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.
2 thoughts on “Now what’s the question?”
Yes, a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t question.” Either you’re saying the soldiers have died in vain or that Bush was right. I think Kerry gave an excellent response to this in the debate by saying something to the effect of, “It’s the job of the president to make sure the war is worthy of the nobility of the warriors.” Whether the war was worth it or not is ultimately a historical judgment and the jury’s still out.
Of course, the war is a disaster and a mistake however it turns out (either as a simmering quagmire or all out civil war).
The structure of this trap reminds me of the debate on affirmative action. Some will state that if we are aiming for equality and trying to make sure that race isn’t used to oppress people, then we should be color blind in our policies. They argue that affirmative action is therefore not based on equality since it gives advantages to some while excluding others. People who use this to attack affirmative action are forgetting, or just ignoring, the fact that the problem of racism is already there and by following a doctrine of color blindness we just hide this mistake and assume that we are working on a level playing field.
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