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In Defense of Ad Hominem: Why We Really Shouldn’t Listen to Dick Cheney on Iraq

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“The fallacy of ad hominem (Latin: against the man”) is the assertion that someone’s argument or viewpoint should be discounted because of character flaws that have nothing to do with the issues at hand. It is a fallacy because it ties the outcome of an argument to a question or set of questions that are not at issue. Arguments, not arguers, are the proper subject of a debate.”—Reading the World: Ideas that Matter


I am very familiar with this textbook definition of the ad hominem argument. I wrote it. It is part of my rhetoric textbook used in several hundred colleges and universities in the United States and Canada to teach students about (among other things) the right and wrong ways to frame arguments. Arguments must stand or fall on their own merits; the character of the arguer does not matter.

Except when it does.

I don’t usually muddy these waters in freshman composition, but the fact is that ad hominem arguments are very often the best and most logical responses to another person’s claims. This is true because most arguers place their own character, expertise, or credibility at issue when they make a claim. If somebody supports an argument with a pro hominem argument (which we normally call an “appeal to authority”) then the ad hominem argument becomes both a necessary and a proper response.

And this brings us to Dick Cheney and the Iraq War.

In a recent article in New York Magazine, Johnathan Chait, who I consider one of the most intelligent pundits around, falls into a logical trap that I call the Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy. This happens when somebody overcorrects for the ad hominem bias by labeling a legitimate challenge to authority as an ad hominem attack:

“When you’re trying to set the terms for a debate, you have to do it in a fair way. Demanding accountability for failed predictions is fair. Insisting that only your ideological opponents be held accountable is not fair. Nor is it easy to see what purpose is served by insisting certain people ought to be ignored. The way arguments are supposed to work is that the argument itself, not the identity of the arguer, makes the case. We shouldn’t disregard Dick Cheney’s arguments about Iraq because he’s Dick Cheney. We should disregard them because they’re stupid.”

This is exactly how it works out in theory. Dick Cheney has a right to make arguments about the current situation in Iraq, and it simply does not matter whether he was wrong before, or whether he made serious mistakes in office, or that he may have committed war crimes, or whatever. All that matters is what he is saying now, and we must judge his arguments on their own merits. If Adolph Hitler said the world was round, that would not make it flat. And so on.

But that’s not how it works in actual public discourse. Nobody is putting Dick Cheney on news shows or publishing his articles because he is a really thoughtful person with some interesting ideas about American foreign policy. He has a massive forum for his ideas precisely because he is Dick Cheney.

His Dick Cheneyness is an inherent part of his current argument — which relies almost entirely on his claims of experience, expertise, and moral character. And it is precisely because he is making these claims that his experience, expertise, and moral character must be part of the debate.

It is not a fallacy to directly rebut claims that have actually been made. If somebody makes an abstract statistical argument about the effectiveness of a certain medical procedure, then their evidence must stand by itself. However, when somebody says, “trust me, I’m a doctor,” then both their integrity and their medical school history become completely relevant to the question at hand.

We are in a rhetorical position where it would be very difficult to commit the ad hominem fallacy even if we tried. The architect of one of the worst foreign policy disasters in America’s history is standing before us once again and saying, “trust me, I’m Dick Cheney.” It seems to me that the only rational response to such a request is, “because you are Dick Cheney, we will never trust you again.”

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Perhaps Dick Chaney should be moved to the column of people we no longer pay attention to so they will just fade away. We (collective) give "because he's Dick Cheney" its relevance. We can take it away.


Well said Michael. But then we expect nothing different from you.

I simply can't imagine why anyone would give Dick Cheney, or any of the participants in the ruinous Bush years credibility.  The only reason media outlets do so is they know full well they will be watched and read by almost everyone in a sort of macabre fascination with what they represent - unadulterated narcissism and greed.

Shawn M Griffiths
Shawn M Griffiths moderator

I think we could change "Iraq" in the headline to "anything" or "everything." I agree, we need to stop giving credibility to the man just because his name is Dick Cheney.


I totally agree Austin .... where did he get military experience and knowledge in the first place ... before or after he helped orchestrate the lies that led us to war the first time?


I disagree. You write,

"The architect of one of the worst foreign policy disasters in America’s history is standing before us once again and saying, “trust me, I’m Dick Cheney.” It seems to me that the only rational response to such a request is, 'because you are Dick Cheney, we will never trust you again.'"

Can you point out a case where Dick Cheney has tried to validate his arguments by appealing to his authority?

As you wrote in your last post on Iraq regarding the "sunk cost fallacy," debates about our policy in Iraq should focus on the policies themselves - not their popularity, not rehashing historical "what-ifs," etc. We should be committed only to hard-headed analysis of what exactly is going on: who the actors are, how powerful they are, what they want, etc. Then, the U.S. needs to decide what is best for Iraqis and best for Americans based on that analysis, and then come up with the best policy.

These are the conversations we should be having - as a country, or, in this case - as a small group of independents. Instead, however, we seem to be bogged down in meta-considerations, having arguments about arguments/fallacies and having arguments about reputations. 

I also reject the very oversimplified views that the U.S. committed a blunder in Iraq, or that Cheney or Bush were responsibility, when, in fact, it was interagency squabbling that led to the dysfunction, not the failure of one unitary course of action.

Any serious discussion about American policy toward Iraq must begin in the 1970s, when the U.S. betrayed the Kurds at the last minute, and continue through the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years when the U.S. did everything it could to preserve Saddam's rule. These were horrendous policies, and Bush inherited a decades-long legacy of botched policies.

I'm starting to ramble, but, to make one simple point, I have to ask: which figure do you think made the following statement?

“The sooner we turn things over to the Iraqis the better.”

Anyway, I have written more coherently on this topic on a long post for my blog. Feel free to check it out here:


Alex_G moderator

@Andrew your point about keeping the historical context in mind when it comes to Bush II's role in Iraq is sound, though it's important to consider that there was no inherently compelling reason to go into Iraq in 2003. The facts that were given to the US public by the administration at the time (including Cheney) were extricated through questionable means to accomplish an ambiguous goal. Even if it was 'inter agency squabbling' as you suggest, in the chief executive, there remains some culpability on the hands of Bush Jr and Cheney as well.


@Andrew "Can you point out a case where Dick Cheney has tried to validate his arguments by appealing to his authority?"

I cannot point out a single case where he is NOT. His experience, his ethos, and his character are the only things he has offered in this debate. If you read his recent Op-Ed, there is nothing else that can even vaguely be considered to count as "evidence." Nobody who is not Dick Cheney (or one of the other war architects) could have published such a piece, as there aren't any actual arguments in it to consider, accept, or reject. He is simply making emotional-filled declarations and arguments by assertion and relying on his ethos to carry them into the newspapers and onto the television shows.

This is often the case, of course. Public figures almost always argue from the ethos they have constructed. It is why Hillary Clinton gets a ten million dollar book advance and why Dick Cheney can get national attention for publishing a list of barely connected, unsupported assertions. Quite literally, if Cheney's own experience and character are not his argument, then there is no argument.



I agree that Bush and Cheney deserve some culpability. They were wooed by the idea that minimal troops would be needed to secure the country, and Bush was far too absent when it came to organizing the political transition: this he left to the CIA, the DoS, and the DoD to sort out, which was quite irresponsible. 

I quibble with the statement that the 2003 war was not justified. I am an adherent to Christopher Hitchens' view of "the long short war." In other words, the U.S. had a tangled relationship since the 1970s. I am of the opinion that it was wrong to not send the tanks on to Baghdad during the Gulf War. The U.S. and U.N. should have authorized regime change in 1991. Instead, we had twelve years of a pitiful and corrupt sanction and oil-for-food regime, cat-and-mouse games with weapons inspectors, increased tyranny and brutality by Saddam and his family, and a precarious no-fly zone protection of the north and south. 

Also, those who assert that Bush "lied" the country to war and scared the country by warning about WMDs and then later changed his rationale are incorrect. Bush's September 2002 speech before the UN reads like a thesaurus of justifications for regime change:


In this speech, Bush mentions: Saddam's record of lying about his weapons capabilities; violations of the peace treaty with Kuwait; his support for terrorism; and grave human rights abuses and domestic repression; his violation of the UN oil-for-food programme, etc.

In other words, I see the 2003 invasion as the correct and very delayed policy that should have been adopted 12 years earlier.



I was unable to read the op-ed. I believe I found it, but if so, it was posted on the WSJ, which requires a paid subscription.

Anyway, based on the left's comments on the op-ed, I don't feel any more enlightened. Everything I read seems to amount to little more than vague word association: "Iraq invasion!" "botched occupation!" "trillion dollars!" "Bush and Cheney!" "war crimes!"

No where do I see the kind of careful analysis or understanding of the weeks and months before and after the invasion to understand what went wrong. In fact, I would suggest that very many of the people who comment on this issue would not recognize the names Douglas Feith, Dick Armitage, Jay Garner, Paul Bremer, etc. - much less what their roles or disagreements were.

The problem in Iraq largely came from the fact that Powell's DoS did not do all it could. It did not press Turkey hard for support, and as a result, the logistics of the invasion were much more complicated. The DoS also delayed arranging pre-invasion talks to organize Iraqi elites and exiles. Then, when Bremer took over after the invasion, he had to scrap his plans to turn power to the Iraqis because there was no assembled authority to take over. It was Cheney, in agreement with the DoD, who said “The sooner we turn things over to the Iraqis the better."

So when Bremer became the American viceroy because there was no readymade transitional authority…that is when things went wrong.

It was Bremer who disbanded the Iraqi Army and failed to announce a compensation package for a month, then the insurgency intensified, and then the already delayed transfer of political of power became that much more difficult.

So, given this, I think it is highly unfair to dismiss anything Cheney says, especially since I do not know of any occasion where he has tried to bolster his arguments by referring to his (past) authority.

We should always, always, always argue at the level of logic and ideas.


@Andrew @founderstein @Alex_G These all seem very capable arguments to me.

I really hate drawing comparisons to Adolph Hitler as it seems to invoke a kind of thoughtless name-calling we often see as responses to disconnected scenarios.

But, in this kind of analysis, could one not just as easily dismiss the actions of Hitler as an effort to recover the German society from the poorly thought out effects of the Versailles Treaty?

The circumstances in fact were there; the rise of the Third Reich was indeed a result of the pressures of post-WWI Germany economy and global standing.

Can we simply push aside such horrific mistakes as a simple cause and effect scenario?

It seems to me that, despite the "historical causes" the Bush Administration was faced with, their insistence to engage Iraq in a war blinded their objectivity.  Indeed, even Bush Sr warned them against doing so.  http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/03/06/bush-sr-warned-in-1996-that-war-on-iraq-would-enflame-entire-arab-world/


@bobconner @founderstein @Alex_G

I don't fully understand the analogy here.

Hitler's aggression certainly was a reaction against the limitations imposed by Versailles, but I don't see how that relates to my arguments about Iraq.

In Germany, Hitler felt he could unify ethnic/linguistic Germans/Aryans and restore the supreme race to its destined hegemony in Europe. 

In Iraq, the U.S. reversed decades of tolerance if not encouragement of atrocities and in 2003 finally replaced a regime that it had gone out of its way to preserve or support. 


@Andrew @bobconner @founderstein @Alex_G Hi Andrew - the point wasn't intended to be a remark about Iraq, or even WWII specifically.  Rather the assumption being made that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld doctrine was the result of "horrendous policies as Bush inherited a decades-long legacy of botched policies...and that "it was interagency squabbling that led to the dysfunction."

The thought process seems to absolve, to a substantial degree, the Bush doctrine due to those prior botched policies.

Consequently, my question is; could not the Hitler doctrine be considered in precisely the same manner from Nazi Germany's perspective?  And in doing so, absolve Hitler of wrongly instigating WWII?

I certainly understand the long-term impact of poor foreign policy, but I question the legitimacy in even a partial exoneration of the Bush policy.

"In Iraq, the U.S. reversed decades of tolerance if not encouragement of atrocities and in 2003 finally replaced a regime that it had gone out of its way to preserve or support."

I agree completely.  The West/US has had a failed policy in the entire region for a century; even much longer if you want to go way back in history.

But was invading Iraq in 2003 the right way to reverse those mistakes? 

I don't think it was.  Intervention to undo failed interventions of the past seems a bit like lying to correct the fallacies of previous failed lies.

I have a very hard time absolving any US president who assumes the role of sole authority and progenitor of war as so many of the past have done when there are options to not do so.

Despite the failed policies of the past, there was indeed an option and holding the top leadership accountable is the best way to prevent such future misuse of the power they've assumed.


@founderstein @Alex_G @Andrew 

That said; there's ample blame all around - Congress (ALL) for abdicating the responsibilities that are theirs under the US Constitution Article I, Section VIII, Clause XI and for presidents abusing those powers.

Now that we've created the mess, and make no mistake, everyone in Congress who opted for war in 2003 and the then president are at fault; we need to find the best long-term solution while respecting the culture of those who are being impacted the most.

And the best interest isn't bombing them into submission.