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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Fallacies of Argument @stratfor

If it is true that one should ignore, or at least sharply discount, the views of those who supported the war in Iraq but are now dissatisfied with the proposed Iran nuclear agreement, what do we do with those people, of whom I am one, who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq but also support the Iran nuclear agreement?

Fallacies of Argument

By Philip Bobbitt

In these columns, I will offer general observations on the relationships between strategy, history and law with an eye to showing how we might strengthen our geostrategic analyses. Occasionally I will introduce an exemplary case. But I am not so much interested in trying to convert my readers to my prescriptions as I am anxious to offer ideas and approaches that I think are helpful in thinking about contemporary issues. A grasp of unfamiliar ideas such as "Parmenides' Fallacy," the "triage of terror," an "epochal war" — or even the familiar notion of "loss aversion" in the unfamiliar context of grand strategy — can be useful in framing a debate and assessing its merits even when the debaters share little in the way of partisan preferences.

Nevertheless, I sometimes come across a point of view that goads me into abandoning my customary forbearance. One such case is the outrage one often encounters that decries the allegedly lenient treatment given senior officials who are accused of leaking classified information when whistleblowers — as they describe themselves — like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Jeffrey Sterling are prosecuted or threatened with prosecution, should they enter U.S. jurisdiction. This complaint, usually served with a garnish of resentment that establishment figures are being favored over "the little guy" (a description one can scarcely imagine Assange, Snowden or Sterling applying to himself), will doubtless make a new appearance in the aftermath of the investigations into former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's handling of her emails. I am here giving warning that when it does, I may well write about the persistent attention to what seems to me to be a non-issue (Clinton's email habits) as contrasted with the lack of moral concern about paying or otherwise rewarding persons for the theft and exposure of national secrets.

But this time some other absurdity has inflamed me. In my defense, I note that it is part of a much larger pattern of substituting the characterization of a person — or her role — for argument. One sees it all the time. Suppose a scientist submits experimental evidence that can be used to discredit a proposed regulation — let's say e-cigarettes don't lead to the adoption of tobacco addiction and in fact are a potent method of breaking such dependence. And then suppose it is revealed that the scientist's work has been funded by a corporation that sells e-cigarettes. One can easily imagine the mockery of the experimental results on the grounds that they simply must be contaminated by the experiment's source of funding. Or imagine a lawyer who submits testimony tending to persuade Congress that a trade agreement is likely to spur employment growth in the United States rather than cause a net loss of jobs. It's not hard to guess the reaction when it is revealed that the lawyer is a lobbyist for the International Chamber of Commerce. We all know that these revelations aren't really arguments. But we can't seem to help feeling that a position is tainted if it is revealed to be associated in some way with an interested party.

The Guise of Accountability

The example that set me off is an extreme version of this logical fallacy, sometimes called the argumentum ad hominem circumstantial. It occurred in an essay on the proposed Iranian nuclear agreement that begins, "Without commenting on the ins and outs of the arcana of the Iran nuclear deal, it may be instructive to examine the issue of accountability that surrounds it." The essay then proceeded to quote U.S. President Barack Obama's observation in his American University address last week that "many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran deal." There are two points being made here, and both are insidious.

One is that it is necessary to hold our leaders "accountable" for their alleged mistakes by ignoring their arguments in a current debate in favor of reminding them, and us, of the errors they have made in the past. This is not an argument about the merits — the "arcana" — of a proposed treaty or statute but rather an effort to dispense with such hard work in favor of embarrassing the people with whom one disagrees. Its claim of retribution or payback — "accountability" — for past actions is in fact merely a forensic weapon in a present debate.

The second point is a simple logical one. If it is true that one should ignore, or at least sharply discount, the views of those who supported the war in Iraq but are now dissatisfied with the proposed Iran nuclear agreement, what do we do with those people, of whom I am one, who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq but also support the Iran nuclear agreement? This group includes the vice president, the current secretary of state and his predecessor, who is also the likely Democratic nominee for president, among others. Are we to hold them accountable by depriving ourselves of their assessments, too? What sort of accountability is that? Suppose that more congressmen who support the Iran agreement also supported the Iraq invasion than the number who support the agreement but did not support the invasion; should this really militate against the agreement on "accountability" grounds? Because those numbers are exactly what the White House is hoping for if it is to have a chance of sustaining the president's veto.

Finally, this lurid smokescreen obscures (if it does not reflect a total obliviousness of) the most fundamental issue that unites the decision for regime change in Iraq and the decision to seek an accommodation with Iran: the denuclearization of the region. It is inconceivable that Iran would ever have agreed even to discuss the sidelining of its nuclear ambitions if Saddam Hussein were still in power in Baghdad. And it is similarly impossible to envision a day when the region is confident enough of the non-nuclear ambitions of Iraq and Iran that Israel — with the right set of guarantees, sophisticated weapons and other assurances — would be able to bring about that policy which its beleaguered populace, when polled regularly, endorses: the standing down of its nuclear force.

Perhaps I may be forgiven this foray into a contemporary dispute if I offer up one of my favorite moments from the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, though resolutely fixed on the most fundamental philosophical problems, lost his temper with his good friend Norman Malcolm over a discussion about the notion of "national character." Six years after the disagreement, Wittgenstein wrote Malcolm:

"I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any ... journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends. You see, I know that it's difficult to think well about 'certainty,' 'probability,' perception,' etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life and other people's lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it's nasty then it's most important."  
"Fallacies of Argument is republished with permission of Stratfor."

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