Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Green Beret? Red Herring.

A dozen retired Generals have called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. The President continues to insist he's done a heckofa job and stand by one of the architects of the incredibly successful plan to invade Iraq and disband the Iraqi Army, leaving trained military forces, angry, recently, and unemployed, while leaving depots full of military-grade explosives unguarded. The call for a Secretary of Defense's ouster by formerly high ranking military insiders during wartime is almost unprecedented. It is a big deal. So how does the administration respond?

The President got two questions about it yesterday at his press conference announcing his new chief of OMB and sounded quite testy, on the verge of throwing a fit. The transcript does not do it justice, you have to listen to the audio.

Rumsfeld himself held a press conference yesterday at which he laid out his successes as Secretary of Defense, including those from the Ford administration, but assiduously avoiding mentions of Iraq. He contended that the generals were really just upset about the changes he wanted to bring to the military and characterized the generals position as one of a normal disagreement that people have all the time.

But today, we saw the next phase. Yesterday, Rumsfeld met with a standing group of retired generals who meet regularly with the Secretary before going off to do press interviews. They get a briefing at the Pentagon and receive their talking points for the week's news programs. We got an inside look at them this morning from retired Major General Robert H. Scales who was interviewed on Morning Edition this morning by Steve Innskeep.

We see from both Rumsfeld and Scales the three main moves that they are using to deflect the real discussion instead of legitimately answer it. (1) Red herring -- don't actually talk about the major blunders in Iraq, change the subject, (2) Strawman -- instead of dealing with the actual argument put forward by his detractors, claim that their really beef lies somewhere else and that it is trivial, (3) Ad hominem -- give caricatures of the dissenting generals as whiny, back-stabbing cry babies who are really acting out of sour grapes.

The question of Rumsfeld's performance and the accusations of incompetence by the generals is a major topic. But in response, Scales takes the conversation in a different direction. What we talked about wasn't the past, it's the future.

Specifically the issue we had for him was, "What's the next big thing in Iraq? What should the American people be looking forward to as a sign of progress? Is there a signpost or is there something along the way in the next few months that will give the American people confidence that this war is going in the right direction?" And the answer, curiously Steve, was that he responded it was the formation of a government. He made the point, which I think is probably valid, that this is much more political than it is military right now. And a lot of the confidence of the American people, and also the Iraqi people, rests on the ability of Iraqi parliament to get its act together.
Notice what just happened. Instead of addressing the actual concerns about whether the prosecution of the war has been marked with incompetence, Scales changed the subject to what would be good news to look for in the future. Admire the rhetorical power of this move. First, it takes you away from the errors of the past which are real and puts you into the fantasyland of your hopes for the future. Something that is not real and hence cannot be challenged on any factual basis. But it also is a fantastic emotional jujitsu. You were concerned with the incompetence concerning the leadership of the war effort because you really care about the country and the troops. But now by looking backwards instead of forward and in playing the blame game, you are neglecting the war and the troops. If you really cared about them, you would forget about what we did or didn't do for them and just help us envision the future. Nothing could be more uncaring than caring. National security demands forgetting about what we did to national security.

But not only that, the herring gets redder when you realize that the move was to take us completely away from the war at all. Progress in the war comes from political progress in the Iraqi parliament. If you want to see how well the war is going, look somewhere other than the war. This is the logical version of "your shoe is untied."

When Innskeep gently tried to call the general on Rumsfeld's strawman reconstruction of the generals' objections, suggesting that there might be actual reasons why the generals were making their voices heard other than a desire to avoid change, we got a new direction.

Well, certainly, the Secretary has been an instrument of change. I don't think any of us doubt that, but I'd also contend that the change in the Army began before he came on the scene. Many of us who were involved in what's commonly referred to as transformation began out efforts in the mid-90's after the first Gulf War in an effort to do what Mr. Rumsfeld continued to do when he came into office which was to build a streamlined Army, to build an Army built around brigades rather than of divisions, to build an Army that was capable of projecting itself into distant, very remote places in various corners of the world. This was something that we've all bucked. Those of us wear a green uniform have been engaged in for over a decade.
So, again, let's avoid the real question about competence in Iraq and make it about a trivial issue.

But there's one more subtle point in there that warrants pointing out, the "green uniform" comment. One undertone to the characterization of the generals as whiners is the claim that they are angry because thy are Marines and they perceive a bias on Rumsfeld's part towards the Army and its special forces instead of the Marine Corp. The dig that we in green have been doing this for over a decade, is a subtle backhand slap at Gen. Zinni and company. Pure ad hominem.

When Innskeep once again tried to get Scales to reply to the actual claims of the generals, we got the whipped cream on top.
I don't want to speculate on where the concerns are. I think the consensus among the group was as follows: this is not about Mr. Rumsfeld, this is not about disgruntled generals, it's really about what's in the national interest. That's where our focus was, Steve. The real question is to get on with the war, to look forward instead of backward, and to figure out where we're going. To establish a secure Iraq defined by a free market economy, representative democracy, and most of all security. And most of the discussion back and forth between us wasn't about his past record, but was questions from him about where we should be going in the future.
How to deal with actual concerns? Say that even discussing them would be "speculation." Clearly, to speculate would be irresponsible, so there is no sense in actually dealing with the real charges at all. Cute. We'll just call the generals "disgruntled" a label that doesn't address their concerns, but lets you the listener know that you shouldn't even consider what they have to say.
Then we get that phrase "the real question is." I train my critical thinking students to be on the look out for this varmint. Any time you see it, odds are you are looking at a red herring. The reason someone is telling you what the real question is, is because they don't like the actual real question and want to change what it is you are talking about. And what is the real question? The future, couched in terms of concern for national security. If you really cared about keeping this country safe, you wouldn't ask questions about the competence of those whose job is keeping the country safe.

Almost makes you want to not even assign a critical thinking text sometimes.