Two friends of mine recently got into a brief political debate after our weekly softball game. Friend A argued that George W. Bush was “a moron”; Friend B, on the other hand, insisted that Bush was “an evil SOB.” The issue was resolved when A noted that the two propositions weren’t mutually exclusive: Bush could be an evil SOB who also happened to be a moron.
What’s remarkable about this exchange is that it’s so unremarkable–indeed, it’s difficult to dine out in Manhattan nowadays and not overhear a conversation along these lines. New Yorkers, who pride themselves on their sophistication, seem honestly to believe that calling the president names constitutes a compelling argument against his policies. But that’s only the most glaring logical error at work in what might be described as the Bashers’ Case Against Bush.
Another common error is the idea that a connection equals a cause–call it the Michael Moore Fallacy. Bush bashers invariably point to his family’s business dealings with the oil-rich Saudi royal family, or to Dick Cheney’s former job as head of the oil company Halliburton, and therefore assume that the administration’s policies toward Iraq are dictated primarily by the fact that the country sits on billions of gallons of oil. But playing connect-the-dots in order to prove someone’s motives is always tricky, and often absurd. For example: Noam Chomsky’s book sales have skyrocketed since the invasion of Iraq; Chomsky teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; MIT is a major contractor for the Department of Defense; the Iraqi war strengthens the Defense Department requests for budget increases…. Therefore, Noam Chomsky conspired with the Defense Department to convince President Bush to invade Iraq.
What’s lacking in every basher argument against Bush’s preemptive war in Iraq is a grasp of who bears the burden of proof. The casus belli, according to Bush, was that Saddam was in violation of the cease-fire agreement that left him in power after the first Gulf War–and, following September 11, such defiance could no longer be tolerated. Bush’s claim might be written off as mere flimflam–except that Saddam actually was in violation of the cease-fire agreement, and September 11 actually did alter many Americans’ perceptions of tolerable risks. Moreover, we now know that Bush had learned of secret meetings between al Qaeda and Iraqi officials, that he’d learned of Saddam’s attempts to acquire uranium from Niger, and that he’d been warned by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Saddam was planning terrorist strikes against the United States.
Yet Bush’s stated rationale for going to war is universally sneered at by Bush bashers. On what basis? Typically, the basher will simply insist on his own ability to peer into Bush’s soul to discern the “true” motive–dismissing as irrelevant Bush’s specific justifications. And the “true” motive is always the same: Bush invaded Iraq to line the pockets of his corporate capitalist cronies.
To suppose this, however, is to suppose that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, et. al., were willing, in effect, to commit mass murder in order to enrich themselves and their friends. Here’s where the burden of proof comes in. Believing such a thing entails a burden of proof so astronomically high that nothing short of a videotape of the parties actually plotting it–or at least a signed memo detailing that plot–would even begin to surmount any rational observer’s doubt.
To be sure, nothing I’ve just said proves that President Bush was right to invade Iraq. It was a tough call, and reasonable people can disagree on its wisdom. But reasonable people do not base their arguments on name-calling or mind-reading.
Then again, the category “reasonable people” does not include many Bush bashers.