The Loaded Question
Reason Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Matt Welch, recently had a televised exchange with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton over the recent violence in Iraq. I want to talk about the exchange, because it contains a good example of a frustrating rhetorical trick that many foreign policy hawks use when discussing U.S. intervention in Iraq.
First, a bit of context. During the discussion, Bolton defended the Iraq War by quoting a line from a WW II-era essay by George Orwell where he said that pacifism was “objectively pro-fascist” (Orwell later recanted this view). Welch did a good job today of unpacking Bolton’s misguided citation to Orwell:
Since the end of World War II, America has never once been in a situation even remotely like England’s in the early 1940s. Paradoxically, this helps explain why U.S. interventionists of all stripes lean so heavily on the rhetorical crutch of 1938-42 geopolitics: “Munich,” “Neville Chamberlain,” “appeasement,” “objectively pro-fascist,” and so on. They seek to cloak their arguments in the unearned virtue of opposing Adolf Hitler, portray their political opponents as actively working for the enemy, and above all remove the foreign policy crisis du jour from the realm of elective debate. Because if we’re up against Hitler 2.0, there is no choice, except between teams “With us” and “Against us,” and the only real question is where, exactly, to draw the red line beyond which the U.S. must use force in order to maintain “credibility.”
After getting Welch et al. to agree in so many words that they had no interest in defending Saddam Hussein, Bolton asked Welch a loaded question: “Why isn’t Saddam Hussein in power today?” Welch refused to squarely answer Bolton’s question. Unfortunately, avoiding the question made Bolton’s argument sound a lot more reasonable than it actually is.
The answer to Bolton’s question is straightforward. Saddam Hussein—a person we all agree was a bad dude—is no longer in power in Iraq today because Coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and forcefully expelled him from office. The problem is that the question is structured to make the answer sound like a concession. That’s why Welch didn’t want to squarely address Bolton’s question. It makes him sound like he’s conceding that the U.S. was right to invade Iraq.
What Bolton’s doing here is engaging in an act of rhetorical prestidigitation. The reason that the answer to Bolton’s question sounds like a concession is because it framed on an undue assumption. The question assumes that the Iraq War was justified because Saddam was a bad person. And any action which removes a bad person from power must be justified…right?
Bolton is asking a loaded question in the most literal sense: by silently making an undue assumption, Bolton is able to frame his question so that the “true” answer sounds like a concession. But it is clearly not self-evident that the invasion of Iraq was justified simply because Saddam Hussein was a bad person. Nor is it self-evident that any action which removes a bad person from power is justified.
First, Saddam Hussein is not the only world leader who violated the human rights of his citizens with impunity. This alone does not justify invading a country. The list of countries the U.S. would have to invade in order to stop systemic human rights abuses is as long as it is impossible to achieve.
Second, Bolton’s question also wrongly assumes that toppling Saddam was good for the stability of the Middle East. More specifically, Bolton and his Neo-con friends believe that establishing a Democracy in Iraq accomplishes two foreign policy goals: (a) suppression of radical Islamic fundamentalist groups in Iraq who, left unchecked, could establish terror cells that are a threat to the United States and to other Western nations, and (b) prevent Iran from obtaining more influence in the region.
These outcomes are not self-evident for reasons that have been articulated in numerous forums. In fact, many intelligent people believe that the invasion of Iraq made these outcomes less likely, not more. Here is Robert W. Merry writing for National Interest in 2012:
Saddam was key to maintaining that old balance of power and keeping Iran somewhat hemmed in. Iraq will not become the Western-style democracy Bush had in mind when he invaded, but south of Kurdistan it has become, and will remain, dominated by Shia. That is the greatest geopolitical gift handed to Iran since the Turks invaded Iraq in the sixteenth century.
Here’s F. Gregory Gause, making a similar point for Foreign Policy in 2010:
[T]he Iraq War … created two important vacuums in regional politics — one in the region’s balance of power and the other inside of Iraq, each with its own negative consequences for American interests…[t]he neo-cons and Bushies were right that the war would have a substantial regional impact; they were just wrong about its nature and direction.
You get the idea. The point is that the assumptions underlying Bolton’s question are false. Bolton’s using a cleverly hidden non sequitur designed to make Iraq War dissenters look like cheerleaders for tyranny. But the fact is that removing Saddam from power by military force is not self-evidently good simply because Saddam was a bad guy.
The primary flaw in John Bolton’s worldview—which he covered up by asking Welch a loaded question—is that he views foreign policy in Black & White terms. In Bolton’s world, U.S. policy in the Middle East is a struggle between the psychotic, murderous forces of what we might call the “Global Islamic Terrorist Jihad” (which sounds like a great villain for a video game), and the Enlightened Forces of the Free World. This worldview has all the nuance and political complexity of an elementary school playground at lunchtime. Unfortunately for John Bolton, foreign policy is more complicated than Red Rover.
Matt Welch and his colleagues are obviously smart enough to know all this. They are certainly smart enough to recognize a loaded question. They all knew the question stank, and that’s why they refused to answer it. And I’m sure given more time to martial their thoughts, they could have conducted the same analysis I’ve put here. Unfortunately, the TV-debate format requires participants to think on their feet, and the limited time frames make effective counter-arguments difficult to craft on the fly. It’s great for making overly-simplistic arguments that take time to dissect effectively. But bad for the muckrakers who are stuck doing the dissecting.