Category Archives: Politicians

Logical fallacies straight from the horse’s mouth.

There ought to be a law

Two former Justice Department officials complain about Europe’s–in particular Italy’s–use of the courts to undermine some aspects of the war on terror, such as the practice of extraordinary rendition:

>The Italian case involves a 2003 CIA mission to apprehend an Egyptian cleric named Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr. Suspected of terrorist ties, Nasr was seized in Milan and transported to Egypt, where he claims he was tortured. This was, of course, an “extraordinary rendition” — a long-standing and legal practice that generally involves the cooperation of two or more governments in the capture and transportation of a criminal suspect outside of normal extradition proceedings. It was through such a rendition that the terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” was delivered for trial to France from Sudan in 1994.

Of course the question is whether the Italian government had given their consent. According to their prosecutor, they had not:

>Yet the United States must still vigorously resist the prosecution of its indicted agents. If they acted with the knowledge and consent of the Italian government (as The Post’s Dana Priest reported in 2005), they are immune from criminal prosecution in that country. Although foreign nationals traveling abroad are ordinarily subject to local judicial authority, international law has long recognized an exception for government agents entering another country with its government’s permission.

“If” is the key word. The Italian prosecutor so far seems not to share that view. For the sake of the people ordered to rendition Nasr, let’s hope he’s wrong. This seems like it would be then a straightforward factual question. But the authors quickly shift gears:

>Unfortunately, the effort to prosecute these American agents is only one instance of a growing problem.

The growing problem of breaking the laws of allied nations? Not quite.

>Efforts to use domestic and international legal systems to intimidate U.S. officials are proliferating, especially in Europe. Cases are pending in Germany against other CIA agents and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld — all because of controversial aspects of the war on terrorism.

One man’s “controversial” is another’s “illegal.” What would the solution be, one might wonder, to this problem:

>Accordingly, Congress should make it a crime to initiate or maintain a prosecution against American officials if the proceeding itself otherwise violates accepted international legal norms.

This all seems to miss the point of the argument. Perhaps the conclusion ought to be that US officials should not prosecute the war on terror in a way that violates accepted international legal norms.

Fight Ire with Fire

John Boehner–yes, that one–argues:

>The battle in Iraq is about more than what happens there. This is one part of a larger fight–a global fight–against radical Islamic terrorists who have waged war on the United States and our allies.

>This is not a question of fighting for land, for treasure, or for glory–we are fighting to rid the world of a radical and dangerous ideology. We are fighting to defend all that is sacred to our way of life. We are fighting to build a safer and more secure America–one where families can raise their children without the fear of terrorist attacks.

Right after 9/11 some smart guy–no doubt branded a coward and a traitor–pointed out that the very idea of declaring war on terrorism was mistaken. Terrorism is a method. Beyond that, however, he also argued that declaring war on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda only gave them the kind of global significance he had been aiming for.

In a similar vein, waging war (real war, with troops and such) on an ideology only repeats the same basic category mistake. However justified we might have been in attacking people who disagreed with us, attacking them with guns and ammo in order to defeat their ideology makes about as much sense as trampling someone’s feelings underfoot.

I suppose maybe, however, the ideas part of Boehner’s strategy consists in our steely resolve in persisting with our strategy. That’s kind of an idea. But that would only confuse how determined we are to hold our idea, not the cogency of our idea. After all, don’t we constantly complain that the terrorists hold their idea with steely resolve?

The media is the message

This has been mentioned elsewhere, but I’m going to repeat it here because it boggles the mind and the fellow who wrote it represents my home state:

>Thanks to the liberal mainstream media, Americans fully understand the consequences of continuing our efforts in Iraq — both in American lives and dollars. The American people do not understand the consequences of abandoning that effort or the extreme views, goals, and intentions of the radical Islamist movement that is fueling the war in Iraq and the attacks on westerners and unbelievers throughout the world.

Read the rest here (they conflate the war in Iraq with the war against radical Islam). The strangest thing about this passage however is how sloppily they make the causal claim. They should remember that the liberal media misinforms people, not the other way around. Unless they really mean that it’s good that people are informed. If this is the case, then they ought to put a “but” at the beginning of the next sentence.

The future

Here’s a good one from the President:

>Bush consulted with Gates and Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who will head U.S. forces in Iraq, at an early-morning meeting at the White House. Speaking with reporters afterward, the president complained that lawmakers “are condemning a plan before it’s even had a chance to work. And they have an obligation and a serious responsibility, therefore, to put up their own plan as to what would work.”

Aside from the fact that it’s false to claim that alternative plans have not been offered, criticizing the plan before “it’s had a chance to work” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of planning for future contingencies. In the first place, the claim, as I understand it, is that the plan has already been tried a few times over, and so hasn’t worked. In the absence of any significant change, the plan is unlikely to work this time. Even if that were false, it still doesn’t make any sense to criticize criticism of future plans because they haven’t had a chance. The point of the criticism is that the plan won’t work in the future, so don’t do it. Jeez.

The new literalism

And you thought the old literalism was bad (courtesy of Crooks and Liars):

>Specter: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. The Constitution says you can’t take it [habeas corpus] away except in the case of invasion or rebellion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus?

>Gonzales: I meant by that comment that the Constitution doesn’t say that every individual in the United States or every citizen has or is assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn’t say that. It simply says that the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended.

On that reading of the Constitution, they’re are no rights that are not positively expressed: You might have thought you had a right to free speech, for instance:

>Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

But on Gonzales’s interpretation, you don’t have a right to these things. Congress just can’t “abridge” them.

Cut a few

Courtesy of Thinkprogress, Bush has diagnosed the problem:

>In other words, we just didn’t talk about philosophy — there’s too many philosophers in Washington — we acted. We got the job done. We cut the taxes on everybody who pays income taxes. We doubled the child tax credit. We reduced the marriage penalty. We cut taxes on small businesses. We cut taxes on capital gains and dividends to promote investment and jobs. And to reward family businesses and farmers for a lifetime of hard work and savings, we put the death tax on the road to extinction. (Applause.)

If he thinks it’s bad now, he should just wait for the December meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

Do you feel lucky?

Courtesy of Scott Horton, we have the following gem from our Dear Leader:

>I’ve met too many wives and husbands who’ve lost their partner in life, too many children who’ll never see their mom or dad again. I owe it to them and to the families who still have loved ones in harm’s way, to ensure that their sacrifices are not in vain

See the video here. Scott calls this the “Sunk Costs Fallacy” and he refers to the Skeptics Dictionary’s explanation:

>When one makes a hopeless investment, one sometimes reasons: I can’t stop now, otherwise what I’ve invested so far will be lost. This is true, of course, but irrelevant to whether one should continue to invest in the project. Everything one has invested is lost regardless. If there is no hope for success in the future from the investment, then the fact that one has already lost a bundle should lead one to the conclusion that the rational thing to do is to withdraw from the project.

>To continue to invest in a hopeless project is irrational. Such behavior may be a pathetic attempt to delay having to face the consequences of one’s poor judgment. The irrationality is a way to save face, to appear to be knowledgeable, when in fact one is acting like an idiot.”

This is really an interesting variety of non-sequitur in that it seems very much like the gambler’s fallacy–If I only keep rolling I’ll come out even! But, unlike the gambler’s fallacy, it doesn’t allege a specious causal connection between past and future gambling events. As a result, we will add this oft-heard non-sequitur to our categories list. The only question is where to put it.

Shorts: Shifting the Burden of Argument and Ad Hominem

Blitzer: Well you don’t have any evidence though, right?

Rep. McHenry: Well look at the fact points…four weeks out from a national election…

Blitzer: Yes or no: do you have any evidence? Do you have any evidence Congressman?

Rep. McHenry: Do you have any evidence that says they weren’t involved?

Blitzer: I’m just asking if you’re just throwing out an accusation or if you have any hard evidence.

Rep. McHenry: No, it’s a question Wolf. The question remains, were they involved? And if they were not involved they need to say clearly, and it’s a question, it’s not an accusation.

Blitzer: Well, they are denying that they had anything to do with this. source

Sort of like an Appeal to Ignorance. Maybe better described as an illegitimate shift of the burden of argument.

I know the speaker didn’t go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day,” said Shays, R-4th District, referring to the 1969 incident in which the Massachusetts Democrat drove a car that plunged into the water and a young campaign worker died.

Dennis Hastert didn’t kill anybody,” he added. source

Nice little ad hominem. Maybe even a form of the tu quoque?

Do it yourself

Let’s see if anyone can identify this one from our Dear Leader:

>The stakes in this election couldn’t be more clear. If you don’t think we should be listening in on the terrorist, then you ought to vote for the Democrats. If you want your government to continue listening in when al Qaeda planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican. (Applause.)

If you find any in the rest of the speech, let us know as well.


The idea that Bush fights battles with imaginary foes–straw men or red herring–does not strike us as so novel. We’ve documented this tendency among the argumentative press for a while now. Only now is it getting any traction. It’s certainly reassuring that some in the media give a rats about such things. But it’s not so reassuring when they completely bungle in it the name of balance.

An example of the first (reassuring) thing is Dan Froomkin (go read the entire White House Briefing–it’s worth it):

>Rather than acknowledge and attempt to rebut the many concerns about his policies, Bush makes up inane arguments and then ridicules them.

And Froomkin gives abundant examples.

Over at the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg approaches the same topic, but finds something bad to say about Democrats:

>The White House is hardly alone in its pointed use of language against political opponents.

The Bush variety (again–look at the examples) of straw man or red herring amounts to much more than the pointed use of language. It’s the wholesale invention of an opponent. Do they Democrats do that? If they do, Rutenberg doesn’t say so.