Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jeffrey Goldberg retails the Bobbit Fallacy

Is Jeffrey Goldberg, in an attempt to expose a fallacy, falling victim to a fallacy? Goldberg relays a report by Steven Coll of a John Kerry dinner party where Brent Scowcroft assered, "Saddam, in fact, was quite well contained. And we had a big problem following 9/11 in dealing with this greater threat of terrorism." Goldberg demurs:
It is an open question, however, whether Saddam was in fact "contained." The sanctions regime was crumbling; the world was tired of keeping Saddam in a box. And as John Kerry himself said in October of 2002, "It would be naive to the point of grave danger not to believe that left to his own devices, Saddam Hussein will provoke, misjudge, or stumble into a future, more dangerous confrontation with the civilized world. He has as much as promised it."

But let's assume it was true that Saddam was actually contained in early 2003. Does this mean that he would have remained contained in 2004? Here, Scowcroft falls victim to Parmenide's Fallacy, which occurs when a policymaker considers the merits of a particular proposal by judging it against its current context, rather than by what might occur in the future if the proposal isn't acted upon. In the words of Phillip Bobbitt, "indefinitely extending the present is never a realistic option." Just because Saddam was contained in 2003 (assuming he was) has no bearing on whether he would have been contained in 2004 or 2005.
Is it true that "indefinitely extending the present is never a realistic option"? Depends, I guess, on what your definition of "present" is. The U.S. contained Soviet expansion for forty years until the Soviet Union imploded, relatively peacefully; conditions, tasks and tactics changed many times within that space. Saddam had maybe five-fifteen years to go. And "containment" does not necessarily mean "indefinitely extending the present." The pressure Bush applied to Saddam and to the world in fall 2002 was effective; renewing invasive inspections was a terrific idea. But the case against "indefinitely extending the present" does not amount to a case for invading every country where we consider the status quo unsustainable.

1 comment:

  1. i think you need to keep separate the questions of whether it made sense to go to war, and whether there was a reasonable expectation that contaiment (of what, exactly?) could continue until Saddam died or was ousted. My view is that it was pretty clear, based on the sentiments of the French and Germans, among others, that sanctions were on the way out. The oil-for-food thing would probably have been the death knell, showing what a sham the sanctions-related situation had become.

    Given that the US was not going to have 150K troops sitting on Iraq's border for years, I think the fair question was whether the prospect of Saddam uncaged in 2-3 years was dangerous enough to justify an invasion. Obviously the answer is relatively clear now, but I'm not sure it was then - at least in the post-9/11 mental fury.