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Juan Cole: Logical Errors in GOP Debate on the Middle East

February 24, 2012

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gingrich.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by IowaPolitics.

Why Gingrich’s claims are fallacies and card-stacking.

By **Juan Cole**

By arrangement with Juan Cole.

The candidates to be the Republican standard bearer in this year’s presidential campaign addressed Iran and Syria in the course of their debate. Except for Ron Paul, they resorted to propaganda and logical fallacies. This use of erroneous arguments by canny men who have been in positions of high responsibility can only be explained if we assume ulterior motives. That is, they have actual reasons for wanting to do something that are not acceptable to the public, so they have to promote their policies dishonestly.

All but Paul virtually promised the U.S. public that they would go to war with Iran if elected. As Paul pointed out, the U.S. has no money for such a war and it would be illegal and unconstitutional for the President just to launch it.

Gingrich then, having completely misrepresented Ahmadinejad, ends by saying it would be wise to “believe dictators.”

Newt Gingrich was the first to take the Iran question. He criticized Gen. Martin Dempsey for saying that the Iranian regime is “rational actors.”

Gingrich said, “The fact is, this is a dictator, Ahmadinejad, who has said he doesn’t believe the Holocaust existed.

Gingrich begins with name calling, to appeal to the emotions. Who likes a dictator? Then he points to a negative attribute of Iran’s president, his questioning of the Holocaust.

One problem is that Ahmadinejad is not a dictator. The presidency in the Iranian system is like the vice presidency in the United States. Ahmadinejad has lost fights with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and even with parliament over appointments. The Wikileaks cables say that a Revolutionary Guard officer even slapped him.

Another is that while it is true that Ahmadinejad has—disgustingly—questioned that fully six million Jews were killed by Hitler, this stance does not prove he is not a rational actor on policy decisions. Moreover, since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei makes the important decisions, whether Ahmadinejad is all there is again irrlevant. This fallacy is known as “missing the point.”

Gingrich continues, calling Ahmadinejad a dictator yet again, and accuses him of saying that he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth.

So Gingrich repeats the name calling. Then he makes a false assertion. Ahmadinejad once quoted an old speech of Ayatollah Khomeini’s from the 1980s, in which Khomeini said, “this occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” “mahv shavad” or vanish is intransitive, so transitive verb like “eliminate” is incorrect as a translation. It was not a threat to destroy Israel through military action, but a prediction that the occupation regime would collapse rather as the Soviet Union had. The occupation regime over Gaza, after all, has in fact collapsed.

This propaganda technique is known as “stacking the cards,” since Gingrich has not told his audience that Ahmadinejad has relatively little power in the Iranian system and despite being president he is not the commander in chief of the armed forces. That would be Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Gingrich says that Ahmadinejad wants to “drive the United States” out of the Middle East. While Ahmadinejad is an anti-imperialist, he has not threatened to attack the United States, as Gingrich implied. Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei has repeatedly said that Iran has a “no first strike policy” and will not be the first to initiate hostilities.

Gingrich then, having completely misrepresented Ahmadinejad, ends by saying it would be wise to “believe dictators.” So having smeared Iran’s relatively weak and besieged president as a praetorian dictator, having put words in his mouth, Gingrich then makes his own slur the reason for which credibility should be given to Gingrich’s misstatement of Ahmadinejad.

Gingrich is engaged in a form of the ad hominem argument. We should believe that Ahmadinejad’s aggressive statements (most of which he did not actually make in the form alleged) because Ahmadinejad is dictatorial.

In fact, Gingrich cannot refute Gen. Dempsey’s assertion that Iran is a rational actor by reference to Ahmadinejad, who does not make military policy.

Gingrich also errs in not taking account of Iran’s military weakness and inability to attack or destroy Israel. Iran has no air force to speak of, whereas Israel has the best air force in the region. Iran does not have a big tank army. It is far from Israel and could not send tank columns through Turkey or Iraq or Jordan. Besides, the Israelis would just destroy the tanks. And Israel has 400 nuclear bombs, which would deter Iran from attacking it even if Iran had that capacity, which it does not.

More card stacking.

Gingrich then says that we should acquiesce in Netanyahu’s plans for bombing Iran because he is a “holocaust survivor.” This is the propaganda technique of the testimonial, when an attempt is made to sway listeners by appealing to the authority of one leader. Gingrich concludes by supporting preemptive war, but nothing he said actually argued for it.

Romney said, “Ahmadinejad having fissile material that he can give to Hezbollah and Hamas and that they can bring into Latin America and potentially bring across the border into the United States to let off dirty bombs here. I mean—or—or more sophisticated bombs here, this—we simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weaponry.”

This is Propaganda with a capital “p”. Romney is appealing to an argument that stacks the cards. No nuclear country has ever given bombs to terrorist groups and there is no reason to think Iran would either. Iran does not, of course, even have such a bomb. Hizbullah and Hamas could not in fact carry a nuclear bomb (they are heavy, complicated and dangerous) around Latin America and up through Mexico to the US because Mexican authorities would detain them. Assuming there were Hamas in “Latin America,” which there mostly are not. Romney is just making sh*t up with which to scare us.

He has to do this because Iran is far away from the U.S., is militarily weak, and poses no threat to the American mainland. By inventing radical Muslim fundamentalist Mexicans with a nuclear bomb miraculously supplied by an Iran that doesn’t have one, Romney brings a sense of danger to an American audience.

Santorum brings up the rear arguing that US funding for anti-regime elements in Iran would have allowed the overthrow of the Khamenei government. But a few tens of millions of dollars cannot bring down a government, and open association with the United States is the kiss of death in Iranian politics.

This squalid performance by three of the leading lights of the GOP is a very troubling development. All seem reckless and willing to risk war with Iran. None seems terribly interested in the outcome. It is almost as though they were working for big munitions corporations.

________________________________________________________________________

By arrangement with Juan Cole.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website.

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