Considering Coulson

In less than 24 hours, Andrew Coulson’s recent post on criticism of the Iraq War has sparked an angry reaction across the blogosphere. It’s all exciting vitriol — and completely misplaced.

Coulson’s post is neither a defense of the war nor a criticism. He claims neither that the war is justified nor unjustified. He does not challenge the fundamental positions of many Iraq War critics. Coulson’s post is an appeal for better thinking; for war critics to drop a voguish but flawed argument against the war, in favor of stronger, more rigorous arguments.

Unfortunately (if understandably), people have become so emotional and politicized over the war that they misunderstand and misconstrue such appeals. They are not distinguishing between sloppy reasoning and good reasoning, and are equating appeals for better arguments to “dumb” and “retarded” opposition. But it would be worthwhile for those critics to take the time to understand what Coulson is arguing, because it would help the critics make their case.

Coulson’s post involves the recent National Intelligence Estimate that includes the claim that the Iraq War has become a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations. Several anti-war critics have seized on this claim to make the following argument against the war:

  1. It is not in a nation’s interest to increase the number of enemies who want to harm that nation. (Call this the Enemy Recruitment Premise, or “ERP.”)
  2. The Iraq War is increasing the number of enemies who want to harm the U.S.
  3. Thus, the Iraq War is not in the nation’s interest. QED

Coulson offers a potent challenge to this reasoning: Many nations, engaged in what have broadly been considered just wars, have violated the ERP. The American colonies, in opposing the British crown, made enemies of the Redcoats and the Hessians. The U.S.’s support of the British in WWII put us on the wrong side of the Axis. The Union’s opposition to secession led to hundreds of thousands of Southerners flocking to the Confederate cause (or, for Southern sympathizers, the Confederacy’s efforts to secede led to hundreds of thousands of Northerners rallying to the Federal cause).

Indeed, it’s difficult to think of any war in history that would pass the ERP. So either (1) no war in history has been in any nation’s interest, or (2) the ERP is wrong.

Coulson’s claim is that the ERP is wrong; creation of enemies is not a sufficient condition for a war being against a nation’s interest. This does not mean that the U.S. will be justified in going to war if we end up “winning” in Iraq. It simply means that critics of the Iraq War need to rely on other arguments for their position. Hence, it is to completely misunderstand Coulson to believe that he’s claiming that what has happened since the war doesn’t matter.

So, what anti-Iraq War arguments could work? Coulson explicitly gives one in his post: “Critics are welcome to argue that we and freedom-loving Iraqis will ultimately lose there, and be worse off if we do” — call this the Loss Argument. Another is that the Iraq War may be winnable, but it will be extremely costly to do so (in blood and treasure) — call this the Cost Argument. A third is that there are alternative, less-difficult ways to promote the nation’s interest in the Middle East — call this the Alternatives Argument. There likely are many other effective arguments.

The Iraq War’s production of more anti-U.S. fighters is a serious concern. But it is not a sufficent condition for the war being wrong — instead, it is a part of a Cost Argument against the war (i.e., those combatants can inflict a terrible cost on both U.S. troops in the Gulf and civilians here at home).

Coulson’s argument is not some obscure semantic point or a straw man argument. It is philosophically significant. For a topic as important as the Iraq War, we should be rigorous in our reasoning. We should not let passions cloud our ability to understand and consider other people’s points of view about the war — especially when those points of view may not conflict with our own.