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Saturday, November 12, 2005

President Bush on Criticizing the Administration's Arguments for War in Iraq

President Bush's remarks yesterday are worth some comment.  Here's the lede from the Times:  "President Bush on Friday sharply criticized Democrats who have accused him of misleading the nation about the threat from Iraq's weapons programs, calling their criticism 'deeply irresponsible' and suggesting that they are undermining the war effort."

A few things can be said about this.  First, fairness demands that we be clear that the President was not saying what his fiercest critics might suggest: namely, that criticizing the administration's war efforts undermines the troops.  Second, it seems to me that even with this distinction in mind, anything the President said that was true yesterday was banal.  Third, to the extent the President was saying anything interesting yesterday, he was wrong.  (I leave aside a fourth consideration: whether the President ought to have made such partisan remarks at a Veterans Day event in front of a basically captive audience of soliders, some of whom may have been Democrats and some of whom may also believe the administration misled the nation about the threat presented by Iraq and its weapons program.  As should be clear, I think he should have chosen a different audience to make remarks of this nature.)

First, we should be clear about the President's criticism.  Contrary to the headline in the Times, and keeping in mind that the art of headline writing is about balancing content and limited space, it is not true that the President "contend[ed] [that] partisan critics hurt [the] war effort" in every case.  The President made clear that "it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision [to go to war] or the conduct of the war."  The President contended only that "false charges" by his critics irresponsibly "rewrite the history of how that war began," and that such false charges "send the wrong signal" to American soldiers and to America's adversaries.

So let's be clear about what the President said and what he didn't say.  Now, is it fair to say that false charges about the administration's behavior leading up to the war could undermine the war effort?  I don't see why not.  To the extent that a lack of unified support for a war effort might reduce troop morale, or suggest to the enemy that the nation might retreat if faced by enough violence, it seems to me a reasonable assertion that false criticism of the kind identified by the President might undermine the war effort.  It's a difficult empirical question, and the President has hardly proved that criticizing the administration's arguments leading up to the war has or will discernibly harm our position now or in the future.  But it's certainly not logically out of the question.  Indeed, following this logic, I don't see why it couldn't be argued that any criticism of the war effort, true or false, would undermine the troops.  The President's distinction between true and false criticism must perforce stand on something other than pure logic limited to the assertion at hand.  [More discussion after the jump...]

Of course, even if the President has said something true, he hasn't said much.  Although public criticism may undermine a war effort, the governing assumption in a democratic society is that, because "here, the people rule," discussion and criticism must be permitted even in times of emergency.  But we can go a step further and point out that the availability of criticism and dissent during wartime can aid a nation's war effort.  As Cass Sunstein ponts out in his book Why Societies Need Dissent, citing the work of Luther Gulick, democratic nations engaged in the Second World War fared better than the totalitarian nations of the Axis, in part because "'the kind of review and criticism which democracy alone affords'" provided useful "checks and corrections" that prevent leaders from "'believ[ing] their own propaganda" and falling prey to groupthink and other cognitive shortcomings.  We can thus see that even if criticisms of the war effort might tend to undermine the war effort, there are strong instrumental justifications for conducting a war under conditions of relative transparency and the availability of criticism and dissent.  If that's the case, it seems to me the accurate core of the President's speech -- that his critics may undermine the war effort -- is merely banal, and lacks any normative force once we factor in the benefits of public criticism during wartime.

So can we say the President's remarks are more interesting once we focus on two other implied or express aspects of his remarks: first, that the accusations he complains of are false, and second, that they are made for partisan purposes?  I don't think so.  As to the first point, that his critics are making false allegations that the administration misled the public on the facts supporting war in Iraq, both the Times article and, more particularly, this Washington Post article make clear that his argument is contestable; so his argument may not stand even in the precise situation in which he was making it.  More broadly, if some criticism of the President's decision-making process leading to the war and his present conduct of the war is "perfectly legitimate," as the President concedes it is; and if there are instrumental as well as democratic reasons why this is so, as Sunstein/Gulick argue; then, for the reasons discussed in New York Times v. Sullivan, we may need to allow a certain amount of breathing room even for "false" criticism -- not so much because of the value of false criticism in and of itself, but because it is often difficult to discern whether criticism is true or false, and if there is some benefit to criticism even during war, we don't want to constrain the availability of criticism too much by suppressing it based on truth or falsity.  In short, I don't think the President's distinction between false and true criticisms bears much scrutiny, either on the present facts or as a broader matter of logical argument.

Should it make a difference if the criticism is motivated by partisan purposes?  Again, I think not.  If there is some instrumental value to criticism of the administration during war -- if it allows for a greater diversity of argument and counters the leadership's tendency to rely on a limited stock of views and facts --then it seems to me the motivation for such criticism, although it may reduce our admiration for the critics and lead us to view their claims skeptically, is immaterial to the question whether the criticism is beneficial.  (And of course, critics are not the only people who may be making arguments for partisan purposes, as I think the President's own remarks demonstrate.)  Indeed, I take it as a fundamental part of our constitutional structure of government that it intends to use such partisan views to balance power and guard against error on the part of any decision-making branch.  To be sure, the Framers might have thought the partisan motivations at issue would be institutionally based rather than party-based.  That is, because the separation of powers would ensure that "the interest of the man" was "connected with the constitutional rights of the place [or institution]" in which he worked, to quote Madison, Congress should naturally tend to contest the views of the President, and vice versa.  But, although I prefer such institutional interests to party interests, for present purposes they achieve the same thing: partisan motivations are a vital way of ensuring that arguments are aired and no branch acts unchecked or relies on partial or improper information.  Thus, even if the President's critics are motivated by partisan purposes, their criticisms may still serve vital purposes.  So, to the extent the President's arguments attempt to gain some force based on the partisan nature of the criticisms of the administration, I think they fail.

Now, ours is also a republican government, in which we expect our leaders to be at least a little wise, even if they're also partisan and/or fueled by institutional jealousy.  So he might simply criticize his critics for speaking unwisely or incorrectly or hypocritically.  (Although, as the Post points out, to the extent his critics formerly supported the war because they relied on the administration's own evidence, they could legitimately criticize him now if they concluded that the information provided by the administration was incomplete or offered in a manipulative way.)  As to some of his critics, the President is probably right; as to others, he's probably wrong. 

But the President said more than that in his speech yesterday.  And although, as I stressed at the outset, we shouldn't inflate the President's remarks in a way that suggests he sought to foreclose all criticism of the war effort, it still seems to me that what the President did say is still basically either banal or wrong.               

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 12, 2005 at 04:01 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Misled, manipulated? We all can only speculate. Here is Sen John Edwards, who was there.


As for Law Student's comment that there is a difference between a deliberate lie and a foolish mistake, in most democrtic nations, elected leaders whose foolish mistakes lead to death and destruction are often made to resign. We don't just expect honesty (?) from our leaders but also good judgement.

Posted by: Ruchira Paul | Nov 13, 2005 11:17:06 AM

Did Bush lie? I doubt anyone can show that he said anything he knew to be false, although if he said the British "learned" something the Administration had reason to believe was untrue, he was close to the line. However, I think it is relatively easy to show he said many things he knew to be misleading. Bush never said Iraq was connected to September 11, for example, but he often intended to leave that impression. And that impression was left with a majority of the American public.

As Daniel Davies has pointed out, that distinction will not keep the publisher of a stock prospectus out of jail. Arguably, a higher standard should be applied to a President embarking on a war of choice.

Posted by: Pithlord | Nov 13, 2005 2:10:20 AM

It seems to me that there is a difference between "Bush lied" or even "Bush doctored the intelligence" on the one hand, and "Bush [or Cheney or other administration officials] manipulatively cited the information available to them," or "Bush [etc.] pushed analyses of the evidence that State or CIA didn't think were borne out by the facts, and used those analyses to argue for the war." I gather that some of the criticisms, at least, make these latter arguments, not the former arguments, and that some or all of the inquiries you cite did not address these questions. See, e.g., this quote from Judge Silberman's report: "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that that was not part of our inquiry." I take no strong position on these questions; I'm simply suggesting that the criticisms of the administration may be slightly different than your characterization of them. In some cases, not all; surely some folks have made stronger and possibly more frivolous claims.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 12, 2005 8:18:06 PM

Oh, come on now! There is a tremendous difference between honest and objective criticism and what can only be seen as the rewriting of the facts.

As partisan politics get more and more poisonous, the change of an objective media into Yellow Journalism because it sells papers or fits an ideological mold cannot be good for morale when a country is in “something like war.”

The evidence, reviews, investigations by Congress, and plain memory make it clear that the debate on “Bush lied” or “Bush Doctored the Intelligence” should be a non-starter by anyone interested in the facts, not scoring political gains...

Does anyone really think there is enough evidence out there that Bush lied to lead us to war as opposed to perhaps made the wrong decision and foolishly led us to war? There is a tremendous difference between the two.

Posted by: Law student | Nov 12, 2005 8:01:12 PM

I agree with you. You make your argument in a far more methodical and scholarly manner than I did in my own blog post yesterday - "Vengeance on Veterans Day" at Accidental Blogger. You also are more generous in granting the President the benefit of the doubt that he may not have been attempting to "foreclose all criticism of the war effort". In my own view, he was doing exactly that.

Posted by: Ruchira Paul | Nov 12, 2005 7:17:30 PM

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