Scraping The Bottom Of The Analogical Barrel

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Neville ChamberlainArguments by analogy are used to justify a controversial claim by invoking a similar claim in a less controversial instance. While not deductively valid, a good analogy can provide a strong reason to accept the claim. In an effort to drum up support for a military strike on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar Assad “now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war.” Other war drum beaters are warning about the “lessons of Munich” and Obama looking like Neville Chamberlain. When the analogy is tenuous, the argument becomes ludicrous.

Such is the case when Assad is compared to Hitler. It is unclear if Assad can even sustain his power in Syria, let alone militarily threaten any neighbors. Assad’s military is unable to overcome a ragtag gang of Islamists, so any comparison to Hitler is absurd.

The Hitler analogy was used by President George W. Bush to justify his war with Iraq, and President Bill Clinton to justify his decision to bomb Serbia. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was fond of telling reporters that “Munich is my mindset.” It’s déjà vu all over again.

Kerry’s comparison of Assad to Saddam Hussein just reminds the listener that President Ronald Reagan, with prior knowledge of Hussein’s use of chemical weapons, provided Hussein with satellite imagery to enable the targeting of Iranian forces.

During a stopover in Sweden, President Obama tried to move his “red line” comment when he said: “The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons was abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.” Obama added that his credibility is not on the line, but “The international community’s credibility is on the line.” If it’s the world’s red line and the world’s credibility at stake, then the world should decide what to do.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel tried to put forward a “national security” argument:

If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, could acquire them. This risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners, and to U.S. personnel in the region. We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons.

This argument makes little sense. Why would Assad’s willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people indicate a willingness to give those weapons to Hezbollah? Assad sees those weapons as key to his survival. He’s unlikely to part with them. A US strike could increase that risk if Assad decided to give Hezbollah chemical weapons in an act of retaliation. If Assad falls, those chemical weapons could easily fall into the hands of the rebel group  Al-Nusra, who has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

H/T: John Casey, Michael Hirsh, The Guardian, Jonathan Chait, Scott Lemieux, John Dickerson.

90 thoughts on “Scraping The Bottom Of The Analogical Barrel”

  1. davidbluefish,

    Yes. Very true about the OILiphants and ORCporations.

    But it’s an Indian elephant rampaging through the jungles of Southeast Asia and an African elephant rampaging across the deserts of the Middle East. See the different sizes of the ears and tusks? See the difference between plants and sand? See? See? Given these obvious differences, how can one possibly compare the rampaging of one elephant with the rampaging of another? Especially the idiot zoo-keeper who, somehow, can’t remember what happened to his elephants.

    I, too, have read The Lord of the Rings many times over the years. Last year, I read all three volumes out loud to my Taiwanese wife. I also read The Hobbit to her. And, of course, we have seen the LOTR films multiple times, and will again.

    As you probably know, J. R. R. Tolkien survived fighting in The Great War (WWI) but lost many of his closest and dearest friends in that nightmare. Something of the traumatized, shell-shocked veteran seems to pervade his work, although he seems to have transcended his own grief and pessimism through the creation of something lastingly beautiful. In the Foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring, he wrote:

    “One has indeed to personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

    In my copy of The Hobbit (revised edition), I have underlined some passages by Peter S. Beagle, who wrote the introduction in 1973:

    “The Sixties were no fouler a decade than the Fifties — they merely reaped the Fifties’ foul harvest. … We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

    I swore eternal hostility to war decades ago and will never accept or condone it. The world has more than enough enthusiastic apologists for war. It doesn’t need me to add one more to that number.

  2. MichaelMurry, I read Lord of the rings in high school, and then many times after. The books Thomas Covenant the unbeliever, by Stephan Donaldson
    was suggested to me. I found them fascinating. …At least the first six.
    Caution, the third trilogy is more than 3 books, when I finished all three the next one was not yet published ,… I have not returned to it since.

  3. michaelmurry, I find much value in your posts, thank you for them.

    The USA is not the first country to take advantage of rampaging elephants, nor was Hannibal. As you can see from this documentary Elephants were used long ago, very very long ago. ……. They were named Oliphants then. :o)
    In your analogy I think they should be named OILiphants. and their masters ORCorporations.

  4. President Obama and former President Bill Clinton have advanced the notion that war isn’t “war” if the United States does all the killing but suffers no casualties itself. Actually, this translates to simple mass murder by the United States military, only with few opportunities for medals of “valor.” Nonetheless, the hapless foreign victims of the murderous American onslaught understand what war means, no matter what obscene Orwellian euphemism American presidents concoct to make sure Americans never do.

    Get ready Damascus. Here comes the darkness, brought to you by The Usual Suspect:

    Baghdad is Broken
    (With apologies to Eleanor Farjeon who wrote the lyrics to “Morning is Broken”)

    Baghdad is broken, like with the Mongols
    Sacked as a token: What a man craves.
    Praise for the moaning, praise for the wailing
    Praise for the groaning, round the fresh graves

    Drink from the sewers, swim in the toilets
    Grim reaping hewers, feed on the pain
    Bagdhad is Bedlam, journalists dying
    No news from Head Ram, butting his brain

    Dark the night’s falling, no light till morning
    Government stalling, sits on its ass
    Conquered and plundered, hear the mad mourning
    POTUS has thundered, passing his gas

    His is the flaunting, of his crude power
    His is the taunting, of his new foes
    Sell some detergents, open some markets
    Damn the insurgents, in their last throes

    Praise the self-tooting, praise all the lying
    Let’s do some looting, of Babylon
    Praise the new order, conflict and chaos
    Unguarded border, just bring ’em on!

    Pictures in batches, taken with soldiers
    Pod-like he snatches, bodies asleep
    Ranch recreation, hiding from mothers
    His urination, on those who weep

    Praise for the Pet Press, sycophants scribbling
    Easy to impress, so compromised
    Best keep an eye on, his true objectives
    Oil, votes, and Zion; none advertised

    Empty suit speeches, read from a screen crawl
    Written by leeches, paid not to feel
    Praise the inflation, praise the huge debt load
    His defecation, on the New Deal

    His but to revel, in the Inferno
    His the tenth level, for him alone
    Dense and obscene he mumbles his mantras
    Broiled like a weenie, meat off the bone

    Baghdad is busted, worse off than Saigon
    No one is trusted, back in the States
    Praise immigration, praise red-meat issues
    Praise flagellation, of the inmates

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

  5. rafflaw,

    After an eighteen-month tour as an interpreter/translator/trainer, I returned to the U.S. from Vietnam in early February of 1972. I immediately got out of the Navy and returned to college where I had previously completed my freshman year. In September of 1972, I returned to Asia, this time to Taipei, Taiwan, as part of my school’s foreign studies program. I mostly concentrated on Mandarin Chinese and Japanese languages, but I had to take a required course in Sino-American relations. The professor assigned me a paper to write comparing the American military intervention in the Chinese Civil War with the American military intervention in the Vietnamese Civil War (or, Second Indochina War of Independence). I used three primary sources: Fire in the Lake, by Frances Fitzgerald; The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam; and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, by Barbara Tuchman. I had already read Street Without Joy, by Bernard Fall, back in 1969 as part of the required reading at Counter Insurgency School, so I had a pretty good background on the French military debacle in Vietnam, as well. When asked to give a concise synopsis of the two American military enterprises, I said I could do no better than Barbara Tuchman’s concluding line, with only the Chinese names replaced by Vietnamese ones:

    “In the end, China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.”

    Ditto for Vietnam. Ditto for Iraq. Ditto for Afghanistan. Ditto for Syria. Sure, the Americans typically leave behind a devastated landscape, poisoned environment, and shattered society. But in a few generations, the ancient cultural imperatives reassert themselves; the healing and repairing take place; and the Americans who finally left with their tails tucked proudly between their legs come to resemble — even if they cannot seem to understand — John Keats’ epitaph:

    “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.”

  6. MM,

    You point to a very true fact about argument by analogy: they are hard to use properly and easily misused on purpose.

  7. “Once a policy has been implemented, all subsequent activity becomes and effort to justify it.” — Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly

    President Obama said “Assad must go,” i.e., regime change policy implemented. Anything said by the Obama administration subsequently, especially the foot-in-mouth “red line” exit-closure, has no other rationale but justification of a policy already adopted. Assad wouldn’t go when told to go. So he must go. Because he must. Because …

  8. MM,
    that is a great quote from a great book that I read back in college or just afterwards.

  9. For those who want to understand just how insane thinking-by-misplaced-analogy can get, you really have to see the “military mind” at work with one of them:

    “In early 1967 [General William] Westmoreland gave a most complicated and interesting explanation for the rationale behind the President’s “ceiling” on the number of American troops. “If,” he said, “you crowd in too many termite killers, each using a screwdriver to kill the termites, you risk collapsing the floors or the foundation. In this war, we’re using screwdrivers to kill termites because it’s a guerrilla war and we cannot use bigger weapons. We have to get the right balance of termite killers to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.” To continue this extraordinary metaphor, the American force had managed to wreck the house without killing the termites; they had, further, managed to make the house uninhabitable for anyone except termites. In a different manner, they had made the [American-created puppet government] house unlivable as well.”

    — Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Westmoreland quoted in Newsweek, 27 March 1967 – almost a year before the Tet Offensive of 1968 brought the collapse of U.S. public support for the debacle in Southeast Asia.

    Take it from one who knows: you really don’t want the American maniacs with industrial-grade weaponry playing around with misplaced analogies. They can’t differentiate the significant from the trivial nor similarities from differences. They really can’t. Best not to let them start bombing in the first place.

  10. Then we have the proper analogy deniers like randy rooster:

    Apologist for U.S. war of aggression in Iraq:

    “Iraq is not like Vietnam.”

    Vietnam veteran and RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg:

    “Yeah, like in Iraq its a dry heat, and the language our military and civilian personnel don’t speak is Arabic instead of Vietnamese.”

    Put another way, paraphrasing randy rooster (whose pet bull elephant has run amok again):

    That rampaging bull elephant wrecking all those Vietnamese china shops is not like the rampaging bull elephant wrecking those Iraqi rug bazaars because shattered porcelain doesn’t look like shredded fabric! See? See?

    So to restate the moral of our story, children: “It ain’t the meaningless differences that make a proper analogy, it’s the significant similarities.” It isn’t the different species of flea on the rampaging elephant’s back, it’s the rampaging elephant.

    Of course, we understand that the incompetent and negligent owner of the rampaging elephant wishes to avoid the Karmic retribution — not to mention the burgeoning number of liability suits — stemming from his repeated failures to keep his psychotic pet elephant chained up at home where it belongs. So he naturally seeks to deflect the blame for all the spectacular damage onto the owners of china shops and rug bazaars who bear the complete responsibility for not packing up and getting themselves and their valuable merchandize out of the animal’s way.

    Some analogies can illustrate a useful moral. Some analogies can’t.

  11. Good Looking Golden: “How about comparing Obama’s administration’s Syria efforts with George W.’s run up to war in Iraq — still tenuous?”

    Here’s another one — everyone knows that evidence for the US assessment of Saddam’s WMDs was Dick-Cheneyed, but there was one non-US assessment at the time that was a spot-on assessment of the situation based on credible, material evidence — the UN report. Of course the report was belittled and its author excoriated.

    Now read this —

    Yep — Obama doesn’t need no stinking UN report to justify war, even though UN reports have proven to be more credible than US assessments

  12. nick,
    I was actually thinking of eating a late lunch until I read your broom handle description! 🙂

  13. Gene, That image of Jeffrey Dahmer being beaten to death by a broom handle probably factored into Castro’s decision.

  14. Ghandi had lots of things to say and he said them. Ghandi had many perceptions of the ills of humankind and he spoke of them. Ghandi helped transform India, and 100s of millions people took notice of him.
    I see no analogy between Ghandi and Obama.

    I see no peaceful shining truthful goal offered by the US for bombing Syria. I just see the US (powers that be) creating another cluster, that will create a future cluster …etc etc.
    This is the only consistent result I can see created by our policy in the middle east the last 50 years. We will bomb or overthrow one country and then do it all over again. …The glorious virtuous inspiring words of justification stay the same, we just change the country we bomb or overthrow. OH Yeah, the results are the same too.
    This is insanity.

  15. Gene H

    Yes, you’re right. “and both manipulated by and versus the Wahabists”.

    I keep thinking of the Sauds as more a very cynical secular power – what I meant by “Saudi is stirring the pot.” – but they do have a huge religious thing going.

    The US should have invaded Saudi instead of Iraq. That would have been closer to the source of a lot of troubles 🙂

  16. “I’m sure he was threatened by inmates and decided to do it on his own terms.”

    A distinct possibility, nick. Child molesters are the bottom rung on the food chain inside a prison.

  17. I think some of us forget that we used White Phosphorus in the Iraq War and the depleted uranium in our shells and missiles is causing significant health issues in Iraq. We do not have clean hands and the best way to try to get them clean is to not attack Syria. Especially on our own. If it was a true international effort, that might be a different matter, but as suggested above the UN will not do anything while Russia is throwing around its veto power.
    It was interesting to see how many times the US used its veto power in the 1980’s.

  18. Blouise, We would love to meet you, and my wife could have written off part of the trip, visiting a reader!! Actually, we were on a tight time frame anyway. I have lots of family we’re visiting and I had to catch my uncle in Vt. on Thursday. We’re in Newport, RI now and then Ct., NYC, and NJ. I will let you know the next time however. We’re due for another R&R HOF visit fairly soon.

    I don’t believe in the death penalty but I have no problem if an inmate wants to do unilaterally invoke it. A friend of mine is a shrink @ a Federal Prison. Suicides are their worst nightmares. He says if someone is determined to hang themselves, only 24/7 surveillance can prevent it, and even that’s not 100%. Although, from what I’ve read that institution in Ohio has had more than their share. I’m sure he was threatened by inmates and decided to do it on his own terms.

  19. Isn’t it possible that these excuses for attacking Syria are to cover over the real reason? Saudi’s are running out of oil, but Iran isn’t. Taking out Assad might eliminate one of Iran’s strongest allies in the region when–I mean should–we go to war with Iran, if we can prop up our own ally in Assad’s place. Secondly, why all of a sudden is it acceptable to defend international laws for war crimes when Obama granted “procedural immunity” to George W. Bush and members of his administration over their war crimes. I’m afraid President Obama has been led into a trap that will historically ruin his legacy and the conservatives can finally declare victory over him. I’m amazed that President Obama has such limited hindsight.

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