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Aren't 23 Reasons Enough?

James Taranto takes note of a recent John Kerry speech:


In his speech, Kerry also complained that "by one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war. If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded." That's quite an argument coming from someone who's taken 57 different positions on the war.

Never mind Kerry's confused and shifting positions on the war; I don't understand this particular criticism of his on its face. So the president has "23 different rationales" for going to war - that's supposed to be a bad thing? Evidently, William Raspberry thinks so:


Heard any good rationales for the war lately? If not, maybe you ought to talk to Devon Largio, a new graduate of University of Illinois, who says her research turned up 23 different rationales offered by the Bush administration in the year following 9/11.

[...]

Many of the key rationales she knew already the weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's treatment of weapons inspectors, the administration's interest in "regime change." Others seemed to ebb and flow setting an example for other tyrants, protecting Iraqis (or the region or the world) from Saddam, completing the work of Desert Storm, spreading Western-style democracy and compensating for international institutions so ineffectual as to render the phrase "United Nations resolution" an oxymoron.

Well, you can't really judge from that excerpt, but trust me, Raspberry finds this surplus of rationales quite problematic. (And so do other lefty pundits). The main arguments seem to be either that Bush doesn't give every possible reason for going to war every time he opens his mouth, or that goals such as regime change, spreading democracy, and setting an example are somehow mutually exclusive. Devon Largio herself isn't much impressed, either, but for a simpler reason: 23 reasons (and counting) are too many:


"I didn't include this in my paper," she said, "but I'm as torn now as I was when I started. I tend to accept the good intentions of the president, and it's tempting to say that if they have 23 reasons for going to war, we probably should have gone. On the other hand, I find myself thinking that if they had to keep coming up with new reasons for going to war, we probably shouldn't have done it. It's almost like the decision came first, then the rationales."

And I'm just not understanding any of this. Since when does having too many arguments in favor of doing X turn into an argument against doing X?

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Comments (4)

1. The "27 rationales" issue wasn't a function of too many reasons to go to war -- it was the lack of a single consistent reason. That's the problem of continually changing the basis for the decision to invade.

Arguments in the alternative may be an accepted legal strategy -- I didn't do it, and besides, it was self-defense -- but it hardly makes for a compelling policy rationale.

2. There actually were a few very compelling strategic reasons to go to war. That is why I supported the invasion beforehand. (See my Pre War Analysis of March 19, 2003: Not-So-Hidden Agenda: Strategic and Economic Assessments of U.S. led Invasion in the Middle East
http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2003/07/notsohidden_age.html)

None of these explanations were ever articulated by the administration.

3. I'm hardly a "lefty" pundit -- try pragmatic libertarian.

4. You are being disingenuous when you say "The main arguments seem to be either that Bush doesn't give every possible reason for going to war every time he opens his mouth." That is (obviously) not the issue here . . .

I only mean to be slightly disingenuous. I'll explain:

Critics of the war have seized upon the fact that no significant amounts of WMD have been found in Iraq. And that's a fair criticism. But when it is pointed out that WMD was only one of many reasons to go to war, the response is sometimes "a-HA! There are shifting reasons!", which is to me, uncompelling as a criticism. When pressed, a further response is along the lines of "well, Bush said we needed the war because of A, then he said it was because of B, and then it was C." As if it can't be all three. Again, not compelling to me.

Often implicit in this criticism is that by mentioning C, factors A and B have been jettisoned ("a-HA! He mentioned C and not A and B! What about A and B?"). That's kind of what I was - slightly disingenously - getting at in part: what, does the president need to lay out reasons A, B, C, D all the way up to W (no pun intended - 23rd letter, don't you know) every time he speaks?

Others (such as yourself) say it's all about the "lack of a single consistent reason". All I can say is it's a different perspective. You see that as a negative, I see multiple reasons as a positive. Tomato, tomahto.

And yes - shades of "I didn't do it, and besides, it was self-defense" - sometimes in real life reasons change in importance or are found lacking or are overtaken by events. That's not always a bad thing. Lincoln didn't start the war in order to free the slaves, and Roosevelt didn't enter the war to free the Jews, but they became compelling reasons in due time.

In any case, one may take issue with the specific reasons for war, but I still maintain that pointing out that there have been many reasons is in itself a poor criticism.

Sorry to misrepresent you as a "lefty", and thanks for writing,
Peter

Michael Christian:

In any case, one may take issue with the specific reasons for war, but I still maintain that pointing out that there have been many reasons is in itself a poor criticism.

But isn't that a strawman? Nobody's arguing that there aren't enough reasons for going to war, but that the initial reasons either weren't compelling enough or were based on bad information. Since then, the administration has cast about for whole new sets of reasons to justify the war because even they understand that the reasons they came up with before weren't holding up to scrutiny. THAT is not good.

I am, BTW, a Republican.

But isn't that a strawman? Nobody's arguing that there aren't enough reasons for going to war,

Yes, that's my point. Nobody is arguing that. Instead, people are arguing that there are *too many* reasons for going to war

but that the initial reasons either weren't compelling enough or were based on bad information. Since then, the administration has cast about for whole new sets of reasons to justify the war because even they understand that the reasons they came up with before weren't holding up to scrutiny. THAT is not good.

No, I do not see it that way. It suits critics of the war to pretend that WMD was the only reason for going to war, but there have *always* been other reasons: removing a known threat; installing a democracy in the Middle East; disrupting terrorist networks. This has been all very clear from the beginning. It all may be more difficult than planned, but I see no reason to believe that those are all somehow invalid.

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