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June 06, 2006

Selected Quotes Do Not A Reasoned Argument Make

No wonder the Right and Left can’t talk about the war on terror reasonably.

In the HuffPo, Peter Daou makes a bizarre case: in his opinion, “radical rightwing bloggers” are “coming unhinged” about the recent accusations of atrocities in Iraq. Daou’s brief post manages to pile on every incomprehensibly overwrought tactic used to debate the war by those on the far Right and far Left.

To borrow the lexicon of the Left, Mr. Daou makes no attempt to avoid the very practice he criticizes: demonizing the intellectual "Other", who must at this point be feeling distinctly marginalized. Anyone who holds an opposing viewpoint, by definition, possesses horns, a forked tail, and cloven hooves; only the worst possible motives are imputed to them. And heaven forbid either side should admit there just might be a logical and morally defensible basis for disagreement with their comfy world view:

Both of these men are part of a lemming-like march of rightwingers who, in response to Haditha, have discarded any last shred of reason and are flailing wildly not just in the direction of liberals and other assorted "America-haters", but in the case of Steyn, at other hawks: "If you're one of the ever swelling numbers of molting hawks among the media, the political class and the American people for whom Haditha is the final straw, that's not a sign of your belated moral integrity but of your fundamental unseriousness."

Speaking of fundamental unseriousness, there are seriously fundamental flaws at the core of Steyn's argument. He writes: "Anyone who supports the launching of a war should be clear-sighted enough to know that, when the troops go in, a few of them will kill civilians, bomb schools, torture prisoners. It happens in every war in human history, even the good ones.... It might be a bombed mosque or a gunned-down pregnant woman or a slaughtered wedding party, but it will certainly be something. And, in the scales of history, it makes no difference to the justice of the cause and the need for victory." Setting aside the stunning callousness of Steyn's remarks, he hints at the problem without realizing it: Iraq is not a "good" war. And even those who supported the invasion are entitled to a change of heart as it spirals out of control.

But far from hinting that Iraq was unjustified, Steyn in fact believes Iraq is a good war. His whole argument rests on the premise that the Iraq invasion was justified and the commission of incidental crimes, though deeply troubling, does not wipe out that larger moral justification. It is hardly the act of someone who has "discarded any last shred of reason" to question the commitment of those who counsel retreat from a just war simply because incidental crimes have been committed. Is it not, by definition, fundamentally unserious to abandon a cause you once believed right, because it has been imperfectly executed? To quote an extreme example, would you stop trying to save a drowning child because it was taking too long, or her rescuers were not performing up to snuff?

Daou, however, feels justified in airily dismissing Steyn's position, because he assumes as fact that the war is unjust, a position he can hardly ascribe to Steyn's molting hawks. In Daou's circular reasoning, Steyn's critique of an argument he finds meritless and illogical (and which, by the way, Daou never bothers to refute), proves the Left's case! But of course, mes amis! The war, c'est unjuste! The thing speaks for itself! Displaying more flexibility than even the most ardent devotee of the Kama Sutra, Daou avoids addressing, much less countering, the logic of the Steyn quote he excerpts:

1. In all wars, crimes are committed.
2. If crimes are committed in all wars and some wars are just wars, then the fact that a crime has been committed does not, per se, make a war unjust.

In so doing, he ignores one of more ridiculous arguments made by some on the Left:

The very fact that Haditha occurred proves Iraq is an unjust war.

and the righty-refutation of that argument:

Well then so were the American Civil War, and the Revolution, and WWII, because atrocities were committed in all those wars too.

Daou continues:

My beef with Steyn and the many rightwing bloggers who are using Haditha as a tool to bash the left is that they are indulging in selective moral outrage. Their fury at Saddam knows no bounds, but they are strangely silent about other brutal dictators and human rights offenders. They decry every beheading in Iraq as a crime against the human race but can glibly write, "For three years, coalition forces in Iraq behaved so well that a salivating Vietnam culture had to make do with the thinnest of pickings: one depraved jailhouse, a prisoner on a dog leash with a pair of Victoria's Secret panties on his head and an unusually positioned banana." When Steyn suggests that a "gunned-down pregnant woman or a slaughtered wedding party ... makes no difference to the justice of the cause," he is displaying precisely the ethical bankruptcy that the war's opponents are fighting against.

Again, Daou disingenuously equates crimes committed in defiance of our laws, which have never been official tools of state policy with the systematic brutilization practiced by men like Saddam Hussein over three decades, implying that anyone who doesn't see the difference is as ethically bankrupt as those we're fighting against.


That's a bit of a stretch. How can crimes Daou himself, later in his post, characterizes as “grotesque deviations from the norm” (in other words, exceptions to the general rule) be just as bad as those committed intentionally on a daily basis? The answer is, they can't really. Saddam actually had named positions on his staff for torturers and men who raped and defiled the wives and daughters of political dissidents, but neither the Army nor the Marines have yet felt the need to create a special MOS for torturers or rapists.

Even the most partisan of commentators ought to be able to see some difference between a nation which punishes such crimes and one that rewards them with a dedicated job title and a paycheck. Talk about selective moral outrages: the core complaint of the right is that the Left (or at least Mr. Daou) is so busy screaming about the mote in his brother’s argument that he misses the beam in his own.

Nor is it honest to ignore that fact that most right-wing commentators have acknowledged that, if proved true, these charges are grave and merit swift and appropriate punishment. Some on the right have called for the accused Marines to be hanged – a fact Daou somehow missed in his selective sampling of the right side of the blogosphere. But then, like selective outrage, selective sampling doth not a defensible argument make. His next argument is equally disingenuous:

Last November I wrote about the straw men of Iraq: "Somber references to mass graves, Saddam gassing his people, liberating the Iraqis from a dictator, spreading freedom, etc., are second only to flag-waving and bumper-sticker "support" for the troops when it comes to feel-good justifications for the fiasco in Iraq. To human rights activists, this faux-bleeding heart conservatism rings hollow. Considering the unremitting suffering and killing and violence and abuse of innocents that takes place on this planet, it is intellectually dishonest to resort to a retroactive humanitarian rationalization for a war that was ostensibly defensive in nature. Especially when we callously ignore the plight of so many others who suffer in silence."

Yet for some strange reason, these same “human rights activists” don’t believe that humanitarian concerns were “enough” for us to intervene in Iraq. Why is that? Why should the US intervene in Darfur, but not in Iraq? The carnage went on for three decades in Iraq, twelve years of which were under UN "supervision". And Daou misstates the conservative argument, which was never

“We should intervene in Iraq solely because people are suffering”

but rather:

“People are suffering all over the world, but the US doesn’t have the resources to intervene every single time. However, in Iraq our national self-interest coincides with humanitarian concerns: we can do ourselves a favor by establishing democracy in Iraq and deposing Saddam, and we’ll be helping the Iraqis too.”

And calling the humanitarian argument “retroactive” neatly ignores the three rationales laid out in the President’s State of the Union address. This persistent and dishonest meme – along with the “imminent threat” meme – can only be swallowed whole by those who willfully and deliberately either ignore or distort the historical record.

Daou does say one thing I agree with:

In their rush to ascribe malicious motives to anyone who draws attention to the horrors in Iraq, these people ignore the obvious, i.e. that the greater the aberration, the more newsworthy, not the less.
Unfortunately, he ignores the large number of righty commentators who have expressed the strongest possible disgust for what happened at Haditha, as well as those who have demanded that the accused be held to a higher standard if they are found guilty. He also neatly ignores any number of lefty sites who have condemned the Marines in advance of a trial, rather putting the lie to this assertion:
In other words, it's because the war's critics have faith in the character of our troops and our nation that they are so deeply troubled by such grotesque deviations from the norm. It is the war's critics, not its blind supporters, who assume the best about our military and who harp on stories like Haditha because it is contrary to everything they believe about America.
Doesn't "assuming the best about our military" include granting them the same presumption of innocence until proven guilty that you would grant a civilian? If you truly "have faith in the military" and believe atrocities are “grotesque deviations from the norm”, would it not be more intellectually consistent to reserve your condemnation until all the facts are in? How is it that people who truly believe this is uncharacteristic behavior are so willing to find the accused Marines guilty before the trial?

That is a question for which Mr. Daou appears to have no answer, preferring instead to excoriate the Right for not wanting to string up the accused Marines on the nearest oak tree. But then his entire post is an exercise in doing precisely what he condemns on the right: rushing to judgment based on knee-jerk political partisanship, assigning malicious motives to his opponents, and a complete disrespect for (and lack of desire to understand) what the other side really thinks.

Not everyone on the Left is guilty of the same tactics, nor are all who speak for the Right. And such selective mis-quoting of what he views as “lemming-like … rightwingers who, in response to Haditha, have discarded any last shred of reason” betrays no honest desire to come to grips with the complex and deeply disturbing questions about this war, but only a vast contempt for anyone who dares to disagree with the “correct” view -- his own.

As I said, no wonder it’s so hard to discuss the war reasonably.

UPDATE: Peter was kind enough to respond in the comments section below. I am going to revisit my post in light of his comments, item 4 (I think...) in particular, after work but I can't do it now. At any rate, check out his objections to my post since he was good enough to clarify a few areas where he thinks I got it wrong.

Posted by Cassandra at June 6, 2006 08:58 AM

Comments

We will never convince anyone of the rightness of America's 'cause' if they dislike all things American. They are by nature unreasonable because they have taught themselves, or been taught, to question authority. They have no appreciation for laws because laws restrict their ability to do what they want free of responsibility.

They sing and sway to the song "We are the world" because it feels good. Apparently the "We" in We Are The World are only those people who think like them, i.e. rich and spoiled. Most of the world goes to bed hungry and scared and would give their eye teeth to come to the very land unreasonable Americans detest.

I suggest these people go and visit the folks who live under the platform at the New Delhi train station. It will make your soy latte taste a little better!

Posted by: vet66 at June 6, 2006 12:48 PM

Cassandra - thanks for taking the time to write this rebuttal. I'm sorry to say that you base your arguments on a sloppy reading of my piece. I don't have time today for a detailed response, but here are a couple of points:

1. Where did you get this: "Anyone who holds an opposing viewpoint, by definition, possesses horns, a forked tail, and cloven hooves; only the worst possible motives are imputed to them."

2. I wrote , "Setting aside the stunning callousness of Steyn's remarks, he hints at the problem without realizing it: Iraq is not a "good" war." Note: "without realizing it."

3. You ask: "Is it not, by definition, fundamentally unserious to abandon a cause you once believed right, because it has been imperfectly executed?" If the "imperfect execution" has undermined the original moral justification (and I'm not just talking about Haditha) then no, it's not unserious to have a change of heart.

4. You say, "Daou disingenuously equates crimes committed in defiance of our laws, which have never been official tools of state policy with the systematic brutilization practiced by men like Saddam Hussein over three decades." That is a profound misreading of my argument. Read my words again: "Their fury at Saddam knows no bounds, but they are strangely silent about other brutal dictators and human rights offenders." Note: "other brutal dictators and human rights offenders" and see where the hyperlinks take you.

5. You say, "Nor is it honest to ignore that fact that most right-wing commentators have acknowledged that, if proved true, these charges are grave and merit swift and appropriate punishment." And most of them have condemned the left and the media for focusing attention on the story.

6. You write, "calling the humanitarian argument “retroactive” neatly ignores the three rationales laid out in the President’s State of the Union address." Are you seriously claiming that we invaded Iraq for humanitarian purposes and not because it was a major threat to our security? And if you are claiming that, would you also claim that all the various rationales received equal weighting?

7. You say, "Not everyone on the Left is guilty of the same tactics, nor are all who speak for the Right. And such selective mis-quoting of what he views as “lemming-like … rightwingers who, in response to Haditha, have discarded any last shred of reason” betrays no honest desire to come to grips with the complex and deeply disturbing questions about this war, but only a vast contempt for anyone who dares to disagree with the “correct” view -- his own." I don't recall saying "everbody on the right" is guilty of these tactics. A "lemming-like march of rightwingers" does not imply ALL rightwingers are marching. It could be twenty or fifty or a thousand. And as far as my honest desire (or lack thereof) to come to grips with it, I'd say that after spending a decade in Beirut taking up arms against the Syrians and assorted Muslim fanatics, I've done my share of soul-searching about war and the hell it creates for innocent victims. I'm just sick and tired of hearing convoluted reasons for why I hate America when I try to uphold its highest ethical standards.

Posted by: Peter Daou at June 6, 2006 02:20 PM

Peter:

If I have mischaracterized or misunderstood your argument, I'm happy to revisit my post. Having your input is helpful in that regard.

I have to say that having read your "I'm just sick and tired of hearing convoluted reasons for why I hate America when I try to uphold its highest ethical standards", I have to laugh a bit :) We on the right are equally sick of being told we don't care when our military is accused of atrocities, or that we're callous, or that we're chicken because we don't personally sign up to go to war (I'm a 47 year old female with asthma - besides the fact that my husband is already active duty, it's hard to see the Corps taking me on :) And besides, you can hold an opinion on law enforcement without becoming a cop. I didn't see you make this argument, but you have to admit it's the first thing that gets thrown at supporters of the war, and it's a red herring.

A few quick observations:

1. This was simple snark and if it offended you, I'm sorry. But it was provoked by your use of 'radical right-wingers' and 'lemming-like' (which is insulting and implies blind following rather than conscious thought), among other examples. And you do impute bad motives to those you quote. You come right out and say they are "stunningly callous" (how can you know how Steyn feels? Acknowledging that innocent people have died in every war doesn't imply acceptance, approval, or indifference to their fate. It merely states a fact. It is a value judgment that a few innocent deaths do not outweigh the freeing of an entire nation, and again though you may disagree with it, it is hardly callous or morally bankrupt to weigh an improvement in the lot of an entire nation over the unfortunate deaths of some, especially when innocents died every day under Saddam).

And later, saying someone is displaying ethical bankruptcy when all they did was advance an argument you did not refute is also rather strong language.

2. I can't see a single thing in the excerpt you quoted from Steyn that "hints" at anything like Iraq not being a good war, whether you think he does this intentionally or unintentionally. It sounds as though you're projecting your personal belief onto someone who holds a diametrically opposing viewpoint, simply because you disagree with him. And that doesn't seem justified to me.

3. I would argue that if you truly think a cause is just, imperfect execution cannot undermine the justness of the cause. It can only make you decide to give up because it's not "worth it" (which implies cost analysis outweighing a moral principle)... in which case some people would argue you were never particularly committed to the cause at all, n'est pas?

The thing of it is, the lower your level of support, the lower the bar has to be for you to give up. We can argue where that tipping point lies, but people on the other side are always going to see those who give up as people who never really believed in the first place. And I think there is some justification to that viewpoint.

4. I'll have to re-read and think about this one - if I'm wrong, I'll admit it. That is how I read that section initially - I may have put a more generalized Lefty argument on you, and if I did that inappropriately, I'll take it back.

5. Again, you and I are going to differ on this. "Most of them"? What we object to is not that Haditha is being covered. It's the WAY in which it's being covered - the assumption of guilt, for instance. The fact that the word of a village that didn't even bother to bring up the "massacre" at the next village meeting, yet complained about a far more trivial offense is accepted without question bugs us. The relentless parroting of statements (like Murtha's) that "there is no question what happened (ummm....yes there is) and it was "murder" (murder has a specific legal meaning), that the troops killed in "cold blood" because "they're under unbearable strain" (Christ Peter, surely the illogic of this must make even your head explode :) Either it was deliberate and cold-blooded or they exploded in a fit of rage - several media accounts have actually said both things in the same piece! *That's* what we object to. Is that unjustified?

Pick a story line and stick to it, or better yet... wait until all the facts are in before we convict the Marines in absentia. If they're guilty, they should pay and pay dearly: after the same trial all Americans are entitled to.

6. Here you did not read my very simple summation:

“People are suffering all over the world, but the US doesn’t have the resources to intervene every single time. However, in Iraq our national self-interest coincides with humanitarian concerns: we can do ourselves a favor by establishing democracy in Iraq and deposing Saddam, and we’ll be helping the Iraqis too.”

Believe it or not, some on the right believe in humanitarian intervention. But we accept that we can't afford to save the whole world, an argument that the Left (which ludicrously argues that the most powerful nation in the world can't handle Iraq) should be sympathetic to. *Therefore*, maybe we only intervene when there is also a national interest - by the way, the only rationale for sending an all-volunteer force to war.

You may disagree with this, but it is not an illogical, nor an unprincipled, stance when American lives are at stake. I view enlightened self-interest as the tipping factor, FWIW.

7. Peter, I never claimed you said "everyone on the Right was guilty of those tactics". I merely observed that there are rational people on both sides.

And I don't accuse the Left of hating America. In fact, in many, many of my posts I acknowledge that though I disagree with the anti-war Left, I think they are doing what they think is best for this country.

So, like you, I get tired of being tarred with an overly-broad brush. The last time you linked to me, I put up with several of your commenters repeatedly accusing the right of hating the left, and finally when I called one gentleman on it after about the fourth time he'd made a snide comment to that effect, he acknowledged that perhaps he'd gone in expecting hate (which doesn't really strike me as terribly open-minded after we'd put up with his veiled insults for so long in the interest of having a civil exchange of views).

He was basically a nice guy Peter. Usually I like your readers very much. And I may have been reacting unconsciously to the "Right wingers coming unglued" post on your blog, which I really felt was a bit unfair, but chose not to quote because I just thought it would be picking a fight. But saying that when Michelle Malkin points out that some children carry guns (thus making it hard to classify them as non-combatants) she's saying it's OK to shoot children is a bit over the top. Again, worst possible motives.


Posted by: Cassandra at June 6, 2006 03:11 PM

Oh, and if you're still awake after War and Peace up there, thank you for your civil and well-reasoned response.

I got pretty steamed at a couple of things you said. You would be within your rights to be ticked at some things I said, yet you didn't come out swinging and I appreciate that :)

Posted by: Cassandra at June 6, 2006 03:22 PM

Thanks :) I always appreciate a good deconstruction of my arguments. We'll agree to disagree on some of this stuff, but I think when it comes down to it, as long as we're trying to do what we believe is best and most ethical, then we're on common ground.

Posted by: Peter Daou at June 6, 2006 03:29 PM

I can live with that, Peter :)

I like having some feedback on my arguments too. I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 6, 2006 03:51 PM

Peter said: "3. You ask: "Is it not, by definition, fundamentally unserious to abandon a cause you once believed right, because it has been imperfectly executed?" If the "imperfect execution" has undermined the original moral justification (and I'm not just talking about Haditha) then no, it's not unserious to have a change of heart."

This is a sloppy disconnect in logic. The "original moral justification" of an event is a thing in itself and cannot be changed. It is either a moral justification or it is not, and the morality of the justification does not change according to the execution of the event.

If, for instance, one decides that killing Hitler in 1936 is morally justified, then the fact that a bomb immorally kills 46 innocent civilians along with Hitler cannot render the killing of Hitler immoral, it simply means that immoral means were used to achieve a moral goal.

Posted by: ScottSA at June 20, 2006 11:53 AM

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