Category Archives: Politicians

Logical fallacies straight from the horse’s mouth.

Straw Herring

It’s always right to point this sort of thing out. So Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post saves us valuable time:

>Straw Man Watch

>Here’s an astonishing exchange from the Rose Garden on Friday:

>”Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, former Secretary of State Colin Powell says the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. If a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State feels this way, don’t you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you’re following a flawed strategy?”

>Bush’s response was a straw-man argument.

>”THE PRESIDENT: If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic. I simply can’t accept that. It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.”

>It would have been worthwhile if someone at the news conference had followed up with something like this:

>”In your response to the question about Colin Powell’s statement that ‘the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism’ you made it sound like Powell was saying we were as bad as the terrorists, and you got very angry. But that’s not even remotely what Powell was saying. He’s simply saying that by pretty universal moral standards, your actions are questionable. Could you please respond to that critique, rather than to a made-up one?”

>No one did.

One might argue that this is not a straw man, but rather a red herring. The President has distracted–successfully I might add–the press corps with a completely different argument, one about the moral equivalence of the United States and the terrorists rather than “the moral basis”–our ius in bello–in the war against terrorism. Besides, he never actually claims that he has answered Powell’s objection. Straw man or not, however, Bush’s remarks are deceptive–and it’s a crying shame that no one of those gathered said anything.

Put on a bridle

Finally, a story about reasoning poorly and uncivilly is getting some momentum. Newsweek had this to say about Bush’s rhetorical strategy:

>Bush’s rhetorical strategy is twofold: first, issue a statement of fact about your own position; second, caricature your opponents to look foolish. First, the statement of fact: “We’re training Iraqi troops so they can defend their nation. We’re helping Iraq’s unity government grow in strength and serve its people. We will not leave until this work is done,” he explained.

>Second, the caricature: “Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone,” he said. “They will not leave us alone. They will follow us.”

>Are there any senior Democrats who have said that troops should leave Iraq in the hope that “terrorists would leave us alone?” The Democratic argument is that troops should leave Iraq either to encourage Iraqis to take control, or simply to avoid greater casualties in what looks like a low-grade civil war.

Only it’s more than 6 years too late. He has always done this. The people who support him do this. The press has said nothing until now. Shame.

Five years

Five years and no attacks. Yesterday Tim Russert asks Dick Cheney whether the 300 billion we’ve spent on Iraq might have been better spent on homeland security. Cheney responds:

>Well, Tim, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of securing the nation against terrorists. You know, we’re here on the fifth anniversary, and there has not been another attack on the United States. And that’s not an accident, because we’ve done a hell of a job here at home, in terms of homeland security, in terms of the terrorist surveillance program we’ve put in place, in terms of the financial tracking program we put in place, and because of our detainee policy, where we, in fact, were able to interrogate captured terrorists to get the kind of intelligence that has allowed us to disrupt…

Russert actually follows up on that question (imagine that). Cheney is quite specifically alleging a causal connection between the most controversial of the adminstration’s policies and the absence of terrorist attacks on our soil. It’s hardly clear, however, that any were planned or attempted. And we’ll likely not be in the near future in a position to know that for certain. But Cheney makes it fairly clear that he has no specific knowledge of authentic disrupted plots. If he did, he’d probably tell us. Because they’ve been telling us about disrupted plots (that didn’t turn out to be plots at all) for five years.

But there’s certainly evidence that al Qaeda has other plans. But more fundamentally, Cheney should be careful what he wishes for. If he wants to take credit for absence, then he better be ready to take responsibility if it happens again on his watch.


Speaking of Bush, here is a very recent interview with Brian Williams of NBC. Williams asks:

>WILLIAMS: When you take a tour of the world, a lot of Americans e-mail me with their fears that, some days they just wake up and it just feels like the end of the world is near. And you go from North Korea to Iran, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and you look at how things have changed, how Americans are viewed overseas, if that is important to you. Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought a wrong war? Or that there’s something wrong with the perception of America overseas?

>BUSH: Well those are two different questions, did we fight the wrong war, and absolutely — I have no doubt — the war came to our shores, remember that. We had a foreign policy that basically said, let’s hope calm works. And we were attacked.

He’s right about one thing–those are two separate questions. Score one for Bush.

>WILLIAMS: But those weren’t Iraqis.

>BUSH : They weren’t, no, I agree, they weren’t Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they’re a part of, Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists. Now in terms of image, of course I worry about American image. We are great at TV, and yet we are getting crushed on the PR front. I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, “al-Qaida, attack America.”

It has been repeated that Bush has denied the Saddam-9/11 link. He hasn’t. Every time he talks about it, he denies he said Saddam “ordered *that* attack.” That’s different, if you think about it, from denying he was involved at all, which is what some people think he is saying.

Then Williams allows Bush to insist that despite this, it’s all one war. Perhaps he could have asked him about Fascism. Maybe he should put some Mussolini on his summer reading list.

Il fascismo

Anyone who has ever been a lefty college freshman has probably uttered the word “fascist” more times than she can count. Everyone who insisted on any type of rule–like the Resident Assistant, the Floor Fascist–merited that appellation. But it turns out–as it has so often these days–that the college freshman has a better sense of “fascism” than does our current Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. In a recent speech, he says:

> I recount this history because once again we face the same kind of challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism.

>Today, another enemy — a different kind of enemy — has also made clear its intentions — in places like New York, Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, and Moscow. But it is apparent that many have still not learned history’s lessons.

As il Duce instructed us, fascism is defined by its insistence on totalitarian State power. In order to be a fascist state, in other words, you have to be a *state.* So the terrorists–who don’t have a state, as Rumsfeld said elsewhere in the speech (read the whole thing, it’s a gem)–aren’t fascists. While the totalitarian Resident Assistant may not be a fascist, he is at least in the right category. It’s one thing in political speeches to use words for pure rhetorical effect, but it’s another to pick words that only highlight the impropriety all of your historical analogies.

The terrorists aren’t fascists and it’s not 1938.

Ask Questions

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether our President is an idiot. We don’t think that matters because in general with think such questions are a distraction from the real questions. How distracting is it? Look at this:

> My theory dovetails with something one of his most acerbic critics, columnist Molly Ivins, once wrote: “George W. Bush sounds like English is his second language.” That’s because it’s true. “Washington English” is a second language for Bush; “Texas English” is his first.

That’s Kathleen Parker. The problem with the plain-spoken meme is that it just doesn’t square with an Andover/Yale/Harvard education. Nor does it resemble the way his brothers or his family speaks. But like I say, that’s a distraction from things such as this:

>There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily — are a different color than white can self-govern.

Are there now? Who are these people? Is it, perhaps, Pat Buchanan? Maybe it’s no one. And besides, he moved from “skin color” to the pleonastic “people who practice the Muslim faith.” Whatever questions this sort of argumentative nonsense raises about Bush, it ought to be pointed out by smart people in the media. In this case someone could have asked him a simple question: who sez?

Success is success

A while ago we linked to an Associated Press story that said Bush often uses straw man arguments to advance his views. Since Bush doesn’t read “the filter” he never got the memo. But we think it would be nice if Bush reasoned or spoke coherently enough to commit discernable fallacies. Take a look at the following exchange from yesterday’s press conference:

>Q Quick follow-up. A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn’t gone in. How do you square all of that?

>THE PRESIDENT: I square it because, imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would — who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

>Now, look, part of the reason we went into Iraq was — the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question — my answer to your question is, is that, imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

>You know, I’ve heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of “we’re going to stir up the hornet’s nest” theory. It just doesn’t hold water, as far as I’m concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

Idiot or not, this is laughably incoherent–especially the last remark. First he makes the “some say” move–“you’ve heard the theory.” But he doesn’t even bother to knock it down. Rather, he turns to his favorite subject–September 11. 9/11 happened even without the inspiration we have provided them in Iraq. That’s true, but it has nothing to do with the question asked. Neither does the hornet’s nest theory (which was, in a sense, Cheney’s theory during the Gulf War I). But nobody had really argued that anyway.

But the question asker–the one with the seersucker suit–kept at it (direclty following):

>Q What did Iraq have to do with that?

>THE PRESIDENT: What did Iraq have to do with what?

>Q The attack on the World Trade Center?

>THE PRESIDENT: Nothing, except for it’s part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq. I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill to achieve an objective. I have made that case.

>And one way to defeat that — defeat resentment is with hope. And the best way to do hope is through a form of government. Now, I said going into Iraq that we’ve got to take these threats seriously before they fully materialize. I saw a threat. I fully believe it was the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein, and I fully believe the world is better off without him. Now, the question is how do we succeed in Iraq? And you don’t succeed by leaving before the mission is complete, like some in this political process are suggesting.

Sadly, there is much the logic professor could comment on. But again take a look at the last remark. Bush repeats something of the one-percent doctrine (see below). But he seems to have forgotten there was no threat to us from Iraq (and that Iraq has made the world less safe). We’ll leave to one side the “better off without Saddam” remark and its implicit false dichotomy.

The last remark, “you don’t succeed before the mission is complete” is questionbeggingly tautologous. Completing the mission defines success in Iraq for Bush, but the question is whether success can be achieved in this way, not, as Bush seems to think, whether success is success.

New Rights

A new law makes it a federal crime to cross state lines to avoid abortion parental consent laws. In describing the motivation of his support of the bill, Mitch McConnell, republican senator from Kentucky, said:

>”No parent wants anyone to take their children across state lines or even across the street without their permission,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, a Republican of Kentucky, said. “*This is a fundamental right*, and the Congress is right to uphold it in law.”

As I read the Constitution of the United States of America, it doesn’t say anything about parental rights, or parents, or even children. So, I wonder such a fan of “strict constructionists” justifiies this strange new *fundamental* right. Is it perhaps penumbral? Is it somehow emboddied in the other explicitly enumerated rights of the Constitution?

Straw Men

Not to be bloggy–posting links rather than content that is–but I was flabbergasted to read that Bush has been using straw man arguments in his speeches. While I congratulate the Associated Press on the discovery, I’m a little perplexed and slightly depressed that only now, in the sixth year of his Presidency, has it occured to the AP to run such a story. Here’s an excerpt:

>’Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day,” President Bush said recently.

>Another time he said, ”Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free.”

>”There are some really decent people,” the president said earlier this year, ”who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care … for all people.”

>Of course, hardly anyone in mainstream political debate has made such assertions.

Indeed. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should follow examine the archives of this site. The essence of George Will’s engagement with “the opposition”–to name one particularly egregious example–is the straw man (bleeding heart, motivated by the argument from pity, clueless) liberal. As he, the most distinguished looking member of the right-leaning punditocracy knows, when the quantifier “some” won’t do, just distort what they say.

Missing the point

The Duelfer report states conclusively that two of the primary rationales for going to war in Iraq were seriously wrong. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and he had no ties to al Qaeda. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped David Brooks and George Bush from claiming that the report somehow justifies the war in Iraq. What is interesting is that each of them offers the same round-peg-square-hole kind of argument. To be more precise, each of them commits the fallacy of *ignoratio elenchi*, which is Latin for “missing the point,” in such a textbook way that it’s worth looking at their arguments together.

In short, the fallacy of missing the point occurs most often in cases of drawing extreme conclusions when the evidence would more properly suggest a more moderate conclusion.

First, let’s look at David Brooks. After a reciting litany of reasons the sanctions regime was not only faltering but that it had also strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power, Brooks concludes:

But we know where things were headed. Sanctions would have been lifted. Saddam, rich, triumphant and unbalanced, would have reconstituted his W.M.D. Perhaps he would have joined a nuclear arms race with Iran. Perhaps he would have left it all to his pathological heir Qusay.

We can argue about what would have been the best way to depose Saddam, but this report makes it crystal clear that this insatiable tyrant needed to be deposed. He was the menace, and, as the world dithered, he was winning his struggle. He was on the verge of greatness. We would all now be living in his nightmare.

Note that from the uncertainty of the “perhaps” of the first paragraph here cited Brooks derives the certainty of Saddam’s return to greatness, his need to be deposed, and that we would *now* be living in his nightmare. Never mind the practical impossibilities of Saddam reconstituting anything with an inspections regime that had not only been effective, but that was still in place at the start of the war. The real problem with Brooks’ argument is that when the evidence suggests corruption in the U.N. oil for food program, and Saddam’s uncanny ability to play it to his advantage (none of which actually produced weapons of mass destruction or ties with al Qaeda), Brooks concludes that the whole thing was a failure and needed to be scrapped. Considering the aims and successes of the sanctions and inspections, one would more reasonably conclude that the system only needed to be fixed. So the evidence does not suggest anything like the extreme measure of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and occupying Iraq.

So much for Brooks. We have another version of this same fallacy from last Friday’s Presidential debate. When asked whether despite the absence of WMDs the invasion of Iraq was still justified, Bush had this to say:

And I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein – as did my opponent – because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. And the unique threat was that he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like Al Qaeda, and the harm they inflicted on us with airplanes would be multiplied greatly by weapons of mass destruction. And that was a serious, serious threat. So I tried diplomacy, went to the United Nations. But as we learned in the same report I quoted, Saddam Hussein was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions. He was trying to get rid of sanctions for a reason. He wanted to restart his weapons programs.

The attempt to get rid of sanctions, “game” the oil-for-food program, and the intent to get weapons of mass destruction do not constitute an actual imminent threat. At worst, they show the various U.N. programs to have been successful. At most, they might justify a revision, but not a wholesale rejection, of them. Furthermore, granting the increase in the perceived threat of the Hussein regime after 9/11, this rejection was not an actual live option. To suggest that letting Hussein go free and unhindered is to compound the fallacy of missing the point with a false dilemma: there were many other options between ineffective sanctions and war.