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.

Mouthpiece for the terrorists?

Kerry’s claims about his ability to garner the support of foreign leaders has engendered healthy skepticism and some unhealthy sneering. Whether Dick Cheney’s demand that Kerry reveal the names of the foreign leaders who would prefer to see change in the White House (not exactly a difficult list to guess at), or the general disbelief that Kerry will be able to persuade foreign nations to place their troops in the increasingly hell like conditions of Iraq, Kerry, remarkably, has managed to seem less convincing on the intuitively obvious criterion of being less disliked by the rest of the world than the incumbent. It boggles the mind that the Kerry campaign could need to run defense on this.

The need for this defense is, in part, the result of some of our most prominent pundits. Charles Krauthammer has added an interesting twist to these attacks on Kerry’s qualifications on foreign policy in today’s Washington Post [(Source: WaPo 09/24/04]( In essence, Krauthammer argues that John Kerry is less able than President Bush to keep our friends and allies–that is, to pursue American interests abroad.

The occasion that prompts this concern is the upcoming election in the only country that has “joined the United States in the foxhole in every war in the past 100 years,” Australia.

> This is a critical election not only for Australia but also for the United States. Think of the effect on America, its front-line soldiers and its coalition partners if one of its closest allies turns tail and runs.

(We should note in passing that Australia’s 800 troops comprise about .2% of the forces on the ground, ranking beneath the Netherlands and the Ukraine.)

Nevertheless, bringing down the coalition by weakening Australia’s resolve is part of the terrorist plot:

> The terrorists are well aware of this potential effect. Everyone knows about the train bombings in Madrid that succeeded in bringing down a pro-American government and led to Spain’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. But few here noticed that this month’s car bombing in Jakarta, Indonesia, was designed to have precisely the same effect.

>The terrorists’ objective is to intimidate all countries allied with America. Make them bleed and tell them this is the price they pay for being a U.S. ally. The implication is obvious: Abandon America and buy your safety.

So far, there is little to question in the logic of Krauthammer’s representation of the intentions of some terrorists.

>That 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).

Kerry and the terrorists are speaking with one voice! The rhetorical effect of this move is stunning. Krauthammer is suggesting that Kerry’s message is in agreement with the terrorists. Before we can evaluate the rest of this argument we must ask, what does it mean to say that “the Kerry campaign is saying the same thing?”

First the terrorists are implicitly arguing:

1. Australia does not want to be the victim of terrorist attacks.
2. If Australia does not withdraw from Iraq we will attack them.
3. It is in Australia’s interest to withdraw from Iraq.

On the surface, this looks like an argument involving the appeal to fear or force. (It is not, I think, a logically fallacious argument on account of its “appeal to force.” The tricky thing about the fallacy “to the stick” (“This is true, or I will hit you with my stick”) is that sometimes force is not used to claim something is true, but only to sway the rational calculation of the listener. This does not necessarily make the argument fallacious. It may be immoral (or illegal) but not necessarily fallacious. More on this sometime later.) Nevertheless the terrorists are certainly making a threat.

But threats and reporting of threats are two different “speech acts.” If I tell you, “Do not cut across my neighbor’s property because he shoots trespassers,” it is obviously not “saying the same thing” as “do no cut across my property or I will shoot you.”

Krauthammer ignores or conceals the difference between these two “speech acts” in order to create the impression that Kerry and the terrorists agree, and that Kerry is somehow complicit in the threat that the terrorists are making. This is, as it stands, a fairly silly argument, and a transparent ad hominem fallacy resting on a fallacy of ambiguity.

It only becomes something to take seriously when we add some additional premises that show that when Kerry says this, he is being disloyal to our allies. When we make this additional inference we reach a nice clear ad hominem argument.

1. Kerry argues that Australia is less safe for its participation in the occupation of Iraq.
2. Kerry trivializes our allies’ “great political courage.”
3. It is disloyal to our allies to trivialize their sacrifice.
4. Therefore, Kerry is disloyal to our allies.

In fact, as this analysis shows, the first premise (and hence the first 3/4 of the editorial) is entirely spurious to the actual argument that Krauthammer is making (remove it and the argument stands such as it is). It has the effect of rhetorically preparing the ground for the attack on Kerry’s character through the conflation revealed above.

The justification of the second premise above is:

>[Kerry] calls these allies the “coalition of the coerced and the bribed.” This snide and reckless put-down more than undermines our best friends abroad. It demonstrates the cynicism of Kerry’s promise to broaden our coalition in Iraq. If this is how Kerry repays America’s closest allies — ridiculing the likes of Tony Blair and John Howard — who does he think is going to step up tomorrow to be America’s friend?

This would seem to be a question about the ultimate motivation of our coalition partners. When Kerry claims that they were “coerced and bribed” he suggests that they did not join the coalition virtuously, out of their abiding love of the U.S., but out of a more self-interested calculation. Or more importantly it is to say that the countries of the world did not, as perhaps they did in 1991, decide on independent grounds that this war was in both their individual and collective interest. Whether pointing this out is a mark of “disloyalty” is not immediately apparent.

What Krauthammer really needs to argue is that Kerry cannot strengthen the United States diplomatically. This would involve substantive argument that considers Kerry’s proposals, such as they are, and asks whether we will be more or less disliked by the rest of the world under Kerry’s proposals than under President Bush’s. In the last few sentences, Krauthammer considers this question.

>Kerry abuses America’s closest friends while courting those, like Germany and France, that have deliberately undermined America before, during and after the war. What lessons are leaders abroad to draw from this when President Kerry asks them — pretty please in his most mellifluous French — to put themselves on the line for the United States?

Leaving aside the abusive *ad hominem* aside (presumably Krauthammer thinks that speaking “mellifluous French” is some sort of character flaw–if so, I don’t want to be good), the argument comes down to the claim:

  • Foreign countries will not contribute to the rebuilding effort in Iraq under Kerry because they will see that he has snubbed other allies.

Whether this is true or not I cannot determine. But when all is said and done this is the limit of the substantive argument of Krauthammer’s editorial.

I would like to end by pointing to Jessica Matthews editorial in the Washington Post yesterday [Source: WaPo 09/23/04]( which contained three concrete proposals for changing our policy in Iraq that would plausibly address some of the motivations of the insurgents: a promise by the administration (backed-up by “transparent mechanism” not to profit from Iraqi oil; removal of the U.S. embassy from Baghdad and distancing of U.S. policy and the provisional government’s policy; pledge not to permanently base troops in Iraq and cessation of construction on the 14 bases currently planned.)

Which one of these things is not like the other?

The reporting media’s feverish desire for fairness and balance and its consequent abdication of its role as checker of facts seems to have spread to the op-ed pages. The ones who suffer most from this malady are those most often numbered among the “liberal” commentators. Unlike their more ideologically driven colleagues (who feel no such scruple), liberal commentators–and we use the term “liberal” only because that’s what people tend to call them–often argue against both advertised sides of an issue. In many, perhaps even most, contexts this would be a positive thing; it challenges the silly notion that for any argument there are only two parties. Sometimes, however, this urge for balance becomes an end in itself. This is what we have in yesterday’s column by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof:

If they're intellectually consistent, Democrats will speak out not only against the Swift Boat Veterans but also against Mr. Kerry's demagoguery on trade, like his suggestion that outsourcing is the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies. Trade demagoguery may not be as felonious as an assault on a war hero's character, but it harms America by undermining support for free trade.

Naturally what interests us about this passage is the mention of intellectual consistency. Ironically, this passage contains none. For the following two things are too different to warrant comparison in terms of consistency:

  • the Kerry campaign’s suggestion that Bush’s economic policies lead to outsourcing;
  • and

  • “a felonious assault on a war hero’s character.”

We might examine this puzzling comparison from two points of view, for it is almost (but not quite) equally inapplicable to both Kerry and Bush. Let’s look at how it is unfair to Kerry first. First, Kristof says that the Kerry campaign has leveled the charges. Second, the charges concern the effects of the policies of the current administration. Third, these charges are alleged to “harm America” by “undermining support for free trade.” Whether “outsourcing” and “support for free trade” can somehow be seen to entail each other is another matter, for what Kristof charges is not that the charges of the Kerry campaign are false, but that America may be harmed by failing to support free trade. So the Kerry campaign has challenged the Bush administration’s economic policies with the potential result of harming a feature of America’s economic system. On the other hand, this comparison is somewhat unfair to Bush since supporters of Bush have falsely claimed that John Kerry the person is a liar. The Bush campaign has not made the charges (though the President has refused to repudiate them specifically, but that’s besides the point here). But the balance of Kristof’s analysis tilts against Kerry, for Kristof alleges that legitimate questions about the effectiveness of economic policies of his opponent stand on equal footing with spurious assaults on Kerry’s honesty and service to his country. On the strength of this ridiculous analysis, Kristof concludes:

I'm afraid that the dishonesty of politics has infected all of us if we're so partisan that we're willing to point out only the sins of the other side. Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one's own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Mr. Kerry's war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate's protectionist tone on trade.

Speaking of intellectual consistency, this is even more muddled than the previous paragraph. Kristof claims that the “dishonesty” of politics infects each side. But how are the smears against Kerry’s character of the same class as the Kerry campaign’s “protectionist” tone on trade? The first certainly is a matter of honesty (again, for those who leveled the charges, and perhaps for the campaign that refuses to issue a specific condemnation of them), the second is just a matter of honest political disagreement. In the end, a more readily available comparison suggests itself. Kristof might charge Kerry supporters with attacking the honesty and character of President Bush. In that case, even though the cases may still be too different to compare (for one of these charges seems to be true), at least Kristof would have gotten the basic comparison right.

So your dog is your father?

Among the cacophony of accusations of flip-floppery there seems to be particular glee with the recollection of Kerry’s criticisms directed against Howard Dean in December of 2003.

Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.

Charles Krauthammer last week claimed that this contradicts Kerry’s more recent pronouncement on the war:

Source (WaPo 09/16/04): Kerry is now back to the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a line lifted from Dean himself. So we are not better off with Hussein deposed after all.

Relational predicates have a funny logical structure. Failure to pay attention to this logical structure generates simple fallacies. Plato was probably the first to explore the absurdity of these fallacies in his dialogue the Euthydemus, which anyone interested in logical fallacies, or who just wants a quick philosophical laugh, should read. In that dialogue, Plato has a sophist advance the following argument.

Tell me, have you got a dog?–Yes, and a brute of one too, said Ctesippus.
And has he got puppies?–Yes indeed and they are just like him.
And so the dog is their father?–Yes I saw him mounting the bitch myself, he said.
Well then, isn’t the dog yours?–Certainly, he said.
Then since he is a father and he is yours, the dog turns out to be your father, and you are the brother of puppies, aren’t you.

This argument is more humorous than misleading and it is easy to detect the fallacy contained within it (though there are probably several ways of describing it). In a nutshell, the problem is that “father” is a relational property, or a “two place predicate.” One is always a father of some set of children (fatherhood in this sense is always a “causal relation”). Symbolically we might represent this as xF(a,b,c) reading “person (or animal) x is a Father of persons (or animals) a,b and c.” Thus from “your dog is a father of puppies,” we cannot conclude that “your dog is the father of you.” The fallacy works by substituting an “incomplete predicate” (your father) for a complete two term predicate (father of you), and in a sense concealing an equivocation.

This looks like what we find in the above example of supposed “flip-floppery,” only now the predicate is the comparative adjective “safer,” (or “better than”) which is also a two term predicate xSy (x is safer than y).

Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.

This claim contains three comparative claims:

  1. Iraq is “better off” without Saddam Hussein than with him ruling.
  2. The world is “better off” without Saddam Hussein than with him ruling.
  3. We (the U.S.) are safer with Saddam Hussein captured than with him free in Iraq.

The question is whether Kerry’s recent claims contradict any of these comparative claims. There are several quotations that are claimed to do so.

Kerry is now back to the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a line lifted from Dean himself. So we are not better off with Hussein deposed after all.(Krauthammer, see quote above)

A good “translation” is one which preserves the sense of the original. More precisely, for our purposes, a good translation is one which is either logically identical with the original (“less safe” as a translation of “less secure”), or in which the translation is a reasonable and necessary implication of the original. Krauthammer claims that “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” can be translated as:

A. We were better off with Hussein in power than with him deposed.

We can simplify Kerry’s claim to:

A1. The invasion of Iraq was the wrong war.

To say that it was the wrong war is to say that it was not appropriate given the circumstances–that is, the ends of the war (disarming Saddam of WMD, disrupting the association of Saddam with al Qaida, deposing Saddam, or any of the other twenty or so justifications that have been advanced), did not justify the means–in some cases because the ends could not be achieved by these means (how can you disarm someone who is already disarmed?), and in some cases because the ultimate costs of the war are overcoming the benefit that the world has acquired through the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.

Kerry’s criticism of Dean, however, was that Dean (supposedly) suggested that the end was not desirable (whether he in fact did or not is now moot).

But, Kerry’s recent claim concerns the question of the right means to a desirable end, and not a claim that the end, deposing Saddam Hussein, was not desirable. Thus, the two claims are perfectly consistent, and the accusation of “flip-floppery” only seems plausible because Krauthammer creates a contradiction by misrepresenting the meaning of Kerry’s words.

A more plausible case for flip-floppery can be made on the basis of Kerry’s claim most recently at his NYU speech on Monday:

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure. Source (Kerry Campaign 09/20/04).

David Brooks was first out of the gate with his response to Kerry’s speech in yesterday’s New York Times (Source (NYT, 09/21/04). Again we find the charge of flip-floppery.

The president’s case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam [in power.]

In the speech above, Kerry actually makes a claim about the relative security of our current situation and the pre-war situation (unlike in the manufactered example above). Thus, the translation of

“we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure”


“Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam in power.”

seems at least plausible.

Nonetheless we should be careful. Kerry’s sentence from the NYU speech seems to mean that “we are less secure with the present chaos than we were with Saddam Hussein in power.” Certainly this does not contradict statement 3 above (which when accurately read only compares our safefy in regards to Saddam being free and Saddam captured). But perhaps it contradicts statement 2: The world is “better off” without Saddam Hussein ruling than with him ruling.

As Kerry makes clear in the passage quoted, he is not saying that the “world is not better off with Saddam Hussein deposed than with him in power.” Instead he seems to be claiming that the consequence of a policy that may have made the world “better off” has now made us less secure. This is not an outlandish claim having been advanced by numerous policy experts both inside and outside our government. But its truth is beside the point right now: What is important for my purpose is that it does not, in fact, contradict his original claims.

To say that the world is “better off” with Saddam deposed is perfectly consistent with saying that as a result of this improvement in the general condition of the world “we” (Americans?) are “less secure” than we were when Saddam was in power. An example:

  • I am better off being fit than not being fit.
  • I am more tired having exercised than if I had not exercised.

There is no “flip-flop” if I make these claims: Attaining a desirable goal by means that cause other undesirable consequences involves no logical contradiction. This is obscured by the tendency of the op-ed writers to translate Kerry’s words in terms of not fully specified relational predicates.

It is much easier to find a contradiction between between my two claims above if I render the first as, “I am better off being fit” (concealing the relationality of the predicate) and if I translate the other by “I am not better off being fit” (misconstrue the obvious sense of my sentence). These two transformations generate a seeming “flip-flop” where none necessarily exists.

Once again, I am not claiming that John Kerry does not “flip flop.” All I would claim is that these cases of supposed flip-floppery do not bear up under careful scrutiny.

Charity is such a lonely word

Everyone is so unfair. And this fairly well captures the problem with David Brooks’ op-ed in today’s New York Times.

But there are lots of ways of being unfair. One of them is to interpret the statements of your opponent very narrowly, or play on the ambiguities of the English language, in order to claim that she is guilty of some gross absurdity or logical fallacy. One of the more common ways of achieving this result–especially common with David Brooks–consists in forcing your opponent into a specious either/or type of choice. Some types of either/or choice are exclusive: “you can have either soup or salad,” for instance, “but not both.” But many types of either/or choices are not exclusive: “dinner or a movie?” There is no reason in this case one can’t do both–dinner then a movie, a movie then a dinner, dinner while watching a movie, a movie while eating dinner. Recognizing the difference in ordinary English between these two senses of “or” requires a fair bit of skill and confounding them is often part of a rather devious rhetorical strategy. And this is just the strategy that David Brooks employs in today’s op-ed.

Take the following for example:

The crucial passage in the speech was this one: “The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: we must make Iraq the world’s responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden.” From a U.S. responsibility, Iraq will become the world’s responsibility.

Kerry said the United Nations must play a central role in supervising elections. He said other nations should come in to protect U.N. officials. He called for an international summit meeting this week in New York, where other nations could commit troops and money to Iraq. He said NATO should open training centers for new Iraqi soldiers.

He talked about what other nations could do to help address the situation in Iraq. He did not say what the U.S. should do to defeat the insurgents and stabilize and rebuild Iraq, beyond what Bush is already doing. He did not say the U.S. could fight the insurgents more effectively. He did not have any ideas on how to tame Falluja or handle Moktada al-Sadr. He did not offer any strategy for victory.

The weird thing about the last paragraph is that it depends on an absurdly narrow construal of the quotation from Kerry’s speech (as well as, by the way, speech: as a whole). This interpretation rests on taking the phrase “the world’s responsibility” in exclusive opposition to “the U.S.’s responsibility.” Having established this silly dichotomy, he concludes that Kerry has nothing to say about what the United States can do to resolve the various problems that plague Iraq, other than what the Bush administration has already argued.

Now this line of reasoning suffers from two problems. First, for reasons having to do with the simple relationship of sets, the United States is a subset of the world (and therefore not necessarily in opposition to it). Second, Kerry has not drawn a distinction between the United States and the World that would challenge this otherwise obvious fact of set membership. On the contrary, he insists that the U.S.’s job at this point is to enlist the more effective participation of the other nations of the world because the problem of Iraq is now a global problem, involving the vital interests of every nation in the world, including, of course, the United States as a subset. So, unless the United States is not a part of the world, or the United Nations, then Kerry has offered something of a plan for the United States’s continued engagement in Iraq.

Brooks’ second argument also depends on this fundamentally flawed argumentative strategy:

The president’s case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry’s case is that the world would be safer if we’d left Saddam; his emphasis is on untangling the United States from Iraq and shifting attention to more serious threats.


The editors of promise a more detailed analysis of this particular argument in tomorrow’s post. But for the time being, we might note that the claim that “the world is safer with (or without) Saddam in power” is an instance of what logicians call a “relational predicate.” Another term for a relational predicate is “incomplete predicate.” This is to say that the meaning of “safer” depends on some such phrase as “than it would have been otherwise” or “than it would be today.” Without specifying the “than what?,” the “safer” claim carries quite a lot of rhetorical force, but no logical force. While it appears to force Kerry into a dichotomy of the soup or salad variety, in actual fact it does not, for Brooks has done nothing to establish the exclusivity of the choice.

But again, more on that tomorrow.

Finally, not content with what he has (failed) to establish so far, Brooks concludes with a rapid-fire series of fallacious arguments:

Substantively, of course, Kerry’s speech is completely irresponsible. In the first place, there is a 99 percent chance that other nations will not contribute enough troops to significantly decrease the U.S. burden in Iraq. In that case, John Kerry has no Iraq policy. The promise to bring some troops home by summer will be exposed as a Disneyesque fantasy.

The conclusion–that Kerry’s speech is “irresponsible”–does not follow from the claim that there is a great likelihood that the world will not contribute enough troops to reduce our presence in Iraq. At worst, if it turns out to be the case that the other nations of the world do not participate, then Kerry will have to revise his policy in light of this fact. It certainly does not follow that he has or would have no Iraq policy. And once again this argument depends on the reader drawing the inference that the either the “world” or the U.S. deal with Iraq (but not both). Since the world will not do it, on Brooks’ calculation, then Kerry has no policy.

But Brooks isn’t finished with the silly dichotomy he set up earlier in his piece:

More to the point, Kerry is trying to use multilateralism as a gloss for retreat. If “the world” is going to be responsible for defeating Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then no one will be responsible for defeating them. The consequences for the people of Iraq and the region will be horrific.

The only way Brooks can draw the conclusion that “no one will be responsible for defeating [Moktada al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi]” is if he makes something like the following argument. Either the “world” or the “U.S.” is responsible for defeating them, but the “world” won’t and Kerry will retreat, so no one will defeat them. The problem with this argument, like the other arguments in this piece, concerns the force of the “or.” Brooks takes the “or” to be the exclusive variety–either but not both–when Kerry obviously means it to be the inclusive variety–one, the other, or both (but preferably both). Certainly the consequences of Brooks’ misleading dichotomy (the U.S. or the World) would be disastrous. Considering the extreme nature of the conclusion, a fair-minded reader should expect that Brooks do more to establish that Kerry intends the “or” in this exclusive sense.

Finally–apologies for having nattered on–in the grand tradition of the junior league football pile-on, Brooks winds up his piece with the following argumentative coda:

Finally, if the whole war is a mistake, shouldn’t we stop fighting tomorrow? What do you say to the last man to die for a “profound diversion”?

Much like the rest of today’s piece, this claim relies on an absurdly narrow misreading of Kerry’s argument. It may have been a mistake to have gone to war the way we did, as Kerry claims, and indeed the whole adventure might be a mistake, but it does not follow that the contradictory is necessarily true. While it certainly seems right to conclude that the opposite of a mistake is correct, that inference relies very much on ignoring the myriad facts that (God forgive the nuance) color and qualify the employment of such a term as “mistake.” Perhaps, for instance, it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq, but it would be a bigger mistake simply to up and leave. The proper logical contradictory of “mistake” in this case–un-invading in March 2003–is in any event not available.

Jumping on the flip-floppery bandwagon

As the accusations of flip-floppery reach crescendo in the op-ed pages of our major dailies and weeklies, it is appropriate to consider the underlying logic of this accusation. Virtually all of the prominent conservative pundits have devoted a column or two to demonstrating Kerry’s flip-floppery, but their details are essentially the same. Last week there were two columns that stand out: Krauthammer’s editorial in the Washington Post and the Weekly Standard’s Kagan and Kristol’s (the latter seems to be writing nothing but flip-flop columns) co-authored editorial.

What the pundits are trying to demonstrate is that John Kerry has changed his position on Iraq. Now this by itself would not suggest anything. All politicians presumably should change their positions when circumstances demand it, or when they discover their previous position to have been mistaken. For example, George Bush argued that the military should not be in the business of “nation building” during the 2000 election. After 9/11, of course, he saw that his previous view was mistaken and has chosen to engage in acts of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet none of these pundits see fit to accuse Bush of “flip-floppery.” Surely something more than change is at stake here. And given the course of the war over the last three years (including planning and build-up), one would think it could be a virtue to be able to change one’s assessment in response to the changing “facts on the ground.”

The real accusation that the pundits are striving to make is that Kerry changes his position for the wrong reasons. This is an old accusation trundled out against “liberals” every four years. In essence, it claims that liberals change their positions for matters of mere political expediency and therefore cannot be trusted to do what they think is right. The implicit conclusion is that we cannot trust John Kerry to be President. As such it is an ad hominem argument.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious. Often a person’s character or past is relevant to our inferences concerning that person. It only becomes fallacious if the claim about Kerry’s character is irrelevant to the conclusion about trustworthiness.

For example, although the argument would be ad hominem, the following would not be fallacious:

John Kerry uses political power to enrich his friends and family at the expense of the state. Therefore, John Kerry cannot be trusted with the office of president.

Certainly the premise of the argument attacks Kerry’s character, but because this characteristic is relevant to trustworthiness the argument is not seemingly fallacious.

So we can never conclude simply because an argument is an “attack” on a candidate that it is fallacious. If, as people often say, the public does not like “negative attack ads,” this is not necessarily a sign of their virtue. The relevant difference lies between fallacious and unsound attacks ads and valid and sound attacks.

In general, it seems plausible that flip-floppery, of the kind with which Kerry is accused, is potentially relevant to his trustworthiness.

But this is not the end of the story. First of all we must determine how we can recognize flip-flopping when it occurs. Let’s look at two putative examples.

  1. Source (WkSt. 9/7/04):

    Wiliam Kristol, who has seemingly become a full time flip-flop detector, finds the following “flip-flop” (though he does not call it by this name).

  2. JOHN KERRY said yesterday that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Translation: We would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

    Dean also said, “The difficulties and tragedies we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at the extraordinary cost, so far, of $166 billion.”

    But who challenged Dean immediately? John Kerry. On December 16, at Drake University in Iowa, Kerry asserted that “those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.”

    The first quote contains an obvious “straw man”–a deliberate misconstrual in order to generate the contradiction with the last quote.

    “The wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” would be contradicted by claim such as that it is the “right war” or the “wrong war in the right place” or the “wrong war in the wrong place at the right time.” But, Kristol wants a flip-flop at any cost. So he “translates Kerry’s words into the claim that “we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.”

    The claim might be translated into the claim that “it was not worth the cost to the U.S. to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” But unfortunately if Kerry intended this, he would be perfectly consistent with his earlier claim. The Dean quote makes it quite clear that Kerry probably means this.

    But, Kristol does not let problems like journalistic accuracy thwart him in his pursuit of a flip-flop. In the last quote, Kerry only claims that those who think that capturing or removing Saddam from power does not make us safer are unfit for the presidency.

    To put the relationship between these various quotes clearly. The last quote speaks about an end, the former two question the means to that end. There is no inconsistency and thus no “flip-flop.”

  3. Source (WaPo 09/17/04):
  4. alls Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, of course, he voted to authorize the war. And shortly after the fall of Baghdad he emphatically repeated his approval of the war: “It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him.”

    Of course, the center piece of all the accusations of flip-flopping on Iraq is the perceived contradiction between Kerry’s “vote for the war in 2002 and his recent criticisms of the war. Once again the contradiction between the two takes a little editing work to generate, and rests ultimately on the obfuscation of the relevant aspects of our system of government. With a simple conception of decision making in Washington abetted by a media that is unwilling to instuct its viewers on the nature of our government, it seems to many that Kerry has changed his mind on the Iraq war. The very terms in which the media portrays the vote to authorize the President to use force as a “vote for the war” obscures the basic facts of our government.

    Here is John Kerry in 1991 speaking about the vote to authorize the first George Bush’s first Gulf war.

    75 percent or more of those who will vote for the use of force do not want it to be used, and a significant number will vote for it only becuase they want to prevent the president from being reversed.” (quote from Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury

    Before both wars, in fact, the Presidents Bush and Bush asked for the authority to use force in order to be able to avoid using force. Here’s George Bush the younger on the vote:

    Q Mr. President, how important is it that that resolution give you an authorization of the use of force?

    BUSH: That will be part of the resolution, the authorization to use force. If you want to keep the peace, you’ve got to have the authorization to use force. But it’s — this will be — this is a chance for Congress to indicate support. It’s a chance for Congress to say, we support the administration’s ability to keep the peace. That’s what this is all about. Source (Al Franken’s Blog)

    So, according to Bush in 2002 Kerry’s vote for authorization of the president to use force, was not a “vote for the war” as the pundits claim, it was a vote in support of the “administration’s ability to keep the peace.”

    But once again, if John Kerry was not endorsing an invasion of Iraq, never mind an invasion that lacked any clear strategy for the occupation, then there is no necessary contradiction between his later claim that “it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” These statements are seemingly consistent.

    And as apparently Kerry said at the time (once again from Franken’s blog):

    Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.

Identifying “flip-flops” takes logic: At the root of the question is the identification of contradictory and contrary claims. The real challenge faced by the pundits, however, is obscuring the lack of a contradiction and generating a seeming contradiction, by either deliberately misconstruing the meaning (Kristol and Krauthammer above) or by taking comments out of their context. These pundits know that they must obscure context and intention, never mind nuance, if they are to make the charge of “flip-floppery” stick. We can see that in the first example from William Kristol. There he goes so far as to replace without explanation or justification Kerry’s own words with a straw man translation that allows Kristol to claim “flip-floppery.”

This is not to say that Kerry hasn’t “flip-flopped,” or perhaps better that he hasn’t changed his mind on the issues. There are other examples in Krauthammer’s, and Kristol’s and Kagan’s editorials. Whether these are plausible accusations of “flip-floppery,” or accusations contrived in the author’s enthusiasm to jump on the “flip-flop” bandwagon and at the expense of the rules of logic, I will leave for the reader to consider.

When an explanation is actually an argument

Addenda 09/18/04 (see post on 09/17/04): O.K. Thinking more about this. It seems that it is important to distinguish between an explanandum (the thing being explained) that is false and one that is unknown. If it is unknown the explanation can be constructed entirely in the hypothetical. If it is false it is not an explanation. But, if the explanandum is unknown then our explanation seems collapse into an argument. If in any explanation the explanandum is more known than the explanans, then to explain something unknown to be true by facts presumably known to be true (or supported with reasons) makes the explanation into an argument. So Krauthammer is either offering no explanation or an argument.

Here’s a parallel construction.

If game seven of the world series were held today, the Cubs would win by 7-10 runs. Why? Because. . ..

This claim is probably false, but imagine that it is unknown. My explanation for it would in fact be an argument since it would provide reasons to believe that the Cubs would win by 7-10 runs.

So perhaps, I should have evaluated Krauthammer’s piece as an argument that Kerry would lose by 88-120 electoral votes. If that’s the conclusion then I may have been too charitable here, since there seems little reason to believe that Kerry’s flip-floppery can in any way predict the number of states that will go to Bush, or even predict the outcome of the election. If Kerry loses the election it will probably be for a host of reasons from voter turn-out, to events in Iraq, to the economy, to the debates. Historians will debate the electoral outcomes for a long time.

Nonetheless, whether premise 1 below is true or false is a question that does not concern us here. Assuming that these premises are true, and if we narrow Krauthammer’s conclusion to the claim George Bush will win the election (with the specificity of his electoral prediction undestood as hand-waving), then the conclusion would seem to follow.

  1. The election will be decided on the relative credibility of the candidates’ Iraq policy
  2. Flip-floppery on Iraq has made Kerry uncredible on this question
  3. President Bush has credibility on this questions.
  4. Therefore, President Bush will win the election.

Once again, however, the argument will be seen to rest on the accusation of flip-floppery and the claim that this makes Kerry uncredible on Iraq. We will have to return to the arguments presented on this point at later time.

And on the subject of polling and its reliability, see the recent scandal with Gallup polls. In a nutshell, Gallup has been predicting a 40% turnout of registered Republicans and a 33% turnout of registered Democrats in its polls. Without knowing the reasons for this, it is hard to evaluate it, but at the least, it should give pause to anyone who thinks that polling is somehow an objective measure of reality, rather than a construction of that reality.