May 11, 2007

Debate over facts must not stifle quest for policy solutions

I’ve written on this before, but it can’t be overemphasized that more and more these days, it’s not ideas that politicians are debating, it’s facts. The “he said, she said” war that characterizes the debate over most of today’s hot issues has replaced conventional discussions of method, ideology, and the search for new ideas and realizable solutions.

The “fact war” is sustained by mysteriously large quantities of supporting evidence for both sides of an argument. Take WMDs in Iraq, for example. Of course, there are many reports and news stories out there that “prove” there were no WMDs. However, just as many (equally legitimate) reports and news stories reveal a plethora of evidence for chemical and biological projects that also “prove” there were WMDs in Iraq.

But bracket your thoughts on the issue of WMDs for a moment and look at what has just happened: a shift from ideological debate to mere disputation of fact. Rather than engaging in genuine conversation and thought about the political, economic, and global manifestations of America’s military engagements in Iraq, we are still bickering about the existence of WMDs.

This creates an interesting paradigm for sparring politicos, who oddly enough tend to agree on most things “in theory.” Even most liberals will concede that yes, WMDs in Iraq probably would have been worth checking out. But the real division emerges over facts, not ideas. Liberals are conveniently saved, by whatever data they can find that supports the “Bush lied” rhetoric, from the shame of having to agree, at least a little bit, with conservatives. Implementing this strategy, as both sides do, means that as long as the “fact war” continues, no one has to be held accountable for his beliefs, actions, or even the platform upon which he was elected.

What’s scary is that this goes on all the time. The main difference between Dan Rather and pretty much anyone else in the media or on the Hill is that Rather got caught. The fabrication of physical documents may not have flown under the radar so easily, but the fabrication of spoken rhetoric that distorts reality and rewrites history is difficult to track and even trickier to rectify. Tack the word “bipartisan” onto an initiative, for example. Sounds great, right? Yet all too often, “bipartisan” just means both parties are stuffing pork into whatever bill is on the table. Now what?

Another example of deceptive rhetoric is the phrase “exit strategy.” That we don’t have one in Iraq is a real point of contention for the left, which cites our lack of an exit strategy during the Vietnam conflict as the measuring stick for disaster in the Middle East. But hold on—since when was “exit strategy” a military term in the first place?

Since about 1993, according to Heritage Foundation scholar Tim Kane in a 2005 USA Today editorial. Kane used the archival search engine Lexis-Nexis to track the history of the phrase “exit strategy” and discovered that it originated in 1980—seven years after U.S. withdrawal from the conflict in Vietnam—as a business term. The term appeared in print 16 more times throughout the ’80s, each time in a business story. The term didn’t have a military application until it was used as a condition for the Clinton administration’s engagements in Bosnia during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1993. Kane also points out that, since then, “The troops have not exited, but the genocide did.”

A review of military history reveals a similar pattern. On average, about a fifth of the military is dispersed across the globe, revealing that “the successful strategy of the past 50 years has been engagement and alliance, not exit and pacifism.” Thus to claim, as many liberals have, that an exit strategy is a necessary, commonplace, or even healthy facet of military operating procedure is to ignore reality and rewrite history.

This week’s foiled attack on Fort Dix provides an example of abused rhetoric that goes in the other direction. While “exit strategy” is deemed an acceptable misrepresentation of language history, the political-correctness police have swarmed around the phrase “Islamic militants” to criticize a grammatically sound construction and warp it into something it’s not.

In response to the foiled Fort Dix plot, Muslim lawyer Sohail Mohammed has decried the government’s use of the phrase “Islamic militants” to describe the perpetrators because “it sends a message to the public that Islam and militancy are synonymous.” The problem with his argument is that it falsely reconstructs English grammar. “Islamic” is an adjective. “Militants” is a plural noun. An adjective qualifies the noun it modifies to isolate a particular aspect of that noun. Thus “Islamic militants” grammatically signifies that the particular militants being discussed are Islamic ones, a distinction which has been noteworthy since the word “jihad” entered mainstream America’s vocabulary. It may appease Mohammed to say something like “militant persons who also happen, perhaps irrelevantly, to practice Islam” in place of “Islamic militants,” but some of us have a word count to adhere to.

I’m glad ours is a truth-seeking nation, but that does not excuse the stagnancy of ideological debate and the halted quest for new ideas that prevails today.