Tuesday, April 01, 2008

False equivalencies

A good two weeks ago now, a friend with whom we were dining drew an analogy. I, unfortunately, was not in good shape to respond to it at the time (we were coming off an intense week of Disney and I'd been consuming wine at roughly the rate and volume I'd been hitting the water bottles for the past seven days), but since then I've been haunted, haunted I tell you, by a need to deconstruct it.

We were talking about the foreign policy platforms of the presidential hopefuls. (Read that as "Iraq," of course.) I maintained, as I always do, that "We shouldn't have gone into Iraq in the first place," is not a meaningful foreign policy position; we are in Iraq, and the question for these candidates and near-candidates is what we do there from this point forward. I should note that the original act is a settled question in both my mind and my friend's: I've never wavered from my belief that deposing Saddam Hussein made absolute good sense, and he's never accepted that it made any sense at all. But here's where the analogy came in: he countered that what I was saying - that the important statement from these hopefuls should focus on what next rather than on whether in the first place, and furthermore that a continual focus on the past paralyzed us from acting as wisely and decisively as possible now - was like telling an abused wife that she should discount all her husband's abuses because they happened in the past, after all - it'd all be different in the future, honey, or at any rate the future would render the past irrelevant.

This is a grotesque equivalency, and a fundamentally flawed one. Oh, I understand its root: as I said, the "whether" question is settled for my friend as "absolutely not," so I suppose it's natural, if that's the right word, for him to equate the U.S./coalition invasion of Iraq with domestic violence. And for what it's worth, I do believe that revisiting that question helps voters evaluate the presidential hopefuls' judgment and reasoning. (He and I reach different conclusions from that evaluation, of course.) But when the question being asked is "What would you do next?" a response of, "We shouldn't be there in the first place, so we should get out," is not a response at all. Or, at best, it's shallow and blind.

Moving on to the deconstruction part. First: the marital relationship in the analogy appears to marry the U.S. government to the people of the United States, with government as abuser and people as abused wife. All metaphors break down, but this one never even stands up. The U.S. government is in fact the people of the United States; the fact that not all the people agree with all the actions of the government doesn't reflect either an unequal marital partnership or (more close to reality, though sulkily put) "disenfranchisement" of some portion of the electorate; it reflects the compromise we call our republic, that's all. I've "suffered" through many years of government action against my preferences and will; it's not "abuse," but simply my side's inability to popularize its policies. The lack of government support for my point of view on this or that issue might be a result of its being wrong, or it might be a result of its being hard to sell or difficult to maintain; it certainly does not constitute an "abuse."

In practical terms, the "abuse" to which my friend referred might be the cost of the war rather than the "mental abuse" of having to slog through two terms' worth of presidential policies with which one disagrees. I hear a lot about this cost lately, all of which seems to begin from the assumption that whatever we're spending on the war (a) would have been spent elsewhere (that is, that we've lost an opportunity cost of some kind) and (b) would have been better spent elsewhere (that is, that government spending is an unreserved good, unless it's on a military venture). I can't accept either premise. Is this war worth its cost in money? Time will tell, and we're not yet to the point where time can tell. But taking down Saddam Hussein was, in my opinion, absolutely worth everything it cost at the time. What we've been doing since then is that uniquely American post-war activity called "reconstruction." It's our obligation to some extent, but beyond that extent it's just what we do: we try to rebuild and reform the damaged and destroyed so that it can join us in fruitful commerce (not just the financial kind) in time. This principle, which we've been doing for many years under many presidents, has become codified as the "Bush Doctrine," thanks to the now-explicit hypothesis that liberal transformation in the Middle East will be superior to realpolitik in stabilizing that volatile region. And the potential benefits of the action, if it works, are not being valued opposite the costs both real and hypothetical. There is an incremental cost associated with achieving those benefits - what is it? And can the benefits be monetized, and if so, what's their value? That's how you make a foreign policy decision about a war, if money is the main criterion. But was money the main criterion in our entering WWII?

Next: history is indeed a guide to future behavior when you're dealing with individuals, but the more appropriate analog would have been the "abused wife" who remarried every few years. Here my friend might say that the party affiliation of the "husband" was an important datum in gauging his likelihood to "abuse" her; I'd point to history as a refutation of that view, since it's been Democrats who tended to get the U.S. into foreign entanglements over the last century or so, since no party remains the same for more than a (political) generation, and since a party's leader can have a strong, if often temporary, effect on that party's philosophy.

Finally, the analogy was intended to illustrate something about the presidential candidates. But all it did was to restate the flawed premise - that the right question to ask and answer is, "Since we shouldn't be in Iraq at all, how do you propose we leave?" Drawing the question in terms of domestic abuse is a trick, like the one my side used against the other during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, when Osama bin Laden's various taped statements seemed to be drawing on Democrat talking points. Remember it? We (not specifically I, that I recall, but my side) called our political opponents "objectively pro-terrorist." (My point of view was that if your country's enemy seemed to be echoing your own position, you might want to consider that position carefully.)

It's too obvious a trick, too, since it's just about identical to "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Point is, rhetorical tricks can sometimes "win" debates, but they do not answer questions. (I've used plenty of tricks, won plenty of debates, and skirted plenty of questions in my time.) If the object of this year's election is to choose a leader for what is still THE world hyperpower, our focus needs to be on hearing and evaluating the substance, rather than the rhetoric, of our candidates. (In other words, after lo these many paragraphs, I wearily acknowledge that I won't un-settle the question of "whether" for my friend, just as he won't un-settle it for me; I'm looking for the candidate who will commit to staying in Iraq until circumstances clearly show one outcome or another - recalling that inadequate reconstruction after WWI spawned WWII, and reconstruction after WWII took decades. This is the long war, and the "hard work," Bush is vilified and ridiculed for talking about.)