Even More Things that Are Not Arguments

Canada is sending about 600 members of the RCAF and a dozen aircraft of various types to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their war with ISIS.

Here are some things that are not arguments:

1) “ISIS are EVIL! They are committing GENOCIDE! They are RAPING and MURDERING and ENSLAVING PEOPLE!”

This fails the test of argument because while all of these–with the exception of the claim regarding genocide, which is questionable–are true, they do not imply “therefore we must bomb them!” or “therefore bombing them will stop them!”

What follows from these statements of fact is, “Decent people are opposed to such things. Therefore we should consider what is the most practical means of stopping them.”

As even the most casual student of military history knows, bombing people does not always work to stop and organization like ISIS. Examples abound. Here are two.

As recently as a few years ago bombing in Libya, whose purpose was:

“an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the current attacks against civilians, which it said might constitute crimes against humanity” … “imposing a ban on all flights in the country’s airspace – a no-fly zone – and tightened sanctions on the Qadhafi regime and its supporters.”

resulted in an outcome that has been described as:

The country has been subject to ongoing proliferation of weapons, Islamic insurgencies, sectarian violence, and lawlessness, with spillovers affecting neighboring countries including Mali.

And in Kosovo in 1999, where the outcome was marginally better but not necessarily closely related to the bombing:

Yugoslav President Milošević survived the conflict and declared its outcome a major victory for Yugoslavia. He was, however, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia along with a number of other senior Yugoslav political and military figures. His indictment led to Yugoslavia as a whole being treated as a pariah by much of the international community because Milošević was subject to arrest if he left Yugoslavia. The country’s economy was badly affected by the conflict, and a year later, popular disillusionment with the Milošević regime led to his overthrow in October 2000.

Thousands were killed during the conflict, and hundreds of thousands more fled from the province to other parts of the country and to the surrounding countries. Most of the Albanian refugees returned home within a few weeks or months. However, much of the non-Albanian population again fled to other parts of Serbia or to protected enclaves within Kosovo. Albanian guerrilla activity spread into other parts of Serbia and to neighbouring Republic of Macedonia, but subsided in 2001. The non-Albanian population has since diminished further following fresh outbreaks of inter-communal conflict and harassment, and veterans of the officially disbanded KLA are threatening renewed violence if their demand for secession is not fulfilled.

So anyone who claims “ISIS is evil, therefore we must bomb them” needs must give some account as to why they think bombing them will be particularly effective in stopping them. They also need to explain why it won’t have the opposite outcome: external assault generally increases support for unpopular state organizations, thereby plausibly increasing their lifespan, and resulting in more murders, more rapes, more enslavement than if they had been left alone.

This is the cold, appalling truth. It may well be in the case of ISIS the forces in play argue for the kind of military intervention that is now in progress, but that case has not been made, and certainly is not made by anyone who simply says, “ISIS is evil” as if that was in any way an argument for it.

2) Are you a member of the armed forces? Got family in uniform? So shut up!

People who deploy this non-argument apparently feel that militaries ought not to be under civilian control, or that only the 600 members of the RCAF (and their families) are legitimate voices in this debate.

In reality, our armed forces are staffed by volunteers. They knew they would be under civilian, democratic control when they signed up. To suggest that those of us not in uniform have no say in how they are deployed is to engaged in an assault on Canadian democracy itself… perhaps such people are actually in league with ISIS, which appears to be no fan of our democratic institutions.

3) The government didn’t allow a debate!

It is the constitutional role of the government to decide when war is appropriate policy. People who make this non-argument are apparently confused as to the roles of the government and the Commons.

For myself, I am obviously unconvinced that the strategy of airstrikes being planned is likely to be effective in its stated goal, which is to degrade the ability of ISIS to make war. Tactical airstrikes, as have already been used to good effect in the evacuation of the Yazidis and in other cases, are demonstrably effective at winning specific battles, but as overall strategic policy airstrikes are at best highly problematic. It may be all we can do, politically, but I am not alone in thinking it won’t do the job, and I genuinely worry that it will lengthen the brutal reign of the ISIS.

To make an argument for bombing ISIS you have to do the following:

1) Show ISIS is evil (not difficult)
2) Show that bombing is more likely to prevent them from doing evil by either disrupting individual operations, destroying basic capacities, or changing their minds about the wisdom of being evil than any of the cheaper, less deadly alternatives.

It is the latter issue that has not been debated. Clearly humanitarian aid, nation-building, etc are not going to stop ISIS from being evil in the short to medium term, although some of those things may have their own benefits that make them worth the cost.

But are there other approaches? And on the evidence how likely is it that bombing them will help rather than make things worse by hardening their local support in areas where they might otherwise be unpopular?

Advocates of bombing appear to me to be like people who are facing a large crowd of refugees on the far side of a deep and dangerous canyon. “We must do something!” they scream, and immediately start felling trees to build a crude bridge, whilst ignoring the wreckage of bridges past that bestrew the canyon floor, complete with bleaching skeletons of those who were on them when they collapsed.

In such circumstances we might like to talk to an engineer to see what can be done to make our new bridge more effective, rather than insisting that we must rush off and do the very first thing that comes to mind.

There are actually people who study the effectiveness of war and various tactics, and while such studies are still in their infancy the general answer regarding the effectiveness of limited military intervention is “not much”.

In the present case, we have the opportunity to do a case study. Prime Minister Harper has said clearly that objectives of the current mission are:

Let me be clear on the objectives of this intervention.

We intend to significantly degrade the capabilities of ISIL.

Specifically, its ability to either engage in military movements of scale, or to operate bases in the open.

This will halt ISIL’s spread in the region and greatly reduce its capacity to launch terrorist attacks outside the region.

To be clear, this will not eliminate ISIL nor automatically ensure that alternative governance is able to occupy its space in Iraq or Syria.

It will, however, open the opportunity for others to do so.

But again to be clear, while ISIL will not be eliminated, the risks presented from the territory in which it operates will be significantly reduced to those of other similar ungoverned spaces in the broader region.

I count these six objectives:

  1. significantly degrade ISIL’s ability to engage in military movements of scale
  2. significantly degrade ISIL’s ability to operate bases in the open
  3. create opportunity for unspecified parties to occupy current ISIL-held territory and impose non-ISIL governance on it
  4. reduce the risks presented from ISIL territory to those comparable to other ungoverned areas in the region
  5. acting now precisely to avoid a situation that was clearly headed to a wider, protracted and much more dangerous conflict
  6. avoiding a long-term quagmire in the region

I assume by “other ungoverned areas in the region” he means things like Pakistan’s tribal lands?

He is clear that degrading and containing ISIL is the goal, not eliminating it, although if Iraq or Syria want to follow up they are clearly encouraged to do so.

These objectives are measurable, and in the next few days I’m going to see if I can dig up data on a) what kind of mass movement of troops ISIL is currently engaged in, b) how many and what size bases ISIL has in the region, and c) what measurable risks ISIL poses to adjacent states (notably Iraq and Syria, but also Turkey, Kurdistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Iran.)

If our opposition parties were any good, they would be doing this kind of thing instead of engaging in pedantic nitpicking, expressing a desire to micro-manage the deployment, and making juvenile jokes.

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
This entry was posted in epistemology, ethics, history, politics, probability, psychology, war. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Even More Things that Are Not Arguments

  1. marknoo says:

    Journalist are “shock jocks”. The catchier the headline, the better.
    The failure of the media to check facts, to even be embarrased when they do not check them and get caught, is tragic.
    Any media report without a truck load of opinion and unverified accusations will immediately lose the interest of readers. If the story also happens to be about groups of people (rich and poor, black and white, Repubs and Dems) that can be pitted against each other it is ideal.