Rhetorical Equivalence

by Kieran Healy on July 20, 2003

Slowly recovering from jetlag here in Canberra, I’ve been catching up with some of the blogchatter about Yellowcake and the infamous sixteen words. I’m struck by a peripheral aspect of the debate. Before the invasion, many anti-war protestors used the slogan “Not In My Name” or something similar. That line was derided by pro-war commentators as epitomising the supposedly self-indulgent or solipsistic attitiude of the anti-war movement. So it’s interesting that, in the wake of the controversy over the State of the Union speech, hawks like Daniel Drezner respond like this:

bq. I understand why Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, and others are so exercised about the “sixteen little words” meme. The uranium question — and the blame game that has erupted along with it — manages to undercut two pillars of strength for the Bush team. …

bq. I can’t get exercised about it, however. My reasons for supporting an attack on Iraq had little to do with the WMD issue. The uranium question was part of one rationale among many the administration gave for pushing forward in Iraq. I’m not saying this should be swept under the rug, but the level of righteous indignation that’s building up on the left is reaching blowback proportions.

Dan can be relied on to have made as well-argued and well-supported case for war as possible, but at this point I really don’t care what it was, for the same reasons the hawks had no time for the “Not In My Name” line. The substance of the President’s case for war is what matters, and it had everything to do with “the WMD issue.” If that case was built on a series of lies — immediate threat, 45-minutes to deployment, uranium from Niger and all the rest of it — then that is something to get exercised about.



Robert Schwartz 07.20.03 at 4:12 am

None of the 16 words were Niger, but I guess you can’t be troubled with trivia either.


back40 07.20.03 at 6:23 am

“If that case was built on a series of lies ..”

It wasn’t, and that’s Drezner’s point. Sometimes repeating an accusation again and again, however false, can have political impact. Keep trying.


zta 07.20.03 at 9:10 am

Bush was perfectly capable of making a dreznerlike or neoconlike case for the war…its what he did a few days before the war in a speech at AEI…which only played on CSPAN to a bunch of wonks. The case he made to the American people was hype and jingoistic and of an entirely different order. So Drezner understood the intellectual case, so what? No one was going to stop Bush from going to war, I simply don’t understand why he didn’t take the AEI line from the beginning. Probably because the AEI line is the truth….which is that its one strategy, an indirect, long term and difficult strategy for security. But if he emphasizes this he opens up the debate and he’s not interested in debate but the dividends from a politicized populous.


PG 07.20.03 at 9:46 pm

Kieran and zta have my thoughts exactly.

The war in Iraq undeniably had a humanitarian justification. It may have had a strategic, neo-con, AEI speech justification. But apparently it did not have a substantive Threat to American Security, Imminent Weapons of Mass Destruction justification.

If the American people would have been willing to go to war for humanitarianism or longterm regional strategy, good for the American people.
Unfortunately, we are generally selfish and shallow-thinking bastards who are not huge on humanitarian intervention, and who are skeptical of “indirect, long term and difficult strategy.”

No matter how moral the war in Iraq is, no matter how many mass graves are found —
and I am hoping that this concern about mass graves on the right continues and applies to non-Middle Eastern countries with neither WMDs nor oil —
it is wrong for a democratic leader to mislead his people about the justification for a war in which they will lose their children and for which they will pay the price, literally and figuratively.

If the American people are too selfish or stupid to support a war for the reasons that Drezner & Co. do, then so be it. A democracy has no business with an elite that decides when our people will die for reasons that they do not understand.


James Joyner 07.20.03 at 10:30 pm


I agree with your argument but not your premise. Clearly, nukes were a part of the Bush case for war–but they were a rather small part of it. WMD was a larger case, but it was always stated in terms of non-compliance with UN inspectors and the fact that he hadn’t explained away the massive stockpiles the UN inspectors had previously found.

And the whole point of the doctrine of preemption was that we can’t wait for imminent threats.

I have a much longer post on this subject here.


pathos 07.21.03 at 2:33 am

I completely agree that if Bush knowingly lied, that is a serious problem.

The evidence, however, is decidedly mixed, and here, at least, seems to involve a very narrow parsing of the word “learned.”

The most likely scenario, in my mind, is that (1) there was some — probably fairly weak — evidence of an Iraqi nuclear problem; (2) Bush and Co. very strongly believed that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program; and (3) that strong belief led them to put the weak intelligence claims into the SOTU speech.

All evidence — no matter how strong — can turn out to be wrong. Saddam had a nuclear program at some point and never adequately accounted for what happened to it. That, by itself, makes a strong circumstantial case for its existence. With that background knowledge, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to use relatively weak intelligence to support a position that you actually believe to be true.

It may be bad judgment on Bush’s part, but I don’t see how one can conclude that it raises to the level of a “lie” without starting out pre-conditioned to find fault in whatever Bush says.


Michael J. Totten 07.22.03 at 6:56 am

I was never happy with Bush’s case for war. I think it was a huge distraction. As Thomas Friedman said, there was the real reason, the right reason, the moral reason, and the stated reason.

The stated reason was by far the weakest of the four. It was perhaps even bogus.

But that doesn’t detract from the other three reasons. And I care about those a lot.

For the anti-war crowd to convince me to come around to their view, they will have to debunk the real reason, the right reason, and the moral reason.

It won’t be easy, but go ahead and try.


x2 07.22.03 at 10:06 am

Well the stated reason, short term security, and the moral reason, liberation from a brutal dictator are behind us with mixed results….no wmds have yet been found, Hussein is unaccounted for, nuclear waste and weapons may have escaped into the wrong hands and the country remains unstable. The right reason, Nation Building that focuses on people and infrastructure with a kind of Marshall Plan and the real reason, a military foothold and control of oil are the only two competing ideas now left. If Bush truly wants his domino theory then equal resources will have to be devoted to both, and it does not seem plausible that this administration will be dedicated to nation building. The domino theory is plausible from just the stratego-military point of view but not as likely. The right reason above is Friedmans, of course.


Brian Weatherson 07.22.03 at 4:55 pm

For the anti-war crowd to convince me to come around to their view, they will have to debunk the real reason, the right reason, and the moral reason.

I took it that the main point Kieran was making here was that the uranium story isn’t about rerunning the debates about whether there was a good reason to go to war. We can rerun those in history classes, just as we rerun debates about when, and whether, various countries should have entered WWI. But let’s leave that to another day, since it’s unlikely anyone has anything new to say about it now.

What is under discussion in the uranium story is the morality of lying to encourage a nation to war. Some think that any government that does this is grossly abusing its power, and the appropriate punishment for said government is to be resoundingly voted out at the earliest possible opportunity. Some think this even though they support the gov’t in question. Some might think that even though they support the gov’t and supported the war in question, though (many) others will think that the ends justified the means. But it’s wrong to describe the position in question as an ‘anti-war’ position, since it’s really just an ‘anti-lying’ position.

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