Honest Abe made me do it

The art of historical analogy is tricky and as such subject to dishonest manipulation. On that score, historian Victor Davis Hanson writes:

>The Bush administration can also use history to show that, despite what detractors say, its techniques aren’t so unreasonable. It’s worth reminding the American public that Abe Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and shut down newspapers; that Woodrow Wilson imprisoned prominent dissenters like Eugene Debs; and that Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-American citizens and secret military tribunals for German saboteurs (six of whom were executed) and allowed the coverup of military catastrophes (such as the hundreds killed during training exercises for the Normandy landings).

>In other words, there’s an advantage to providing historical perspective by engaging one’s critics and answering their charges.

There’s a causal and analogical argument here. While Hanson does not say that the above mentioned things relate causally to the various military victories, he certainly suggests as much. While sorting out the causuality of these various claims might merit more serious attention, I think it’s plain to most mildly historically minded people that these claims are false. Interning Japanese and other Axis-related americans didn’t advance us militarily nor did executing German saboteurs (they were already captured). Covering up military disasters such as the one mentioned were done for purposes of concealing our plans (not our foolishness). Such things are obvious from even the most superficial History Channel surfing.

More pernicious is the suggestion that these situations are analogous to the present day. They’re not. Since they didn’t advance the cause then, analogous actions don’t advance it now.

One final point. Coming from a professor, such straw man arguments are shameful:

>The public, for example, should be informed that the accusation that the U.S. went into Iraq for oil (“no blood for oil,” as the slogan goes) is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. For starters, gas prices skyrocketed once we induced risky change in the Middle East. How does that benefit the American people? Meanwhile, because of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s energy sector has been purged of corruption (such as the UN’s scandal-plagued oil-for-food program).

Such sloganeering inflames the passions but doesn’t constitute argument. Everyone knows that. The real arguments against attacking Iraq (not the protest march slogans) at the time were legion. It turns out, in fact, that many of those arguments were correct.

But while we’re on the subject of oil, at least one administration official (but certainly more) suggested–I think it was Paul Wolfowitz–that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the reconstruction. How are we to have interpreted that? The consequences to the Iraqi oil industry which Hanson mentions were clearly not the ones offered to the American public when the administration rolled out its new September 2003 product line. It is false to suggest otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Honest Abe made me do it”

  1. Re your second Hanson quote, I’m not sure I see the straw man. I’d say it’s an accurate representation of some people’s pre-war arguments. He doesn’t seem to imply it’s representative of the entire anti-invasion argument, at least in your excerpt, but just that it’s one case where public misperception exists. I’d say the first sentence is OK, though maybe he earns a few ad hominem points for the “crazy” implication.

    Anyway, it’s all downhill after that. Whatever you think of his set up, Hanson utterly fails to knock down his {straw man |OR| somewhat legitimate claim}. The Wolfowitz quote you mention demonstrates the obvious: the present situation wasn’t anticipated. Perhaps Hanson’s invented a new fallacy here, that sly dog. How do you say “appeal to hindsight” in Latin?

    For the record, the quotes you were probably looking for:

    Wolfowitz, at the House Committee on Appropriations Hearing on a Supplemental War Regulation, on 2003/03/27: “The oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years. We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”

    Rumsfeld, same day, across the rotunda, at the Senate Appropriations Hearing: “I don’t believe that the United States has the responsibility for reconstruction, in a sense… funds can come from those various sources I mentioned: frozen assets, oil revenues and a variety of other things, including the Oil for Food, which has a very substantial number of billions of dollars in it.”

  2. Interesting points, Jeremy. My point about the straw man, however, is this. Sure enough one can find *someone* who argued that the war was just for oil, but that’s not really the point. The point is whether that someone represents the most persuasive of the anti-war arguments. Or even does that person represent the most persuasive of the oil/war arguments? As the quotes you helpfully provide show, Iraq’s possession of oil constituted a key part of the administration’s message. I’m sure that if they had not had such mineral wealth, we would have been less interested in invading them. One can always find a straw man argument–take a cruise around the left and right blogosphere–but just because you find one doesn’t mean you must respond to it (or confuse it with a real argument). Thanks for the comment.

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