Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Still with the "Bush lied" crap

Here's a short excerpt from a comment posted at Back Talk. It regards WMD and Bush's justifications for going to war in Iraq. I've long since tired of responding to the whole "Bush lied" variety of attacks. They are easily refuted, yet no amount of logic will appeal to anyone who makes such an attack, so it's not only useless, but boring, to engage them.

The attacks made here, however, are of a softer variety. Instead of claiming that Bush lied, the poster takes a calmer, more reasonable sounding tack. In fact, this approach is no more substantive than the "Bush lied" variety, but it sounds more thoughtful and reasonable because the language isn't as charged.

This type of argument, then, is much more dangerous, simply because it is more subtle and can't be rejected on its face. Yet it misstates facts and builds its case on false premises which, if not challenged, slowly evolve into accepted "facts."

I'm not really interested in engaging the poster directly (or fully) on these issues. We won't change each other's minds. But beating back the false crux of these arguments every once in a while seems worthwhile.
So, you are President. You have some information that you want to use to justify a war. The correctness of that information is hotly disuputed (sic). It is your responsibility to make certain that the information is correct. You can't just rely on the conclusions of your intel people -- because other people are coming to different conclusions. Which conclusion is correct? What are the sources, methods, and evidence of the two sides? The President needs to find someone who can reliably get into the details -- or to do so personally.
Let's break this down:

"You have some information that you want to use to justify a war": This premise commits the logical fallacy of begging the question. The poster starts from the conclusion that Bush was looking for a way to justify a war in order to "prove" that Bush was looking for a way to justify the war. While many people do believe this, there is no evidence of it, and only a desire to think the worst of Bush accounts for an uncritical acceptance of this premise.

"The correctness of that information is hotly disputed": This is simply a misstatement of fact. The presence of WMD in Iraq was not hotly disputed. In fact, there was overwhelming agreement from a variety of U.S. and allied sources that Iraq possessed WMD. It's true that some of the inspectors stated that they didn't have direct evidence of WMD in Iraq, but they also cited a long history of evasion and obstruction by Saddam Hussein and direct evidence of his having other illegal weapons.

"It is your responsibility to make certain that the information is correct": This is an opinion and, I think, an unreasonable one. A president does not gather intelligence; that's the job of the CIA and other agencies. The president's job is to use the evidence provided him to make policy decisions. As to "making certain the information is correct," well, that's just not possible. The bad guys have a vested interest in keeping secrets. Intel agencies do the best they can to learn those secrets, then pass them along to the president, along with an indication of how confident they are about their conclusions. In this case, the Director of the CIA is said to have told Bush that it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq had WMD. This isn't all that surprising a conclusion given that we now know that Saddam Hussein was actively trying to convince the world that it was so.


"You can't just rely on the conclusions of your intel people -- because other people are coming to different conclusions": Actually, you can and should rely on the conclusions of your intel people. Especially when they tell you that WMDs in Iraq are a "slam dunk." Especially when intel agencies of countries throughout the world are saying the same thing. Especially coming on the heals of the 9/11 attacks, attacks which Iraq openly celebrated. Especially when Iraq had declared open war on the U.S. and had been firing at our military in the "no fly zone" on a daily basis.


"Which conclusion is correct? What are the sources, methods, and evidence of the two sides?": Lacking any evidence to the contrary, it's reasonable to assume that these are exactly the questions that were asked by the president, the CIA, and the other agencies of the U.S. and our allies. Again, it's not possible to be 100% certain on intel matters. But the conclusions , with high confidence, of the best minds in the world were that Iraq had WMD. You go with the best info available, and given the consequences of not acting, it would have been highly irresponsible to have done nothing.

"The President needs to find someone who can reliably get into the details -- or to do so personally": That "someone" would be the CIA and other sources, both domestic and foreign, that were used. This idea that we can know everything there is to know, or that we can never act until we do know everything is absurd. We'd never be able to act on any threat if this were the standard. We can never know every secret of the enemy. And even if we could, we wouldn't have any way of knowing we knew everything.

These types of arguments are based on hindsight and the assumption that we live in a perfect world where everything can be known and that every action will produce perfect results. It ignores the fact that our enemies have their own plans and are willing to hide them and change them to thwart us.

We will never have perfect intel. Or perfect presidents. Or perfect wars. Those who demand perfection after the fact are either foolish or acting on their own agendas. We must be wary of them, and when they distort the facts, no matter how subtly, to advance their agendas, we must make the effort to correct the record.

One last point: There is an implied assumption in these "Bush lied" arguments that WMD were the only reason given for going to war in Iraq. In fact, if you go back and read Bush's State of the Union address, or Congress' authorization to go to war, you'll find that WMD was only one of dozens of reasons cited to justify the war. The mere fact that WMD is so often cited as the reason given for going to war is, itself, an attempt to distort the record.

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