Nov 192002

I cannot follow a certain kind of historical argument against the war, which runs like this:

We supported Saddam when he was fighting against Iran. We supported the mujahedin when they were fighting the Russians against Afghanistan. Therefore we are hypocritical, or wrong, or both, to war on them now.

Our past support for both the Taliban and Saddam has been exaggerated, but let’s leave the facts aside and consider the structure of this argument. What, exactly, obliges us always to support someone we have supported in the past? The British fought against us in the War of 1812; are they hypocrites to ally themselves with us now?

Or perhaps you don’t care for reductios. Very well: the Russians were our allies in World War II and our enemies after the war: same government, different circumstances. The shift was neither hypocritical nor immoral nor foolish. The Taliban were useful to us when they were fighting the Russians. So was Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, when Khomeini was a bigger nuisance. The Russians leave, Khomeini dies, things change.

One can argue that supporting Saddam was a bad idea then. One can argue that removing Saddam is a bad idea now. One cannot argue that the two have anything to do with each other.

  5 Responses to “Stupid Anti-War Tricks”

  1. I think one can argue that the two have something to do with each other, Aaron.

    I think the anti-war point starts with the statement: "These guys were fine when they were on our side, why are they now suddenly enemies?"

    You present one of two hawkish responses: (1) Things change. Outside circumstances hae made our former ally less useful to us. This is a better argument for exiting an alliance than starting a war, but it carries some weight.

    The second hawkish response is: The former ally changed. In the case of Iraq, they declared war on Kuwait. Our changed stance is a response to their changed actions. This is a better argument for war than the first, I think.

    Noth these hawkish responses are plausible, but an opposite, anti-war position is also plausible, namely, "No, it is we who have changed. We are declaring Iraq a threat, because _______." Fill in the blank. Maybe "doing so serves other purposes we have."

    Now, the anti-warrior needs to go on and make the case for blank, (ie. what other purposes do we have then?), but the argument is not inherently illogical as it is framed. And, it depends on making the connection between the two points that you see as irrelevant to each other.

    One way to make the point that we have ulterior motives (that is, ulterior to defensive ones) for toppling Hussein is to show how the change in his status in our eyes has not been a result of his actions, but of our goals.

    There are obstacles to this line of argument, like the handy fact of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. But, an anti-warrior might still make the case without speaking in non-sequiturs, I think.

    That method of argument can also be a way of putting the burden of proof onto the hawks’ shoulders. By reminding people that Hussein was once useful to us, doves force us to ask the question "what has changed to make Iraq our enemy–them, us, or otuside circumstances?"

    There may be very good answers to this question that place the blame on Hussein, so it may not be the strongest, winningest argument a dove can make, but I do think it is fair game.

  2. You are admitting an argument from motive, which is classical ad hominem. Whether we have ulterior motives for toppling Saddam is immaterial. The relevant question is whether it’s a good idea to get rid of him. This is exactly like the argument that Bush is warring on Iraq to punish Saddam for trying to assassinate his father, and no more legitimate.

    Neither the hawk nor the dove need concern himself with the question of what changed, whether it was us, them, or circumstances. That answer may be interesting but it can never be decisive.

  3. I agree only provisionally that, as blogger William Burton wrote, "motivation is irrelevant."

    Here’s what I wrote in response to him once:

    "This is true if kept to a strictly logical hypothetical, but in reality there is a dangerous assumption, which is that motivation will not influence actions. If the US would do the right thing whether its motivations were honorable or evil, then motivation would be irrelevant. But it is very possible that motivations will end up affecting the kind of action we take with regards to Iraq.

    If we are after a more direct hegemony in the Middle East, for example, that goal implies certain actions, and those actions, certain consequences. We may find ourselves maintaining a significant military presence in Iraq for years to come. Such a presence could have dramatic positive or negative consequences.

    On the other hand, if the U.S. was simply after the disarmament of Iraq, the necessary steps to achieve this goal might be quite different from those needed to achieve hegemony. Troops might be necessary to back up the inspection teams, but no long-term military occupation would be likely. Ignoring the issue of whether a long-term military presence in Iraq is a good thing or not, it’s clear that different motives could lead to widely different outcomes for us.

    Motivations matter. They are not adequate either as arguments for war or as counter-arguments against it, but they are not irrelevant. What should be focused on is how motivations might affect actions, and what the consequences of those actions may be."

    If we could trust the players (Bush, Hussein) 100% then motivation would not matter. We could assume that they will do what they say they will do.

    However, if we presume that both men could be deceptive, then their motivations do indeed have relevance to the question of whether attacking Iraq is a good or a bad idea.

    You must ask, I think, what kind of war against Iraq we are likely to wage, what the likely consequences of that war are, and whether or not those consequences are desireable. Motives are relevant to that question.

    The logical fallacy you are pointing out stems from the possibility that men with ill motive could propose an action that will have positive results (or vice versa).

    In debate, or in logic, it is incorrect to judge a proposition by the good or bad motives of those who propose it — it is a distraction from the question of whether or not the proposition itself is good or bad.

    In reality, this may or may not hold. The reason it may not hold is that if a "good" proposition is to be implemented by people with "bad" motives, then it is fair to question their commitment to that good action. Do they really believe it’s the way to go? Or are they telling lies to the masses to get what they want?

    Their motives are relevant to the realization of the proposition.

    Sure, an attack on Iraq may be a good thing. But will this attack, the one chosen by our administration, be a good thing? — It depends in part on their motives for the attack, doesn’t it?

    And the question of motive brings us back to the anti-war tendency to point out our former coziness with our current enemies.

    Their argument may not be decisive, but I still think it is relevant.

    Sorry for rambling.

  4. Yes. Bad motives could certainly, in this case, lead to bad conduct. Nonetheless, motive is, at best, part of a three-pronged argument, as follows: Bush’s true motive is X. Because of X he will conduct the war in manner Y. Manner Y is the wrong way to conduct the war. In practice, one rarely sees the second part of this argument made, let alone the third.

    And to speculate on somebody’s "real motives," as distinct from what he says, is usually idle. (How could anyone possibly know that Bush wants to invade Iraq to avenge his father?) But as a matter of theory I think Jim is right.

  5. No, I’m not right. I’m wrong. You see… oh, sorry. Reflex argumentativeness.

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