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The limitations of persuasion

So, every now and then, I get very cranky about political argument. I think the particular thing I get cranky about is a fairly common source of crank among people who like rhetoric and argument. It’s the lack of persuasiveness.

Look, I understand that most of the legislators who have the opportunity to spar with General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker have no particular interest in persuading anybody of anything. Or, rather, of persuading anybody that a particular policy position is good or bad. A Democratic Representative in a safe Democratic district may want to persuade his anti-war constituents that he is pursuing their agenda, and a Republican Representative in a safe Republican district may want to persuade his anti-withdrawal constituents that he is pursuing their agenda. Neither, though, is likely to spend a great deal of effort attempting to persuade constituents to change their position. It’s possible that some are, but I didn’t hear any of that.

And, further, I understand that most of the people who still oppose withdrawal of US forces are going to be very difficult to persuade. On the other hand, the only way to precipitate withdrawal is through persuading a handful of Senators and a few dozen Representatives to legislatively mandate it.

Digression: Even then, it seems very unlikely to YHB that we will begin anything like an actual withdrawal while Our Only President remains in office. The Congress can cut off funding, or withdraw its authorization of force, or whatnot, but if the Executive orders a company of soldiers to go to Iraq, it will go to Iraq, and it will stay there until the Executive orders it home. The Supreme Court may back up legislation (or it may not), but it will not issue orders to soldiers. If an Executive (particularly one like that headed by Our Only President that has stated its belief that it has sole and unique authority under the Constitution to act to protect the national security) simply ignores the Congress and the Supreme Court, it would be up to the Congress to remove that Executive from office. None of this has any chance of happening before the 20th January, 2008. On the other hand, a clear legislative mandate will help Our Next President, whoever that may be, begin a full and swift withdrawal.End Digression.

Which is why it’s such an interesting question. How do you persuade people that do not currently support withdrawal from Iraq (or do not currently support a legislative mandate for such withdrawal) to do so? I have some ideas, but I don’t think they are very good.

One way to go about it is to try to understand why thirty percent of the populace and a somewhat larger percentage of the legislature still want our troops in Iraq. There will be different and overlapping reasons, but let’s try and look at them.

  • We need to have a permanent base in the Persian Gulf to protect the oil flow. Note that very few people (at least public personages) admit to this as a driving motivation, but then they wouldn’t, would they? At any rate, I don’t think that there’s any really good way to persuade these people, unless they fall for the argument that the current situation is hopeless, politically and militarily, and the best thing is to let it lie for a few years and then try again.
  • If we leave Iraq before [xxx], there will be a disaster within Iraq, a high likelihood of regional instability, and increased danger to US citizens from international terrorism. The counter-argument here is that there is no [xxx] that will prevent those things from happening. Or at least that [xxx] is so unlikely and so expensive (in treasure and blood) that we may as well accept the disaster, instability and danger.
  • Leaving is failing. American can’t be seen to fail. It seems to me (and I think it was Rob Farley over at LGM that put it this way) that being the biggest, richest and most powerful country means that we can engage in overseas adventures like this and lose and still be big, rich and powerful. And, in fact, if we lose this was, we will have shown only that we can’t do a thing that we don’t need to threaten to do. I mean, if we decide to invade Zimbabwe , the fact that we can’t build a paradise when Robert Mugabe’s gone won’t affect how he sees the threat. We’ve certainly shown that we’re capable of getting rid of tyrants, and I can’t imagine that any tyrants will particularly care that we will leave their country in a shambles afterward—and if they do, even better!
  • We’re just about to win! Excellent. A perfect time to leave.

Seriously, none of this is going to be remotely convincing to anybody who isn’t already convinced. Nor is any of this going to be convincing to a Senator who thinks that leaving is the right thing to do but lacks the political will to do it. He can’t use any of that to save his job. The limitations of persuasion. Frustrating to watch. And, you know, I’m unlikely to be killed or maimed because of it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I think the frame of success and failure is the key. People, and especially politicians, hate failure. But we can productively change the success/failure debate about Iraq in several ways.

We can recategorize the outcome by redefining the conditions, goals, or facts. We can say that our goal in Iraq was to remove Saddam from power, and we did that. We can say that we built a paradise in Iraq, because we write the history books and the news reports. (If the Iraqis destroy that paradise after we leave, well, perhaps we'll invade again if they ask us real nice.)

We can redefine failure as success, by claiming that we show true strength by leaving Iraq a charred and bloody wreck. A weak and insecure nation might have felt bound to the Pottery Barn rule. We are above that.

We can blame someone external. If it weren't for the incompetence of the Japanese troops, Iraq would never have had an insurgency. This was a coalition effort, and we're better off leaving the coalition now before the Japanese screw things up any further.

But as long as the Democrats and Republicans score political points by blaming each other for the failure in Iraq, they will be unwilling to lead a disengagement and thus risk taking more blame for the failure.

"You didn't clap hard enough. Tinkerbell is dead."

You have to convince the politicians that voting for withdrawal IS voting for success.

The point is to end the occupation, because each extra day there is more blood on our hands, more dead children, more maimed veterans, more ruin and pain and murder. There was an insane notion in 2004 that we should re-elect Bush so that it would be clear that the failure in Iraq was his fault. Now that we've sacrificed another half-million people to score that political point, can we stop placing the blame where it belongs and try to get our people home?

does "real men go to tehran" fit in 1 or 2?

and where does "we can't let them do that to us again" fit.

What's the "Pottery Barn rule?"


You break it, you bought it. Cited by Colin Powell before the invasion.

How very prescient of Mr. Powell.


I think the key to true persuasion is to show someone something they didn't know before. If I think that invading Iraq was a good idea because we've accomplished some good and no American soldiers have died, showing me evidence that American soldiers have actually died would help persuade me. More generally, if you're right and I'm wrong, you need to not only tell me why you're right, you also need to tell me why I'm wrong. And do it in a way that I'll pay attention to, of course -- but just telling me things that I'll pay attention to doesn't do any good if it doesn't actually give me a reason to change my mind.

Well, people in general have been persuaded to change their views on the Iraq war.

The limitation of argument isn't that arguments aren't persuasive, but people aren't persuaded IN arguments. They are persuaded BY arguments.

When person A and person B hold conflicting views on a subject and they engage in a debate, each one arguing his position, it is very seldom that either A or B will be persuaded (or will admit to being persuaded) IN the debate. However, persons C-Z witnessing the debate may well be persuaded by arguments that A or B advance against the other.

If A and B are U. S. senators, neither is ever likely to admit that the other is right. However, if B sees that C-Z are now looking like they agree with A and that nobody agrees with her/him anymore, he/she may find a face-saving way to change course. Or C-Z may vote B out of office for being either a bad politician, a fool, or both.

Unfortunately, this indirect process of persuasion takes a lot of time to change the U. S. Senate's aggregate view of policy.

I think it would be possible, culturally, for people to be persuaded IN arguments as well as BY arguments, but argument is only tacitly valued in our culture. People actually do listen to, think about, and change on the basis of persuasive arguments, but few want to admit that they have done so.

I would have to disagree that argument is only tacitly valued in our culture. We don't watch presidential candidates talk on their own, we watch presidential debates. We watch news shows that include hosts and guests presenting opposing views. Even talk radio uses the form of argument with the notions of facts and reasoning, even when verifiable facts and rationality are dispensed with. Comedies show people arguing with each other, dramas show people arguing with external forces, action movies show arguments made physical, and reality tv revolves around arguments between and among contestants and judges.

I do think that you're exactly right that we are culturally conditioned not to be persuaded in arguments.

fight! fight! fight! fight!

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