Thursday, May 10, 2007

Victor Davis Hanson and the Search For Untruth

It has been apparent for some time that Victor Davis Hanson's ultimate goal is to be the rootinest, tootinest, toughest hombre ever to sit before a word processor. The short, direct sentences! The Hemingwayesque phrasing! The muscular assertions! Don't support the war? You are an effete lefty pussy. Probably a liar as well. You wouldn't last one minute at the OK Corral that is the Hoover Institute's Palo Alto, where men like their whiskey straight, their six-shooters drawn fast, and their women swooning.

Unfortunately, there is an almost direct inverse relationship between Hanson's Landisesque testosterone infusion over the last five years and his fatuousness. His latest article is a case in point. So it's time for a long overdue dcat parsing. Let's see how well Hanson holds up to scrutiny. I'll place Hanson's words in quotation marks and will precede mine with *** . And away we go:

"'This war is lost,' Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid recently proclaimed.

That pessimism about Iraq is now widely shared by his Democratic colleagues. But many of these converted doves aren't being quite honest about why they've radically changed their views of the war."

*** An accusation of dishonesty is pretty ballsy from someone who has already framed the discussion so dishonestly, isn't it? Who among the candidates of whom he speaks qualifies as a dove? A dove would oppose most or all wars. So Hanson has a pretty immense burden -- it is incumbent upon him to prove dishonesty, and also to prove that opposing a bungled Iraq War qualifies as "dovish." I'll trust that he will do so.

"Most of the serious Democratic presidential candidates -- Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, and former Sen. Jonathan Edwards -- once voted, along with Reid, to authorize the war. Sen. Barack Obama didn't. But, then, he wasn't in the Senate at the time."

*** This is fine as far as it goes. But surely a historian is not going to ignore that things change over time. He is not going to pretend that the last four-plus years never happened. Is he?

"Now these former supporters of Iraq find themselves under assault by a Democratic base that demands apologies. Only Edwards has said he is sorry for his vote of support.

But if the Democratic Party is now almost uniformly anti-war, it is also understandable why it can't field a single major presidential candidate who was in Congress when it counted and tried to stop the invasion."

*** Yup. That's precisely what he is going to do. I'll give him credit for cajones not only for making such a brazenly intellectually dishonest argument, but for doing so seconds after framing the issue as one of fundamental dishonesty on the part of the Democratic candidates. When you write like the Marlboro Man you can pooh pooh niceties such as intellectual integrity. That shit's for vegans and stay-at-home dads.

"After all, responsible Democrats in national office had been convinced by Bill Clinton for eight years and then George W. Bush for two that Saddam's Iraq was both a conventional and terrorist threat to the United States and its regional allies."

*** And "responsible Republicans" cried foul every single time Clinton used even a hint of force against Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s. And Saddam Hussein was neither the only nor was he the most significant threat in the post-9/11 world. So Hanson is raising a glib red herring. (And Hussein would not have been a threat had George W. Bush removed him from power when ther opportunity was before him, but that would not fit the partisan trope, so we'll ignore it.)

"Most in Congress accepted that Saddam was a genocidal mass murderer. They knew he used his petrodollars to acquire dangerous weapons. And they felt his savagery was intolerable in a post-9/11 world. There was no debate that Saddam gave money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers or offered sanctuary to terrorists like Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal. And few Democrats questioned whether the al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group Ansar al-Islam was in Kurdistan."

*** Absolutely. No one denied that then. No one denies it now. Which is why its assertion here and now means fuckall. That Saddam was a potential threat did not mean that we had to go to war in March of 2003, and it did not mean that we had to handle that war incompetently at every point, and it does not mean that we have to line up behind incompetence now. I frankly believe we need to stay in Iraq now, but to imply that not following this administration's chosen course is to coddle Hussein is about as brazenly dishonest as an argument can get.

"In other words, Democrats, like most others, wanted Saddam taken out for a variety of reasons beyond fears of WMD. Moreover, it was the Clinton-appointed CIA director George Tenet who supplied both Democrats and Republicans in Congress with much of the intelligence they would later cite in deciding to attack Saddam."

*** And it was the Bush administration that manipulated intelligence and heard only what they wanted to hear while ignoring countervailing information. George Tenet does not have the power to declare war. Only in a partisan screed would Tenet's appointment by Clinton be necessary to invoke.

"When both congressional Democrats and Republicans cast their votes to go along with President Bush, they even crafted 23 formal causes for war. So far only the writ concerning the fear of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction has in hindsight proven false."

*** Fair enough. But of those 23 a good number were predicated on the threat Saddam posed then based on WMD's and such. The Democrats were dumb to endorse what amounted to a blank check. And we've been over this before -- in the hierarchy of reasons the administration put forward, WMD's were first, second, and third among equals. To conflate these all as being of equal value is absurd.

"But we no longer hear much about these various reasons why the Democrats understandably supported the removal of Saddam Hussein. Instead, they now most often plead they were hoodwinked by sneaky warmongering neocons or sexed-up partisan intelligence reports."

*** "They" do? Who, exactly? Let's see some evidence that a single one of the Democratic candidates have this simplistic a stance. Hanson is brilliant at creating straw men, knocking them down, and then claiming some sort of heroic victory. Straw men, after all, do not fight back. It's a simple question, really: Does Hanson think that absent the WMD claims the Democrats would have voted to go to war with Iraq? Is there evidence for this counterfactual? It is a shame that the pre-war intelligence got mucked up as badly as it did, but given that the Democrats were not in power in either Congress or the executive, Hanson's argument sounds remarkebly like passing the buck.

"There is nothing wrong with changing your mind, especially in matters as serious as war -- but the public at least deserves a sincere explanation for this radical about-face."

*** Hanson is being ironic, right? He's winking at us through the smoky prose? He must be. Because surely he is not making an argument about being honest to the American people and aiming it at Democrats. Is he?

"So why not come clean about their changes of heart?"

*** Once again -- an assertion absent evidence to make a fairly brazen accusation.

"Many Democrats apparently think that claiming they were victimized by Bush and the neocons is more palatable than confessing to their own demoralization with the news from the front."

*** Wait a second: did you not lead off your article -- this one, the one we are all so enjoying, the one that is providing so much insight and entertainment, the one with the swagger and panache that makes weak men cower, with the following lines?: "'This war is lost,' Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid recently proclaimed.
That pessimism about Iraq is now widely shared by his Democratic colleagues." Why, yes, you did. So what you seem to mean by Democrats being unwilling to confess to their own demoralization actually is "The Democrats are so clear about their demoralization that I am going to lead my article off with what I believe is a telling quotation about that demoralization." My version is not as testeronalicious, I know, but it is honest and -- wait for this one -- fair.

"Others may fear that admitting publicly that a disheartened America should not or cannot finish a conflict would send a dangerous message to our enemies. So while these Democrats accuse President Bush of being hardheaded and unwavering on Iraq, they are still afraid that their own mea culpas would send an equally dangerous message of inconsistency abroad."

*** You are predicating this all on an argument you concocted in the mean streets of Palo Alto: that the Democrats actually want to apologize but are too dishonest to do so. And yet Occam's Razor might lead us to another conclusion: that knowing what they knew and when they knew it, they authorized the president to use force. They now believe, based on four years of incompetence, that it was a mistake. You want them to come shamefaced before you based on nothing other than a fantasy you have concocted that will fit in nicely with your views of Democrats. It's cute and clever and all, but it ignores a recent history that tells us a lot more than this paper-thin scenario you have created out of whole cloth.

"Democrats need to admit the truth: that removing a dangerous Saddam Hussein and promoting democracy in his place seemed a good idea to them in 2003-4 when the cost appeared tolerable. Now, in 2007, with over 3,000 American lives lost in Iraq, they feel differently."

*** This is the most reasonable thing you have written thus far, which is why it does not follow from everything else in the article. And it is still pretty inane. There is more to any anti-war argument, even the worst of them -- and there are lots of bad ones -- than "3000 American lives lost in Iraq." The reductionist cant is getting to be too much. I hope the article is almost finished.

"In other words, Democrats could argue that somewhere along the line -- whether it was after Fallujah or the start of sectarian Sunni-Shiite violence -- they either lost confidence in the United States' very ability to stabilize Iraq, or felt that even if we could, it was no longer worth the tab in American blood and treasure."
*** Yes, because these are the only options. Nothing to do with mishandling of the war. Nothing to do with torture. And of course Democrats do in fact make both arguments that you claim they are unwilling to make. But they do so in a way more sophisticated than your simplistic approach allows, so reduce away! No complexity! Complexity is for the tofu and birkenstocks crowd. No surrender!

"That confession could, of course, be nuanced with exculpatory arguments about the mistakes made by those in the Bush administration, such as: 'Our necessary war that I voted for to remove Saddam worked; your optional one to stay on to promote democracy didn't.'"

*** If you're wondering if he just created words to put in the mouths of the Democrats to make the Democrats look bad and the Republicans to look good, he did. Clever!

"Such an explanation of turnabout would be transparent and invite a public discussion. And it would certainly be more legitimate that the current protestations of 'the neo-cons made me do it.'"

*** It's sort of embarassing to have to tell a respected senior professor this, especially one with such a visible platform in the punditocracy, but quotation marks actually have a purpose. When you create a quotation that no one actually has said, and when you ascribe it to people who think differently from you, that is intellectually dishonest. It is sloppy. No one in the Democratic Party has ever uttered those words. Again, the irony would be staggering given the theme of the argument, but hairy-chested Old Spice men such as Victor Davis Hanson sneer at irony -- that shit is for metrosexual English professors.

"With America still engaged in a tough war, that kind of excuse-making just doesn't cut it."

*** Leave it to Hanson and his ilk to remind us that we are in a war. I still have no idea what excuse-making he is referring to, as he has asserted but not shown as much, but I am glad he closed with such a vibrant example of the Hanson style.

There are arguments for and against the war, there are arguments for and against the surge, there are arguments for and against troop withdrawal. Hanson manages to make absolutely zero of these arguments in this piece. Intellectual honesty really is not a sign of weakness. It's too bad that too many folks on both sides of the debate have not picked up on this reality.

No comments: