, and therefore, an argument for the inclusion of other alternatives.
Brooks sidesteps the natural implication of his arguments by invoking the entirely spurious argument about Allawi’s government. I’m at a loss to describe this move. Perhaps it is a sort of red herring–the fallacy of diverting the readers attention from the natural conclusion of the argument (the policy debates within the Bush administration are dangerously narrow) to another conclusion (the Bush administration is right to pursue a gradualist approach), by the introduction of a spurious consideration.
To be fair, perhaps Brooks could defend the exclusion of all other alternatives other than his dichotomy. Perhaps, an argument could be made that retreat, abandonment, gradual withdrawal, negotiation, power-sharing, U.N.-ification, etc.. are all impossible alternatives. Perhaps it could be argued. But Brooks certainly does not do so and so is not entitled to his conclusion.