Saturday, June 07, 2008

This is Conviction?

Today's Wall Street Journal features an op-ed by AEI resident scholar Michael Ledeen called Iran and the Problem of Evil. The op-ed contains one severe logical fallacy and one weird omission, each unfortunately representative of much of the current state of thought and argument on the right.

First, the logical fallacy. Ledeen lays out his premises thusly: (1), right up until World War II, the west was in denial about the obvious threat of fascism; (2) today, "The world is simmering in the familiar rhetoric and actions of movements and regimes – from Hezbollah and al Qaeda to the Iranian Khomeinists and the Saudi Wahhabis – who swear to destroy us and others like us" (and later he mentions Syria, Egypt, and "European and American mosques," as well); and (3) we are in denial about the nature of these movements and regimes as we were about the nature of the Nazis. Then finally, two thirds into the article, Ledeen arrives at his thesis statement:

This is not merely a philosophical issue, for to accept the threat to us means – short of a policy of national suicide – acting against it. As it did in the 20th century, it means war.

Even if one accepts Ledeen's premises, how does it logically follow that the only way to deal with the movements and regimes he mentions is by going to war with them? Does the United States really have no other policy tools at its disposal? National suicide or war and nothing else? Holy artificial either/or constructs, Batman!

I've written before about this kind of binary thinking -- once in the context of rightist thinking about "The Terrorists;" another time, in the context of rightist arguments for torture. But the notion that the only way of dealing with a country like Iran, with its basket-case economy and GDP about the size of Finland's, is to go to war with Iran as we once did against Germany, dramatically expands the size and opacity of the blinders the right insists on wearing when it ventures to look out at the world.

But the logical gap in Ledeen's argument is so vast that even he can't avoid it. Because -- and here is the weird omission -- he never actually comes out and says what he means. Here's his concluding paragraph:

Then, as now, the initiative lies with the enemies of the West. Even today, when we are engaged on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little apparent recognition that we are under attack by a familiar sort of enemy, and great reluctance to act accordingly. This time, ignorance cannot be claimed as an excuse. If we are defeated, it will be because of failure of will, not lack of understanding. As, indeed, was almost the case with our near-defeat in the 1940s.

Huh? Why argue that al Qaeda, Egypt, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and European and American mosques are like the Nazis, that as with the Nazis, we have to accept that the existence of these movements and regimes forces us to choose between suicide and war... and then shy away from what obviously, logically (if you can call it that) comes next: a call for a declaration of war?

I don't mean the question rhetorically. Is Ledeen afraid of being called a warmonger? Does he recognize what he's actually agitating for, and at the last moment shy away from it? Is he carried away by his rhetoric and blind to its actual implications?

I've said before that if you want to argue for torture, argue for it -- but don't hide from your own argument by using doublespeak like "aggressive interrogation" or "enhanced interrogation" or whatever. Call it what it is and explain why it's necessary. Similarly, if you think America needs to go to war with much of the Islamic world as we once went to war with the Nazis and fascists, have the clarity (and guts) to make your argument forthrightly. Otherwise, we're faced with the sad spectacle of a man who thinks he's issuing a courageous call but who in fact lacks the courage of his ostensible convictions.


Anonymous said...

Some people love to reference World War II and point out the dangers of appeasement, etc. There is also a lesson from World War I lesson--if the parties concerned prepare whole-heartedly for an "inevitable" conflict, using jingoistic rhetoric and policy--well, then, war would likely be...inevitable.

Natalie Hatch said...

Ah but Barry you've hit upon the crux haven't you? If we all start being completely honest in politics then who's going to run the country?
As an Australian we sit back and watch America go forward doing XYZ in the name of spreading democracy because it's "our democratic right to ensure the freedom of the world" type rhetoric that has been coming out of US pollies for a while. Whilst we agree that freedoms need to be maintained, in a lot of cases the call to war seems to be never ending from the US (not bagging you, just an outsiders observation). I keep thinking of why the Congo isn't as important in declaring freedom as Iraq was. Surely the genocide that has been carried out in recent times should be a number one priority if democracy is the big issue?
Call the war in Iraq what it is a fight over oil and be done with it.

Mark Terry said...

My guess the reason the U.S. has ignored Congo (and Rawanda, etc) has partly to do with racism and more likely to do with relative lack of interest what for want of a better term might be called "strategic interests." In other words, they're not loaded up with oil that we consume or whatever other natural resource du jour that might interest us. (The U.S. over a couple hundred years has had a lot of wars over things like trade and lumber and animal furs, at least peripherally; oil, from one perspective, is just another one).

Wish it weren't true, but it seems as if it is. I enjoy your Australian perspective.

Tom Carroll said...

It's sad, but the result of the U.S.'s so called "War on Terror" is that the world is a far more terrifying place than ever before ... and four more years of muddle-headed thinking under McCain makes it that much worse. I plan to check back for more of your views on the situation, Barry.

David Terrenoire said...

Caution - Name Dropping Ahead.

I once had a conversation about John Keegan's great history of WWI with diplomat Skip Gnehm (he's worth a quick Google). Skip summed up the lunacy that led to August 1914 by saying, "World War I was a failure of diplomacy."

It's relatively easy to go to war, nearly impossible to control the consequences after.

I listen to the right talk about quick, surgical strikes against Iran, as if that would be the end of it, and I shake my head.

This waving the bloody shirt, and justifying it through the lens of WWII, shows a simplistic (willful?) understanding of the politics of the late 30's and a lack of appeciation for any strategy short of the big stick.

Natalie Hatch said...

Being honest, I don't think Iran is your enemy, now I'm not deep into American politics, but from an outsiders viewpoint, if you attack Iran after attacking Iraq, you're really setting up a situation where all of Arabia might join together to get back at you. In a lot of areas America is seen as the invader, not the saviour that the government claims they are. This War on Terror really isn't a good place to be, at the moment your right winged politicians seem to be feeding you a black and white story, but there's a whole lot of grey out there that your news reports aren't showing. Why isn't there greater unbiased journalism? Where the public is informed of all the issues involved?
I was amazed to see a Fox news report that was just tabloid journalism.

Anonymous said...

Americans aren't "fed". You'll find that both sides claim this. The "liberal media" and/or "faux news". Some people believe that you should stop a genocide in both Iraq AND the Sudan. Not helping Rwanda makes us wrong, it doesn't mean we can't wipe out a dictator somewhere else. Others don't agree. They'r worried that we'll be seen as invaders after oil. And I'm sure the US wants the oil. Once you start believing people that don't agree with you are stupid and/or evil, you are a politician and nothing more.

Natalie Hatch said...

So then anonymous, how can you change the political arena in America to have the country educated as to what's really happening?
We have a similar problem here in Australia. We have a large number of politically astute people who are challenging the governments support of the War on Terror, but the majority is just wanting cheaper prices at the petrol bowser.

Anonymous said...

Whether you agree with Ledeen or not, gotta love his ouija board.

FishNoGeek said...

I'm late to the comment game on this one, but I couldn't agree more with your last paragraph. Call these things what they are, and let's have a reasonable debate about them.

I'd argue that we might have had rational reasons to invade Iraq: to attempt to establish a strategic and tactical foothold in an unfriendly region where instability and estranged relations have a direct and material effect on our economy.

That's not too reactionary, is it? Supposing we agree on the why (more or less), now we can debate the real meat: the how, the when, including non-military means and exit strategies.

But that's not the debate we got to have. Instead we got fear-mongered about WMDs and moralized with talk about making the world free for democracy.

CS Lewis, oft quoted by the right, nailed this one in The Four Loves (I'd paraphrase, but I think it's too good to shorten): "For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds – wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine – I become insufferable."

OK, I'll shut up now. But I, too, am saddened that we have 'stepped down' and become 'insufferable'.