47 Debate: On the Uncertainty of our Judgment

Thanks to high school debate, I learned at a young age that every policy conflict can be argued by any rational person from either side. There’s a cold logic to competitive debate that cuts through ideology or “belief” — whether you are assigned affirmative or negative from round to round predetermines your strategic options and often your arguments.

For this reason, a judge in a competitive debate is supposed to leave his or her beliefs at the door of each round. A judge is free to determine which paradigm to use to determine the victor — most weigh the advantages and disadvantages of proposals in a John Stuart Mill utilitarian fashion — but personal opinion about the arguments is generally not an acceptable guide.

No doubt debate has shaped the way I view modern democracy. I don’t hold much value in opinion, even those that are widely shared, unless the opinions are backed by strong reasons and data. Being a rhetorician by trade, however, has often placed me in the position of making the kinds of emotional rhetorical appeals that would not stand up to forensic scrutiny. The positive side of that is that I can recognize a purely rhetorical appeal instantly and know to discount it.

Plato is arguably the father of competitive debate, because he argued so forcefully against the use of rhetoric as a policy making tool. While it’s true that Plato’s dialectics differed from debate because both sides in a dialectical exchange are committed to truth and neither wishes to be declared a winner, in reality this kind of open intellectual exchange virtually never happens. Does anyone, for example, read one of Socrates’ dialectics and not come away thinking that he won the debate?

This is the way that I view the world — every issue is going to divide up between supporters and opponents. There will be reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue. And if I’m going to do my duty as a citizen in our democracy, I have a duty to check my ideological biases at the door before determining where I stand. The single worst way to make a political decision, in my view, is purely partisan. To support of oppose an action based purely on the party label of who supports it is robotic and inhuman.

In my view, ideology is a perfectly reasonable tool to frame the decision that you’ve already made, to put the decision in the context of others that you’ve made, but deploying it in a policy decision context is much like exchanging your scalpel for a butcher knife before entering an operating room.

Montaigne argues in this essay that, especially in matters of war and peace, there is almost always an historic rationale for any strategy deployed:

Events and their outcomes depend, especially in war, mainly on Fortune, who will not submit to our reasoning nor be subject to our foresight – as these lines put it: Badly conceived projects are rewarded; foresight fails, for Fortune does not examine causes nor follow merit but meanders through everything without distinction. Clearly there is Something greater which drives and controls us and subjects the concerns of men to laws of its own.

It’s easy to get caught up on the concept of “something greater” that Montaigne mentions here. It sounds like a providential hand at play, but my guess is that Montaigne had something else in mind. As noted in other esssays, Montaigne’s view is on the verge of fatalism at times. He expresses a belief in limits to human rationality, and this skepticism no doubt influenced philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche.

But Montaigne’s fatalism doesn’t result from a single divine torrent determining outcomes, rather it flows from multiple streams of historical forces. Wise decisions almost seem to be made for the wise leader, knowing how to divine them is a matter of sensibility, not reason.

Returning to a contemporary controversy, the debate continues to rage in Washington whether the U.S. should back a no-fly zone in Libya to thwart the aggression of the Qaddafi government against rebel forces. The difficulty in forming a rational opinion about any foreign policy matter is severely limited by the lack of information available to citizens. Who are these rebels opposing Qaddafi? What are their domestic and international objectives? These are important questions that Americans should know.

But news operations in the U.S. are so dreadful that it’s nearly impossible to find that kind of reporting. We’re left at the mercy of expert opinion, the same opinions from the same people who served us so poorly in the lead up to the Iraq war.

Today, two prominent leaders in the Democratic Party used historical analogies to back U.S. military involvement.

Former President Bill Clinton noted today that he used a no fly zone in the Balkans and that it saved lives, and if the rebels support one, we should stand behind them. U.S. Senator John Kerry took a different approach — comparing current events to those in Southern Iraq after the first Gulf War, where President George HW Bush called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, but failed to back that call with a no fly zone. The result was a slaughter of Iraqi rebels.

Neither of these are perfect historical analogies, as you might expect I would write. The success of U.S. air power in Kosovo took many months to succeed — and was on the brink of failure when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic suddenly backed down to U.S. demands. The fact that the U.S. held in reserve the option of a land invasion — something that we cannot threaten now — no doubt played a factor in the ultimate success of the strategy.

In the Gulf War, the U.S. had just driven Iraqi forces from Kuwait and were slaughtering them at will when President Bush called for the uprising. The U.S. has not gone to war with Libya — in fact, relations with Qaddafi were substantially better than they were 10 years ago until the uprising and Qaddafi’s harsh military counterstrike. The uprising is not due to a U.S. call for an overthrow either.

To reiterate my view, the U.S. must at some point, stop seeing ourselves as the policeman of the planet. We also need to be wary of adopting knee-jerk support for any rebel uprising as if we lived in the “Star Wars” universe, not our own. If other nations (France and members of the Arab League, so far) believe a no fly zone is a good idea, let them impose one. We have enough military commitments at the moment.

Historical analogies can be draw to support both hawks and doves. As Montaigne wrote:

There is every possibility of speaking for and against anything.

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