Saturday, January 18, 2003

Argumentum Ad Armageddon

When in doubt, try to convince people that your enemies are going to cause Armageddon. That seems to be the reason why anti-war activists have remade the infamous "daisy" ad. It's easy to dismiss the ad as an alarmist scare tactic--because that's what it is--but the ad also implies an argument that many activists readily accept as sound:
  1. If the U.S. goes to war in Iraq, some catastrophic event X will occur.
  2. This X would be the fault of the US.
  3. Therefore, we should not go to war with Iraq.
Let's go through the argument.

1. If the U.S. goes to war in Iraq, some catastrophic event X will occur. There is an ambiguity here: some might interpret the ad as saying that X might happen, and so it is prudent not to go to war. This would mean that the conclusion would follow probably, but not absolutely, from the premise. Fair enough, but this does not change anything in terms of the argument's merit. There still has to be a strong likelihood that event X will follow from another Persian Gulf War (hereafter PGWII) in order to justify the equally strong claim that it would be prudent to avoid PGWII. So for all intents and purposes, let's treat the argument as a deductive one.

So is there anything wrong with (1)? It should be noted that (1) is actually an argument itself, namely, a slippery slope argument alleging that P will lead to Q and Q will lead to R--and in this case ultimately to catastrophic event X. We might call such an argument an argumentum ad Armageddon, i.e., an appeal to Armageddon. The form of the argument is valid--sometimes P will lead to X--so the question here is: how likely is it that PGWII will lead to X?

"Not very" seems to be the reasonable answer. Remember the context of the original daisy ad. It was an ad implying that Barry Goldwater might lead us into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Of course, Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon Johnson, so we cannot say that ad's claim was falsified. However, we do know that Ronald Reagan's strong anti-Soviet position did not lead to a nuclear war. In fact, whether he was responsible or not, the Soviet Union collapsed. So in this regard, the implied claim that hardline conservative presidents will lead us into Armageddon seems to be false.

But what about an actual war, and not just a hardline stance? Here, too, predictions of Armageddon seem untenable. Neither the Vietnam War nor the Korean War led to X, despite involving two nuclear powers, and even more to the point, neither did the first Persian Gulf War. Moreover, even the predictions of a Vietnam-like "quagmire" in Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan did not come true. The point is not that war will never lead to X, but that is has not so far done so, contrary to dire predictions made by activists.

Another problem for (1) is that it does not mesh with certain other assumptions held by anti-war activists. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out on Hardball, the same people supporting the new daisy ad tend to believe that Saddam Hussein does not have nuclear weapons. This does not make the ad's argument false, but it does mean that some activists have an incoherent point of view; and so if they wish to make an argumentum ad Armageddon, they need to admit that Saddam has catastrophic weapons. [I suspect that they won't, because doing so would destroy the case for prolonged weapons inspection.]

2. This X would be the fault of the U.S.. Some might doubt that the ad implies this, but the ad clearly puts the burden for X on the U.S. and nowhere else. It is the U.S., not Iraq, that is supposed to change its ways. So while the U.S. might not be the efficient cause of X (e.g. the one who launches the nuclear strike), it is nonetheless somehow responsible for X. We've seen this same argument in regards to 9/11: Islamic terrorists were the efficient cause of the destruction of the World Trade Center, but the U.S. in some way begged for such an attack.

Of course, questions about who is responsible for what when countries come into conflict are thorny, but we can cut to the chase by looking at what underlies (2); and we might call what underlies it the Sheryl Crow Doctrine. According to the SCD:

The best way to solve problems is to not have enemies.
At first blush, this seems to be naive or even vacuous, but a charitable interpretation of the SCD would be something like this:
Don't provoke people or countries until they become dangerous enemies.
Indeed, there is a kernel of truth in this. If one provokes a snake, one risks getting bit. So its much better to let the snake go on its way and do its snakey things.

Anti-war activists (as well as isolationists on the right) tend to view war and peace (and terrorism) in these terms, and although it has a certain appeal, the snake theory of enemy-making makes for inadequate foreign policy. Iraq and North Korea, to name but two, do not merely pursue their own ends in isolation from the rest of the international community. They threaten, they attack, they oppress their citizens; and they commit human rights violations that would make Mumia Abu-Jamal glad to live in a U.S. prison if he had to suffer them. The upshot is that when countries act in such a way they cannot help but make enemies. It is we who are the provoked snake. It is Iraq and North Korea that need to heed the SCD, not the United States.

3. Therefore, we should not go to war with Iraq. This might be true. But because (1) and (2) are not sound, the daisy ad argument fails to support this conclusion.

Finally, Ernie would chastise me if I did not mention who is responsible for the original 1964 daisy ad: Bill Moyers of PBS fame. Also, I linked above to a pro-Mumia site; here is a site dedicated to Daniel Faulkner, the police officer whom Mumia shot and killed.

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