Sunday, January 07, 2007

Tough Talk and the Reality Check

Maybe the most important basic skill that kids aren't taught in schools is the ability to operationalize language: that is, the processes involved in analyzing things that people say and asking, not, "Does that sound good?" but, rather, "What does that mean? In concrete terms, what real-world facts are implied? And does that make any sense?"

If we could all get into the habit of asking questions like these, particularly when people are trying to persuade us, we could avoid seventy-five percent of the most heartbreaking and destructive errors we usually fall into.

Case in point: This excerpt from a letter in the current issue of Vanity Fair, taking editor Graydon Carter to task for refusing to support President Bush's war in Iraq:

I am certain that Carter, and those of a similar liberal mind, would have preferred more deliberations and more meaningless U.N. resolutions to handle the pre-war quagmire that was Iraq under Hussein. But true leadership requires action--usually action that others are too cowardly to take. That seems to be the approach of the Democratic Party: let's wait to see what happens, and we will take action once things have gotten really bad and the costs are 10 times what they would have been if action had been taken earlier. If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor and pulled the U.S. into W.W. II, how much damage would F.D.R.'s Democratic administration have allowed Nazi Germany to inflict on Europe? How many more innocent Jews would have been killed? I'll ask similar questions regarding Iraq. How many more innocent Iraqis needed to die before we stepped in to unseat Hussein? How many terrorists would it have been O.K. to allow Iraq to harbor while they planned attacks against the U.S.? I would hope that Carter would say zero.

--Brian Borger, Oregon, Ohio

Let's ignore the grossly anti-historical implication that, during the 1939-1941 period, Republicans were courageously urging the U.S. to enter World War II in order to defend the Jews of Europe, while the cowardly Democrat F.D.R. shrank from this responsibility. (In fact, of course, the Republican party was dominated by isolationists, and the most right-wing among them didn't hesitate to attack F.D.R. as the Jew-loving "Rosenveldt" who was trying to drag America into a European war that was none of our business.)

Instead, I just want to focus on the last two sentences of the letter: "How many terrorists would it have been O.K. to allow Iraq to harbor while they planned attacks against the U.S.? I would hope that Carter would say zero."

This kind of tough talk sounds good. No one likes the idea of terrorists planning to attack the U.S., and it sounds bold and determined to declare a zero-tolerance policy against regimes that harbor them. But now let's apply our operationalizing questions: "What does that mean? In concrete terms, what real-world facts are implied? And does that make any sense?"

Let's start by asking, What does "harboring terrorists" mean? As we've seen, no intelligence expert seriously claims that Saddam Hussein had a cooperative working relationship with al-Qaeda. However, it's quite possible that some anti-U.S. terrorists were permitted to live inside Iraq while planning attacks on America or other targets without being harassed by the government of Iraq. I suppose this could be described as "harboring" them.

If so, what the letter-writer is demanding is that Iraq (and, by logical extension, every other country in the world) take vigorous steps to identify, locate, indict, and punish every terrorist or potential terrorist within its borders. (Potential terrorists must be included, since our letter-writer is very concerned about preventing attacks, not just responding to them after the fact.) We're talking about every single terrorist, since the only acceptable number, according to the letter-writer, is zero.

Of course, this is not easy to do. The United States has not succeeded in doing it--that is, unless you believe that we have managed to find and arrest every single potential terrorist anywhere in the fifty states. And some might consider it unrealistic for the U.S. to demand that countries around the world--including some that are America's adversaries--live up to this exceedingly high standard.

Nonetheless, this is what our letter-writer demands--that Iraq be allowed to harbor zero terrorists. And since he is defending Bush's invasion of Iraq, we can see that the real-world implications of this policy would be that any regime that fails to meet this standard would be subject to invasion, overthrow, and occupation by the U.S.

Does that make any sense?

Well, I suppose it depends on the assumptions you make about worldwide terrorism and American military might. Most people believe that the world contains at least a few thousand terrorists and potential terrorists--people who might well be planning attacks on the United States (depending on how rigorous a definition of "planning" you apply). They are located, one would assume, in countries all around the world, including not only the United States itself but also many countries in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

By the logic of the letter-writer, all those countries are subject to invasion by the U.S.--provided, of course, that we reject the weaselly policies advocated by such cowards as Graydon Carter and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now, as we know, the U.S. military is currently having a devil of a time fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does our letter-writer have any thoughts as to how we might fare if we decided to invade five or six additional countries--let's say, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, and Lebanon, for starters? (Some of these countries have done much more than Iraq ever did to aid and support terrorists.)

Has he thought about the real-world implications for our country if we were to expand the military to the extent required to make such a policy practicable? (We obviously couldn't do it with our current roster of 1.4 million men and women in uniform. How many would it take? Three million? Five million? Your guess is as good as mine.)

I don't suppose our letter-writer has considered these issues, since even to raise the questions is to make his "policy recommendation" appear ludicrous.

This diary post is, of course, overkill. I'm applying real-world logic to what is probably no more than a rhetorical flourish, a bit of meaningless tough talk of the kind that conservatives constantly use to put their opponents on the defensive and make themselves appear (and perhaps feel) "strong" and "brave." But my point is this: The logic it takes to demolish this absurd demand for zero-tolerance of potential terrorists in foreign lands is incredibly rudimentary. You merely have to think about what it actually means for about thirty seconds to realize how risible it is.

If the average American--to say nothing of the average news reporter, editorial writer, or Congressional representative--were accustomed to applying such logic, it would be impossible for conservatives to get away with such talk. People who talk this way--and God knows there are lots of them, in high government positions as well as behind talk-show microphones, in magazine offices, and in think-tank conference rooms--would be laughed to silence, leaving actual grown-ups to debate plausible policies for our nation.

Am I really expecting too much of the "average American"? I find that hard to believe.

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