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Three Kind of Claims about Iraq

by Michael Austin, published

In classical rhetorical theory, there are three kinds of claims that you can advance: claims of fact (i.e. 25% of Americans live below the poverty level), claims of value (i.e. it is a bad thing that so many Americans are poor), and claims of policy (i.e. in order to lift Americans out of poverty, we should raise the minimum wage).

Each type of claim has to be supported a different way. Claims of facts must be supported with factual evidence. Claims of value have to be supported with appeals to some kind of shared value or common perception. And those making claims of policy have the responsibility to give us reasons to believe the policy being proposed will actually address the problem that it is supposed to solve.

Understanding the nature of the claims at issue allows the participants in a debate to reach the point of stasis, or the point in the argument where the participants agree about what they are actually disagreeing about. Unless the participants in a debate reach a point of stasis, there is no chance of an actual argument occurring. The entire discussion will be the homo sapiens equivalent of chimpanzees throwing poo.

And this seems to be where we are as a nation on the question of a second intervention in Iraq.

Advocates of such an intervention, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have presented a staggering array of fact claims to support a new invasion: that Iraq is being overrun by terrorists, that many innocent people are being killed, that ISIS militants want to impose Sharia Law on Iraq and support the Islamic rebellion in Syria, that this would be very destabilizing for the entire region.

However, I am willing to grant all of the facts above. I am also willing to grant the values that accompany them: that ISIS is evil, that the humanitarian implications of their actions are severe, that America’s interests in the world are being harmed, and that a Sunni Islamist takeover of Iraq could end up posing great dangers to America and the West.

But here’s the problem: we do not need to be having a debate about facts or a debate about values.

Neither the facts nor the values are really at issue, as we pretty much all agree that ISIS is there, that they are really bad, and that there are American interests on the line. We need to have a debate about policies — to bomb Iraq again, to send in advisers, or, as Cheney proposes, to send 20,000 troops to Iraq to defeat the ISIS militants and re-establish the government.

Those proposing these policies need to give us some reason to believe that they are going to work.

This is not to say that 20,000 American troops could not defeat the current uprising and prop up the government for a short time. I have no doubt that it could. Just as I had no doubt that a massive American invasion could dislodge Saddam Hussein from power and create something that looked like a democracy.

Military forces are good at breaking things. And the American military breaks things better than any fighting force that has ever existed.

But unless we are willing to agree to the permanent occupation of Iraq, or a semi-colonial relationship that amounts to little more than a permanent low-level civil war, we have no reason to believe that the fighting will not start up again the next time we leave, or that it will not be even worse than it is today. That’s because military force is really bad at fixing things.

The problems in Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, have been a hundred years in the making. They stem from instabilities introduced into the design of the country by the colonial powers that created it. These problems were not caused by an insufficient American military presence. They are not going to be solved by 20,000, or by 200,000 American troops on the ground for any period of time that is less than forever.

In saying this, of course, I am making a claim of policy. Those who reject it have the burden to show that the proposed interventions will solve the real problems that need solving. No amount of evidence about the horrible facts on the ground, or the threat that these facts pose to America’s values, can be used to support an interventionist policy that won’t work.

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