Yesterday, while snuffling through her head cold, my friend Judith was complaining on the phone about the depressing choice facing her in the upcoming US presidential elections, even (especially) as an ex-pat American. We know that every last vote counts. Like a lot of us 'Bloggish types, she wants a leader who will push for sound economic management and a robust response to global terror. Sadly, Tony Blair is not an option. Looking at Bush and Kerry I can understand her difficulty in making a choice. Oliver Kamm can't.
I don't always agree with Oliver Kamm, but I usually like the way he reasons and writes. His site is serious and unshowy, but it has made a big impact in its short time online. This post of his from Friday appeared in the Times. In it, he argues that liberals should support Bush. It's not very good. I'm not saying that just because I disagree with it. Kamm offers insufficient evidence to condemn Kerry in the way he wants to and the weakness of his prosecution is betrayed by hype and bluster. Laban Tall enthuses, I think rightly, about Stephen K's God Save the Queen, but, puzzlingly, also recommends Kamm's thin essay. Tall writes:
“As usual, Oliver is Olympian, measured, full of historical references, lovely style. If that guy went to a State school I'll eat my copy of 'Adventures of Aeneas'.”
Call me a narg, but I prefer political arguments to rest on facts as well as allusions and rhetoric. I suspect that Laban Tall is correct, though, and Oliver Kamm has never seen the inside of a comprehensive. In his boosting of Bush, Kamm's presentation is what you could call “coached for Oxbridge entrance”: if you haven't swotted up sufficiently to answer a given question, hide behind imperious phrase-making. It's appropriate that, in his latest post, (as well as resorting to the clichés “lost by a landslide”, “crushing defeat”, and “the applause … was long and loud”) Kamm criticizes Lindsey German for “a massive non sequitur“. Kamm's case against Kerry contains non sequiturs that would embarrass even a schoolboy bluffer:
“Liberal internationalism envisages an order founded on constitutional democratic principles. It stands, as Woodrow Wilson declared in 1917, “for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience”. It advocates maintaining peace through collective security and non-discriminatory trade.
“John Kerry is no inheritor of this tradition. His foreign policy reveals a conservative pessimism about the limits of political action (a stance that will be familiar to Michael Portillo from his service in a Government that declined to confront Serb aggression against Bosnia). Kerry's distaste for American exceptionalism runs deep. Lawrence Kaplan recently recorded in the American political journal The New Republic that when, in 1997, President Clinton described the United States as the “indispensable nation”, Kerry retorted, “Why are we adopting such an arrogant, obnoxious tone?””
If the quote is accurate and misses no important context then the remark Kamm cites provides no support for Kamm's assertion whatsoever. Kerry explicitly criticized the way Clinton sounded, not the truth of what Clinton said. In fact, Kerry asked (and asks) a perfectly reasonable question: “The World knows that we carry a big stick; why do we not speak softly?”
In this war, intelligence is our best weapon and the goodwill of bystanders is worth the pretence of modesty. Bush's, surely unintentional, use of the word “crusade” in referring to the War on Terror, for example, cost us dearly. Cruise missiles are expensive, but (public) tact is cheap. Here is Kamm's preferred candidate for 2004, George W. Bush, in debate with Gore in 2000:
“They ought to look at us as a country that understands freedom where it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from that you can succeed. I don't think they ought to look at us with envy. It really depends upon how [our] nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power. And that's why we've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. We're a freedom-loving nation. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're humble nation, they'll respect us.”
Here is a picture of a parakeet. Whoops—this non sequitur thing is catching.
If we look at the other half of Kamm's summary of Wilsonianism, Kerry, so far, has said foolish things about free trade, but Bush has made more foolish, and more damaging, decisions.
Time for some more Kamm (or perhaps that should be “some more hysteria”):
“No more facile remark has been uttered about the Iraq war than John Kerry's lament that it diverted the focus of the War on Terror. Overthrowing Baathist totalitarianism was a humanitarian cause, but it also buttressed Western security. Recent academic research suggests that—contrary to numerous confident episcopal assertions—the “root cause” of terrorism is not poverty but political repression.”
At the very least, this is hyperbole. Off the top of my head, I can think of half-a-dozen more facile remarks that have been “uttered” about the Iraq war. Even Kamm can manage two:
“By some margin the most facile argument of the anti-war campaigners—I heard it, unsurprisingly, from Shirley Williams, Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords—was that containment of Saddam worked, as containment of the Soviet Union had worked, and that we should continue to rely upon it.”
“…facile analogy (Iraq is the new Vietnam etc.) comes naturally to those who wish to beat up on the President without engaging in the tiresome business of critical inquiry.”
That tiresome business of critical inquiry has proved a little too tiresome this time, but, as my legally minded sister would put it, perhaps Kamm knows something we don't about what the “root cause” fallacy has to do with the price of cheese. (I'd blame the second jump in logic I quote on bad subbing if I hadn't taken it directly from Kamm's own Webpages.) Here is Kerry, quoted in a negative article in the Weekly Standard, which at least has the patience and decency to give his words in full—and counter them with some substance:
“I don't fault George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror, as some do. I believe that he's done too little and done some things that he didn't have to. When the focus of the war on terror was appropriately in Afghanistan and on breaking al Qaeda, President Bush shifted his focus to Iraq and to Saddam Hussein. He pushed away our allies at a time when we needed them the most. He hasn't pursued a strategy to win the hearts and minds of people around the world, and win the war of ideas against the radical ideology of Osama bin Laden.”
Nothing there to justify Kamm's detour into sociology, just a boringly sensible complaint about resource allocation, international relations, and propaganda.
The danger of lost focus has always struck me as being one of the most powerful arguments against the war in Iraq. The war has stretched the US and UK military; it has been enormously unpopular with otherwise (foolishly) indifferent powers; it has put stockpiles of previously hidden weaponry into circulation.
All of these results are less important than the consequent improvement in the lives of the Iraqis, but all of them were predictable and predicted, and all of them are bad for western security in a struggle in which reserves of strength, access to information, and continued disarmament of our enemies should be priorities. Bush was right to fight, but the results were always going to be a problem for those—like me, like Kerry—who believe fundamentalist terrorism to be the biggest current threat to global security.
I used to think that Oliver Kamm's 'Blog had only one real weakness: it intermittently indulged superstition. Why does such a sharp mind blunt itself picking apart the weavings of the Pope and other celebrities of the world of revelation-over-reason? (It's his 'Blog and his mind—he can write about what he wants to.) Why is its lively skepticism flattened by “pricing mechanisms”? (This is more pseudoscience than pure faith—the word “mechanism” a mark of physics envy.) Why does it sell and re-sell a WMD argument for war with Saddam, as speculative and superfluous as a coursebook in Dianetics, both before and after the war? (I supported our intervention on more substantial grounds.) Recently, Kamm's establishment seems to be suffering from a new problem: the proprietor hasn't been paying enough attention to the quality of his material.
A recent post from the relatively obscure God Save The Queen contains the same quote about American exceptionalism, appears in the same discreet colours and fonts, but is both more interesting and persuasive. In a couple of places it's funny too. I'll be visiting Oliver Kamm from time to time because it's a damned fine 'Blog, but I'm going to be following the the newcomer more closely from now on.