Monday, April 6, 2009

Frank Gaffney: Right on the Merits, a Good Debater, or Just Scary?

On today's Hardball with Chris Matthews, the opening guests were neo-con Frank Gaffney and liberal David Corn. The discussion related to the missile launch in N. Korea. Predictably, Gaffney believed that Obama was too soft, and that the administration should have shot down the missile post-launch. Corn, on the other hand, generally supported Obama's diplomatic approach. It was fairly obvious that Gaffney won the debate: he set the agenda, had more one-liners, ate up most of the time, and was generally more persuasive. Here's the video:

As anyone that knows me (or peruses this blog) will guess, I actually believe that Corn -- not Gaffney) is right on the merits. However, in this post, I don't want to discuss the merits (i.e., what America should have done about N. Korea will not be discussed). The merits are a topic for another post, such as this one. Here, I want to explore why, in my opinion, Corn is right on the merits, yet Gaffney won the debate.

The central explanation is this: The world is a very, very dangerous place, and thus it is very, very easy for Gaffney (and other neo-cons) to argue that military action is needed in most any circumstance, even when such military action is clearly inappropriate. In making this argument, I will use two premises:

- Premise (a): The world is a very scary place, full of people that want Americans dead; and
- Premise (b): Thus, America must use aggressive, military action to thwart the threat.

This argument was successfully exploited in the lead-up to Iraq, and one can understand why! Support for aggressive, war-like action is an understandable reaction to evidence of danger. We humans are programed to fight for their lives; it is ingrained in our DNA. Further, America is a nation that swells -- and should swell -- with intense national pride. Thus, threats to our citizens and-or to our nation are taken with the utmost, deadly seriousness.

Because of these predispositions, if premise (a) (the world is a scary place) is established, then premise (b) (aggressive, military action is needed) will often follow, even when, logically, it should not follow. As we all know, premise (a) is an extremely easy case to establish. There are threats -- both domestic and global -- to our safety and sovereignty everywhere, everyday. The threats come in the form of nuclear and biological weapons, or from other general terrorist threats. The threats also come from other countries seeking to replace America as the world's leader through non-military means. And, of course, there are hundreds of other threats to America that I did not list.

These facts create the perfect storm for a person's (such as a politician's) exploitation. This exploitation is exactly what Bush et al. did to make the case for Iraq. By constantly proffering evidence of premise (a) (the world is dangerous), they were easily able to establish premise (b) (aggressive, military action). True, (b) often will not logically follow from (a), but the fervor that surrounds proof of (a) makes (b) seem much more reasonable than would otherwise be the case.

In other words, I have put forth the obvious, noncontroversial proposition that it is easy to scare the hell out of people and, if done consistently, it becomes easy to manipulate the public into support for a war.

Now, back to the Gaffney-Corn debate. Even though, in my opinion, Corn's argument is correct, Gaffney won the debate on technical points. Gaffney's win is explained by the above-argument, namely, that it is tremendously easy to make the case for war. First, you offer evidence of danger. Gaffney did this masterfully by discussing the (unsubstantiated) risk of North Korea launching missiles at South Korea and Hawaii; Gaffney even -- amazingly and shamefully -- managed to argue that our a diplomatic approach to N. Korea emboldened Iran, thereby increasing the threat to Americans. After amply (and easily) establishing premise (a), it was a breeze for Gaffney to argue premise (b).

Essentially, my point is this: So often, Gaffney and other neo-cons roll over liberals like Corn, but these technical victories are not evidence that the neo-cons are right on the merits. Instead, it is an incident of the fact that the neo-cons are voicing an overly simplistic, easy, canned argument over and over and over -- the world is dangerous, extremely dangerous.

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