Friday, May 14, 2010

Obama's Spine

The overriding narrative that the Bush administration gave us was that the world changed on 9/11. Sure. The events of 9/11 were undeniably the most horrific thing that has happened to American civilians on our own soil that we didn’t inflict on ourselves (i.e.-the civil war). Many conservative pundits, as well as my conservative friends, however, are quite overselling the change that took place on 9/11, trying to unfairly re-write pre-9/11 history to make Obama look bad and Bush look good (an ambitious project, I will admit).

This post will attempt to address Ann Coulter's post from May 5, and the subsequent discussion I had with my friend Garth about it on Facebook.

Here, in simplified form, is the syllogism that some conservatives make about Obama’s softness on terror:

1) Before 9/11, nobody could have known that America was at risk to terrorist attacks.
2) After 9/11, Bush got tough on terror (the Patriot act, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.), which has kept us safe ever since.
3) Obama “has no spine” and is weak on terror.
4) Any terrorist attacks on America are derivative of Obama’s weakness and vindication of Bush’s tactics.

I have a few arguments to point out to debunk this annoying set of arguments:

The distinction between pre- and post-9/11 America is a logical fallacy of the first degree. An attack on NYC was neither unprecedented nor unpredictable; 9/11 wasn’t even the first time that the World Trade Center had been targeted.

This said, conservatives are right to argue that Bush was not personally culpable of any gross negligence or conspiracy as regards 9/11. While I do not think very highly of Bush’s skills or even his work ethic, I have seen the evidence presented by both sides that 9/11 was actually preventable, and I think that the problems were systemic, not individual, unfortunate, but not negligent.

The subtle and underhanded logical slip comes when conservatives want to look closely at the run-up to 9/11 in order to forgive Bush, but then do not afford that same diligence to the Christmas day attempt or the Times Square attempt. Bush can’t be held responsible for allowing 9/11 because he could not have done anything personally to prevent it. Obama, however, is damned for anything that happens between 2009 and 2012, regardless of what he could or could not have done about it. If Coulter and Hannity can repeat it into the void enough times without anybody challenging it, however, people will inevitably accept it, even though it’s dishonest and misleading.

The efficacy of Bush’s anti-terrorist policies is still a matter of debate. Although compelling arguments exist on both sides of the discussion (on the one hand that an aggressive approach dissuades potential terrorists from violence or on the other that injustices perpetrated in the War on Terror radicalizes moderates and affected family members to take up terrorism), the logical flaw in this argument is that we can conclude that Bush’s policies are the reason for our span of relative peace, or that any terrorist events must be the result of our deviations from them. This is the same weak-headed logic which causes people to think that antibiotics cure viral infections, homeopathy does anything, or vaccines cause autism. This is, perhaps, why so many people who believe these logical fallacies are also so willing to accept their political equivalents. Ad hoc ergo proper hoc is not sound logic. Furthermore, the likes of Giuliani have to ignore the Richard Reid attempt or the attack foiled in Britain to even make this argument; I can’t decide whether he’s overtly dishonest or just stupid.

This argument is annoying not only because the facts actually refute it completely, but because it would be a fallacious argument even if the facts didn’t contradict it.
Obama has greatly increased the use of drones against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, he’s upped the ante on the war in Afghanistan, and he’s had numerous successes in taking out ranking members of terrorist groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Anyone who wants to call Obama weak on terror must ultimately ignore the actual things he’s done and instead focus on his rhetoric or his, GASP!, bowing to world leaders.

Rather than contradict the so-called indictments against Obama that he’s rhetorically weak on terror or too conciliatory with our enemies or rivals, I’ll instead make the more important argument which often gets overlooked in this discussion: the rhetoric of the American president is not an important factor in recruiting terrorist attacks against America or American interests. Anyone who argues otherwise is selecting their cases in a dishonest and selective way (for example, was the bombing in Beirut the result of Reagan’s pussyfooting around with terrorists?), or doing so without any evidence at all, relying on the partisan I’ll-accept-anything-that-Hannity-tells-me-ness of their listeners.

If anybody would like to try and make the argument that trying KSM in NYC is somehow going to anger terrorists, I’d love to see your internal logic. Keep in mind, however, that in order for the trial to be the cause of the attacks, you’d have to argue that these terrorists would not have wanted to bomb NYC before the trial, but would make the attempt if the trial took place. I’ll wait.

This is an ad hoc ergo propter hoc argument waiting to happen. For those of you who weren’t paying attention, the Bush administration made no such claims until they were out of office. When their tenure was over, however, Cheney immediately began claiming that it was his and Bush’s policies which had prevented another attack. They had found the magical incantations necessary to keep us safe, and anything that went wrong from January 2009 until the end of time was no longer Bush’s fault. Rather than refute this unsound argument, I’d like to just pose a few questions for you to consider: what specifically did the Bush administration do to tighten up the no-fly lists (which may have prevented the underwear bomber from attempting his attack, and would have also stifled Faisel Shahzad’s near escape)? Did the Bush administration do anything to increase security in NYC that would, for example, have prevented an inept Pakistani-American from leaving a car bomb in Times Square? Do Bush or Cheney deserve credit or blame for Richard Reid’s failed attacks?

Even Ann Coulter is too smart to rely on such inane argumentation. I conclude that she manages to sell such garbage to her followers (full disclosure, I actually like Ann Coulter and think that she’s both a good writer and an insightful commentator on certain, albeit limited, issues) because it’s what they already want to hear. If she were to honestly call out Bush for his ineptness or forgive Obama for things that aren’t really his fault, we’d have a much better dialogue about terrorism in this country. Unfortunately for Ann Coulter, however, she might not get the attention or book deals that make her so much money if she were to do what’s best for America. Pundits make their money by selling irresponsible half-truths. In a reasonable and rational discussion of the issues, Ms. Coulter would probably not have a place at the table.