The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Dangers of Talking Points: RNC Defense of Rove Edition

June 28, 2005

Although I’ve commented extensively on these issues on other people’s blogs, I haven’t used the Duck as a platform for weighing into the morass of the Karl Rove “evil liberals want to destroy America” or Richard Durbin “stop behaving like Nazis” speeches. The whole debate surrounding both speeches makes me angry. When I get angry I mouth off. The result is neither lucid nor illuminating discussion, on my part, of issues relevant to international politics.

Indeed, many other (and smarter) people have examined problems with Rove’s claims and the Republican party’s defense of them. Clearly, Democrats will, in the future, need to put Republicans on the defensive when it comes to their handling of US foreign policy.

Nevertheless, I am also a strident opponent of the unthinking dissemination of talking points, whether by the left or the right.

So, in that spirit, I just want to explain why the RNC memo defending Rove’s speech is deceitful and dishonest. Many of the conservative pundits and bloggers repeating them should be ashamed of themselves. I’m particularly troubled by the fact that a lot of bloggers I respect are engaged in this practice. What follows is a rant. Read at your own peril.

Exhibit One

Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) Said The United States Would “Pay Every Single Hour, Ever Single Day” That Bombs Were Dropped In Afghanistan. “‘How much longer does the bombing campaign continue?’ Biden asked during an Oct. 22 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘We’re going to pay every single hour, every single day it continues.’” (Miles A. Pomper, “Building Anti-Terrorism Coalition Vaults Ahead Of Other Priorities,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly, 10/26/01)

Sure sounds like Biden’s saying the US should be “weak” on terrorism, right? Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from the Q&A:

RP: Roland Paul, Senator, I concur with everybody else in commending you on your comments, and anyone who’s heard you before would certainly not be surprised at how good they were. I would return to a question you answered earlier, and you said as long … the bombing, every day it goes on, the harder it may be for us to do something in the past(?). What do you see as the situation if we don’t defeat the Taliban in the next four weeks, and winter sets in in Afghanistan?

JB: Again, I’m not a military man. I think the American public and the Islamic world is fully prepared for us to take as long as we need to take, if it is action that is mano-a-mano. If it’s us on the ground going against other forces on the ground. The part that I think flies in the face of and plays into every stereotypical criticism of us is we’re this high tech bully that thinks from the air we can do whatever we want to do, and it builds the case for those who want to make the case against us that all we’re doing is indiscriminately bombing innocents, which is not the truth. Some innocents are indiscriminately bombed, but that is not the truth. I think the American public is prepared for a long siege. I think the American public is prepared for America losses. I think the American public is prepared, and the President must continue to remind them to be prepared, for American body bags coming home.

There is no way that you can in fact go after and root out al-Qaeda and/or Bin Laden without folks on the ground, in caves, risking and losing their lives. And I believe that the tolerance for that in the Islamic world is significant … exponentially higher than it is for us bombing. That’s a generic point I wish to make. I am not qualified enough to tell you, although I can tell you what the military guys have said to me, this is not 1948. This is 2001. I’m not at all they’re correct, and our ability to wage conflict in the winter, in parts of this region, is within our control, I don’t know enough to vouch for that or not, but I do think it clearly makes it more difficulty, and the weather window is closing, as opposed to the tolerance window for our behavior, in my view. Thank you all very, very much. (Applause)

So, Biden argues that we’re not putting American troops on the ground fast enough, and that we’re not waging a bloody enough campaign to really destroy Al-Queda, and he’s being soft on terrorism? The fact that he may have been right about getting Osama is only icing on the cake.

Exhibit Two

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA): “[W]ar On Terror Is Far Less Of A Military Operation And Far More Of An Intelligence-Gathering, Law-Enforcement Operation.” (The Iowa Brown & Black Coalition Presidential Forum, Des Moines, IA, 1/11/04)
• Kerry: “[W]hat We’ve Learned Is That The War On Terror Is Much More Of An Intelligence Operation And A Law Enforcement Operation.” (NPR’s “All Things Considered,” 3/19/03)

This is just plain silly. Kerry votes to authorize both wars, and yet he’s out to appease terrorists because he argues that the most important component of the War on Terror involves intelligence gathering and policing? Again, I suppose we could debate this point, but it is something of a consensus opinion among anti-terrorism experts. Since you can’t fight wars in every place that terrorists hide or train, and since you have to, well, know where they are if you want to go after them, I would think that intelligence and law enforcement would be pretty important to American national security. One could add that since destroying terrorist financial-support networks, breaking up their cells, and trying to figure out where they plan to strike next is also crucially dependent upon intelligence and law-enforcement activity, it is possible – ever so slightly – that Kerry’s statements could be construed as advocating “toughness” on the War on Terror.

Not so, apparently, in the world of RNC talking points.

Exhibit Three

Liberal Donor George Soros Claimed America Should Have Treated 9/11 Attacks As Crime, Responded With Police Work. “War is a false and misleading metaphor in the context of combating terrorism. Treating the attacks of September 11 as crimes against humanity would have been more appropriate. Crimes require police work, not military action. To protect against terrorism, you need precautionary measures, awareness, and intelligence gathering – all of which ultimately depend on the support of the populations among which terrorists operate. Imagine for a moment that September 11 had been treated as a crime. We would have pursued Bin Laden in Afghanistan, but we would not have invaded Iraq. Nor would we have our military struggling to perform police work in full combat gear and getting killed in the process.”
Soros Said War On Terror Had Claimed More Innocent Victims Than 9/11 Attack Itself. “This is a very tough thing to say, but the fact is, that the war on terror as conducted by this administration, has claimed more innocent victims that the original attack itself.” (George Soros, Remarks At Take Back America Conference, Washington, DC, 6/3/04)
Soros Said The Execution Of 9/11 Attacks “Could Not Have Been More Spectacular.” “Admittedly, the terrorist attack was a historic event in its own right. Hijacking fully loaded airplanes and using them as suicide bombs was an audacious idea, and the execution could not have been more spectacular.”

I’ve already dealt with the first line of attack in the context of the quotations from Kerry. I should note, however, that a “crime against humanity” has a specific meaning: Soros is likening the 9/11 attacks to genocide, ethnic cleaning in the like. Exactly what you’d expect from a man who just ‘doesn’t get’ the evil of the terrorists and the need to respond forcefully. Notice that they gloss over the fact that Soros’ comments support the invasion of Afghanistan, just not the invasion of Iraq.

As I discussed in my last post, Soros’ claim about the comparative casualty figures is factually accurate. Does this mean he’s trying to undermine America? I suppose that, in some circles, avoiding uncomfortable facts is a good thing. I for one, defer to Max Weber:

Nowhere are the interests of science more poorly served in the long run than in those situations where one refuses to see uncomfortable facts and the realities of life in all their starkness. The Archiv will struggle relentlessly against the severe self-deception which asserts that through the synthesis of several party points of view, or by following a line between them, practical norms of scientific validity can be arrived at. It is necessary to do this because, since this piece of self-deception tries to mask its own standards of value in relativistic terms, it is more dangerous to the freedom of research than the former naive faith of parties in the scientific “demonstrability” of their dogmas. The capacity to distinguish between empirical knowledge and value-judgments, and the fulfillment of the scientific duty to see the factual truth as well as the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals constitute the program to which we wish to adhere with ever increasing firmness.

But, of course, I don’t have to resort to invoking Weber’s words, since anyone who has read the actual text of Soros’ remarks would realize he is not advocating “weakness” in the War on Terror:

How to deal with the likes of Saddam is the great unresolved problem of our world order. The way we went about it makes it more difficult to deal with that problem. We must change that approach, and but we must help to develop better methods of intervening when it is necessary. We must not turn away from the world, because we are increasingly interdependent, and what happens, what kind of regime prevails in Iraq or Afghanistan does have a great bearing on our security and on our prosperity. So we must develop ways of intervening when there is a repressive regime or a rogue state, or a failed state. But we cannot do it alone, we must do it in cooperation with others.

We can debate the merits of a more unilateral or multilateral approach for quite some time, but there’s a world of difference between, on the one hand, advocating different strategies of international engagement and intervention and, on the other hand, of seeking to undermine American strength and resolve.

And criticizing Soros for describing the attacks as “spectacular” and an “historic event in their own right?” Please. I don’t know what’s more painful, the attempt to willfully misconstrue Soros’ point, or the lack of respect the RNC has for the intelligence of its own supporters.

Exhibit Four

“We, The Undersigned, Citizens And Residents Of The United States Of America … Appeal To The President Of The United States, George W. Bush … And To All Leaders Internationally To Use Moderation And Restraint In Responding To The Recent Terrorist Attacks Against The United States.” (MoveOn.Org Website, “MoveOn Peace,”, Posted 9/13/01, Accessed 6/23/05)
• “We Implore The Powers That Be To Use, Wherever Possible, International Judicial Institutions And International Human Rights Law To Bring To Justice Those Responsible For The Attacks, Rather Than The Instruments Of War, Violence Or Destruction.” (MoveOn.Org Website, “MoveOn Peace,”, Posted 9/13/01, Accessed 6/23/05)
• “[W]e Demand That There Be No Recourse To Nuclear, Chemical Or Biological Weapons, Or Any Weapons Of Indiscriminate Destruction, And Feel That It Is Our Inalienable Human Right To Live In A World Free Of Such Arms.” (MoveOn.Org Website, “MoveOn Peace,”, Posted 9/13/01, Accessed 6/23/05)

Have I mentioned how lame it is to quote three times from the same speech or petition? If the RNC’s goal is to provide a “wall” of evidence that Rove is right, they might want to consider being a little less transparent about inflating the number of discrete statements they can find.

I have to admit that I’m not sure about some of the content of the MoveOn petition. It is a lowest-commond denominator document, so it is deliberately vague about some of the more controversial issues in the War on Terror. For example, the document does not say that force is inappropriate, but asks that US officials consider force to be a last resort. That doesn’t sound so bad. Is the RNC’s position that force ought to be the first resort?

Here’s some more from the petition:

Furthermore, we assert that the government of a nation must be presumed separate and distinct from any terrorist group that may operate within its borders, and therefore cannot be held unduly accountable for the latter’s crimes. It follows that the government of a particular nation should not be condemned for the recent attack without compelling evidence of its cooperation and complicity with those individuals who actually committed the crimes in question

Sounds reasonable to me. Attack Afghanistan once the Taliban refuse to turn over Al-Queda? Check. Don’t attack other states unless they actually harbor terrorists of the sort who target the US? Well, the Bush administration has a different take, but that’s neither here nor there.

I can, however, see how liberals were undermining America by demanding that the US not nuke Kabul, not use mustard gas in Kandahár, and not drop weapons-grade anthrax on the Iraqi insurgents in Faluja. We can only imagine how Afghanistan would now be a land of peace, tranquility, and democracy if President Bush hadn’t caved to hippie pressure groups and made good use of all those tactical nukes left over from the Cold War.

Now, I actually understand Karl Rove’s sentiment:

Citing calls by progressive groups to respond carefully to the attacks, Mr. Rove said to the applause of several hundred audience members, “I don’t know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt when I watched the twin towers crumble to the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble.”

I felt exactly the same way when I was sitting at home alone on September 11, 2001, while my wife was trapped in Manhattan and the death toll from our suburb was mounting. But I have to say that American grand strategy should not be formulated based on what I, Rove, or anyone else “felt” during the attacks (or the endless television loop of the towers falling). After all, you think occupying Iraq is hard? Imagine occupying all of the Middle East while forcing its Islamic population to convert to Christianity.

Exhibit Five

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) Claimed Osama Bin Laden Could Be Compared To “Revolutionaries That Helped To Cast Off The British Crown.” “‘One could say that Osama bin Laden and these non-nation-state fighters with religious purpose are very similar to those kind of atypical revolutionaries that helped to cast off the British crown,’ Kaptur told an Ohio newspaper, The (Toledo) Blade.” (Malie Rulon, “Lawmaker Compares Osama, U.S. Patriots,” The Associated Press, 3/6/03)

Kaptur explained the meaning of her comments rather differently. I have no idea what she actually said, and neither does the RNC. But who cares when you’re on a fishing expedition?

Exhibit Six

Gov. Howard Dean (D-VT) Said Osama Bin Laden Not Guilty. Dean: “I Still Have This Old-Fashioned Notion That Even With People Like Osama, Who Is Very Likely To Be Found Guilty, We Should Do Our Best Not To, In Positions Of Executive Power, Not To Prejudge Jury Trials.” (“Dean Not Ready To Pronounce Osama Bin Laden Guilty,” The Associated Press, 12/26/03)

Yeah, yeah. Been there, done that. This is what he said immediately beforehand:

“I understand Osama bin Laden has essentially claimed responsibility for these terrorist acts and as an American I want to see he gets what he deserves, which is the death penalty,” Mr Dean replied, adding though that a president should not presume anyone is guilty.

And this is in the context of a debate in which Dean was arguing that we needed to allocate more resources to capturing Bin Laden. Clearly Dean wants to weaken the US in its War on Terror.

Alright, I’m getting bored. I’m sure a few of these talking points are at least partially correct. I also don’t understand what the point is of quoting people like Kucinich and Sharpton. After all, these guys performed dismally in the Democratic primaries. If the most ideological members of the Democratic base rejected them, I don’t see how they provide evidence of “evil liberals.”

On that note, I’m not going to even bother to defend Michael Moore. If he stands for liberals, then the RNC, in my opinion, has to defend not only Coulter, but also Robertson and Falwell. At least Moore was ranting about something vaguely relevant, and not blaming the ACLU and gays for bringing God’s vengeance down upon us.

Filed as: and

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.