Thursday, August 7, 2008

Medved on pirates vs. terrorists

From, Michael Medved with a confused attempt to analogize Bush and the War on Terror to Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates...

Medved's thesis:

Most Americans remain utterly ignorant of this nation’s first foreign war but that exotic, long-ago struggle set the pattern for nearly all the many distant conflicts that followed. Refusal to confront the lessons of the First Barbary War (1801-1805) has led to some of the silliest arguments concerning Iraq and Afghanistan, and any effort to apply traditional American values to our future foreign policy requires an understanding of this all-but-forgotten episode from our past.

Then, he digs into his analysis...

The war against the Barbary States of North Africa (Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli—today’s Libya) involved commitment and sacrifice far from home...

So far, so good...

...and in no way involved a defense of our native soil.

Yes and no. Not our soil per se, but certainly our citizens' ability to engage in trade-- a question of life, liberty and property. (This certainly introduces a slippery slope: when the interests of American citizens are involved, should the government intervene with force?) Medved actually makes this argument later in his essay!

Moreover, this conflates our efforts in Afghanistan (punishing and eliminating terrorists) with those in Iraq (deposing a tyrant and then, far more challenging, trying to rebuild a nation).

When Jefferson became president in 1801, he resolved to take a hard line against the terrorists and their sponsors.

A none-too-clever rhetorical move to equate the pirates of 1801 with the terrorists of 2001. Two key distinctions: the pursuit of money and wanting to avoid death vs. trying to fend off perceived oppressors and a determined willingness to die.

After some useful historical detail, Medved draws seven lessons-- the first three of which are worthy of comment/critique:

1. The U.S. often goes to war when it is not directly attacked. One of the dumbest lines about the Iraq War claims that “this was the first time we ever attacked a nation that hadn’t attacked us.” Obviously, Barbary raids against private shipping hardly constituted a direct invasion of the American homeland, but founding fathers Jefferson and Madison nonetheless felt the need to strike back. Of more than 140 conflicts in which American troops have fought on foreign soil, only one (World War II, obviously) represented a response to an unambiguous attack on America itself. Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a long-standing tradition of fighting for U.S. interests, and not just to defend the homeland.

I've already covered some of this, but let's add some more problems with Medved's expansion of his earlier point: fallacy of authority (referring to "founding fathers") and appeal to tradition and begging the question (just because it's been done before, should it be done now and should it have been done then?)

2. Most conflicts unfold without a Declaration of War. Jefferson informed Congress of his determination to hit back against the North African sponsors of terrorism (piracy), but during four years of fighting never sought a declaration of war. In fact, only five times in American history did Congress actually declare war – the War of 1812, the Mexican War, The Spanish American War, World War I and World War II....

Appeal to tradition and begging the question again. Beyond that, what does the Constitution say about this? And why would a "conservative" implicitly encourage flaunting the Constitution?

3. Islamic enmity toward the US is rooted in the Muslim religion, not recent American policy. In 1786...the Americans asked their counterpart why the North African nations made war against the United States, a power “who had done them no injury"...: “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

This is a reasonable line of argument. But as I have written elsewhere, there is little contemporary evidence for this view. Pape acknowledges the secondary role of religion in about half of all suicide terrorist attacks. But the data show that only perceived occupation and oppression is enough to motivate suicide terrorism as a strategy (in all cases).


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