Non causa

It’s good to be skeptical of the press. There may be reasons to approach press reports of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) with caution, but flying into speculative refutation is deeply confused. In that spirit, Robert Kagan attempts a futile recasting of the role of the Iraq war in the war on terrorism:

>For instance, what specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the “terrorism threat”? Presumably, the NIE’s authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn’t mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.

Notice that Kagan–a Washington Post columnist–suggests that the absence of successful attacks against the United States in the wake of the Iraq war is a matter of causal significance. It would have to be, if the burden has shifted onto those who suggest it has.

But that’s crazy talk. For, (1) according to the adminstration, Iraq is full of terrorists attacking (successfully) the United States (much like they did the USS Cole); (2) There were no terrorists in Iraq before the war (and Saddam had no ties–ask Bush–to al Qaeda); (3) Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11; (4) there have been terrorist attacks of the al Qaeda variety all over the world–including Iraq and Afghanistan.

In light of these very obvious and well known facts, the only way Kagan could approach a causal claim is by construing “terrorist attack” in a way that excludes anything that has happened since the Iraq war (and in the Iraq war or in the war in Afghanistan). And so he would have to equivocate on “terrorist attack” so as to render it meaningless.

But even he were right about the meaning of “terrorist attack”, there is nothing to suggest that the Iraq war has a causal relation to the absence of such attacks (as he very strongly implies). At best, as he says, it has no relation. If it has no relation, then the burden has not shifted on to the opposing side (each side may have the same burden of proof). The burden, Kagan ought to note, lies with the one, like him, who asserts the causal claim.

But the truly silly thing about this argument is that Kagan hasn’t seen the NIE either. So his criticism is purely of the speculative variety. The very sort he accuses others of advancing.

5 thoughts on “Non causa”

  1. “the only way Kagan could approach a causal claim is by construing “terrorist attack” in a way that excludes anything that has happened since the Iraq war”

    Thank you for pointing this out. Yes, there have not been any attacks on the United States in the last five years that were on par with September 11, 2001, but Kagan takes this a step further by citing the U.S.S. Cole and embassy bombings. As you stated, there are similarly lethal terrorist attacks occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan today, but Kagan chooses to leave these examples out of his analysis. In the interest of consistency, his argument should have read as follows: “The U.S. has not suffered a single 9/11 scale terrorist attack in five years.” Hardly sounds reassuring though considering that 9/11 was the ONLY 9/11 scale terrorist attack suffered on U.S. soil.

  2. That seems right to me. Had Kagan modified his conclusion to be the last one you mention, he would only have been guilty of one egregious fallacy–the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Jason,

    Thanks for the comment and the link. I can’t fix it for some reason (I’m not much for web design). If we take the idea that much of the violence in Iraq against Iraqis is terrorist violence (which did not exist before the invasion) the idea that terrorism has not increased is false on its face. Of course, Kagan’s point was about the United States. Considering the importance of allies, attacks against them (Britain, Spain, Indonesia, and so on) ought to be considered attacks against us–especially when they’re obviously tied to the war in Iraq (as were at least the Spain and Britain bombings).

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