Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Syllogizing the Obama Doctrine

In his address on Monday night (1), President Obama put forth what has been called the “Obama Doctrine” for the use of military force (2).  It is a narrow doctrine--perhaps only applicable in instances where intervention may save civilian lives--but was explicated with clarity.  Here, then, is the formalized doctrine as laid out in his speech:
P1 There is the potential for violence on a horrific scale in X,
P2 The US has a unique ability to prevent or stop such violence,
P3 There is an international mandate for action to prevent such violence, and
P4 There is local support for the military action in the area to be struck,
C  It is permissable to intervene militarily in X for the purpose of preventing or stopping such violence. (3)
Under this rubric, questions as to why the US should not presently intervene in the Ivory Coast (4), for example, under such a doctrine are besides the point.  This “Obama Doctrine” enumerates the conditions under which the US may use military force in a particular type of conflict.  It is not a measurement for determining whether these conditions obtain in a particular instance nor is it stating the necessity of the use of force were such conditions to be present.  In the case of Ivory Coast, that conflict lacks the international mandate for action that the Libyan intervention has, in the form of a UN resolution and an international coalition.

NB: Regarding the title of this post, I intend ‘syllogism’ to mean merely the formalization of a particular policy doctrine.  As a commenter stated, this formalization provides something close to the necessary and sufficient conditions under which President Obama deems the application of military force appropriate (or at least the sufficient conditions).  Of course, the premises laid down above are not fashioned in the proper syllogistic form of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion, but that is again besides the point.  A by-the-book syllogism can easily be constructed by condensing P1-P4 into a major premise, stating that those conditions do obtain in the minor premise, and keeping the conclusion right where it is.

(1) Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya” at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C. March 28, 2011
(2) “The birth of an Obama doctrine” in Lexington’s Notebook, the Economist online. March 28, 2011.
(3) The speech states these points quite succinctly:
“In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.... Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
(4) McFarland, K. T. “What We Learned From Obama's Libya Speech,”, March 29, 2011.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Counterfactual Justification for Libyan Military Strikes

Making the rounds today on the Sunday talk shows, Secretary Clinton deployed a counterfactual justification for the military action in Libya.  Said Clinton:

“Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled.... And we were sitting here, the cries would be, why did the United States not do anything?” (1)

The importance of this counterfactual in justifying the strikes against Libya is furthered by Secretary Gates’ assertion that the situation in Libya “was not a vital national interest to the United States.” (2)

Therefore, on the available evidence, the threat of a massacre in Benghazi--and perhaps elsewhere--by Qaddhafi was of overriding importance to the Administration in planning their military action in Libya.

(1) This Week with Christiane Amanpour.  ABC. March 27, 2010
(2) Ibid.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Some Bad Reasons to Expand the House

Yesterday, Dalton Conley and Jacqueline Stevens used an op-ed in the NY Times (1) to support increasing the number of seats in the US House of Representatives.  Because the House has not expanded in proportion to population growth, they write, “Americans today are numerically the worst-represented group of citizens in the country’s history.”  This has supposedly led to Members who have been overtaken by special interests and who have lost touch with the public.

While there may be good reason to expand the number of seats in the House, you will not find many of those reasons in this article.  Here, then, are a few criticisms of the analysis provided by Conley and Stevens.

1. The House first convened in 1789, not 1787 (the Constitutional Convention was in 1787, with ratification in 1788).  Obviously this does not color their argument beyond being a peculiar oversight.

2. Diluting represenational power in the House by increasing the number of Representatives would seem to make the two Senators from each state all the more powerful.  Not only would this increase the relative power of the Senators from within the same state delegation as their House colleagues, it would also increase the relative power of Senators over Representatives generally, as the total size of the Senate would remain constant even as the House expanded.  Keeping the size of the Senate constant in such a scenario would only seem to exacerbate the “extraordinary inequality in the worth of the suffrage” that Robert Dahl sees in the Senate already (2).

3. Increasing the number of seats does not necessarily decrease the power of “special interest” money in election.  Viewed cynically, it may just mean that more seats are available to influence.  The increased number of seats may even make such influence cheaper to court.  While a citizen’s political power--the power of her vote--may be greater when she’s 1 in 30,000 than when she’s 1 in 700,000, presumably much the same would be true about the relative political power of a dollar given similar ratios.

4. The authors claim, implausibly, that expanding representation would lead to “fewer lifers,” i.e., politicians who continue to run for and win re-election.  However it remains unexplained why this would be beneficial for a democracy.  Indeed, persuasive arguments can certainly be made for the value of retaining those with legislative and political experience.

5. The authors don’t explain why “unaccountable” staffers are a democratic pox, nor why there would be significantly fewer were the size of the House to change.  It is just as plausible to assume that an increase in the size of the House would tend to increase the total number of staffers--a development that would undermine their argument.

6.  If a phone call from a Member of the House is more effective than a request from committee staff, as the authors unilaterally assert, then that power may be commensurately diminished by the rise in the number of Members now able to make such calls.  Note, also, how this situation may again tend to increase the power of Senators.

Now, comprehensive treatises ought not be expected in the op-ed pages of the New York Times--or Analytic Politics, for that matter--so perhaps all of these issues may be adequately addressed in a less condensed format.  Indeed, increasing representation does retain some intuitive appeal, however this appeal is not likely to stem from the arguments put forth by Conley and Stevens.

(1) Conley, Dalton and Jacqueline Stevens. “Build a Bigger House.” The New York Times. January 23, 2011.
(2) Dahl, Robert. “How Democratic is the US Constitution?” New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. 50.

Friday, November 5, 2010

McConnell’s Aristotelian Causes Defense

Senator McConnell has explained his “one-term president” remark (1) by, in effect, claiming that his critics have mistaken an efficient cause for a final cause--or, roughly, with a means for an end.  As mentioned previously (2), McConnell’s statement can be read with clear policy objectives in mind, not merely with the defeat of a president at the polls.  And, curiously enough, McConnell has seized upon just this point in attempting to color his remarks in a more acceptable light.  Said McConnell:

“Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term. But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all of those things it is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.” (3)

Thus does McConnell frame his original remarks as directed towards a political end (the defeat of a president) that will service genuine policy ends.  By McConnell’s telling, the efficient cause of denying President Obama a second term will best effectuate the final cause--or telos--of a more prosperous and free America.

Of course, he could just be trying to walk back his statement with some good ‘ol fashioned Aristotelian spin.

(1) National Journal. "Top GOP Priority is to Make Obama a One Term President." Interview with Senator Mitch McConnell. October 23, 2010.
(2) "McConnell’s “One-term President” Remark has Clear Policy Implications" Analytic Politics, November 4, 2010.
(3) McConnell, Mitch. “Listening to the People Who Sent Us Here.” Remarks to the Heritage Foundation. Washington, DC. November 4, 2010.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

McConnell’s “One-term President” Remark has Clear Policy Implications

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken heat (1) (2) for claiming that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” (3)  Some claimed that McConnell’s statement betrayed a partisan agenda concerned only with the achievement of political--not policy--ends.  Yet this criticism does not account for the policy effects of working towards and potentially succeeding in unseating a president with whom one has very real policy differences.

In fact, the root of much of the criticism of McConnell seems to be the suggestion that he is merely concerned with defeating the president--in a vacuum, as it were.  However, the policy outcome of such a political achievement would surely be the obstruction of an agenda that McConnell claims is counterproductive toward the goal of promoting economic growth and protecting the country, to name just two policy objectives.

(1) Sargent, Greg. “Dems rip Mitch McConnell's "one term" remark, but will voters care?” The Plum Line. October 27, 2010.
(2) Miller, Sean J. “Reid: McConnell comment about one-term Obama 'a road to nowhere'.” The Hill. November 3, 2010.
(3) National Journal, "Top GOP Priority is to Make Obama a One Term President." Interview with Senator Mitch McConnell. October 23, 2010.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Underdetermination and 'Connecting the Dots' in a Terror Investigation

The failure of counterterrorism officials to 'connect the dots' before the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 (1) (2), highlights the very real epistemic difficulty posed by underdetermination.

Underdetermination is an epistemological problem stemming from how facts are related to theories and the conclusions that are entailed. For any fact pattern there may be many—perhaps infinitely many—valid explanatory theories that are incompatible with each other yet may be equally consistent with the facts (3).

[click figure for higher resolution]

In the case of the alleged airplane bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, despite much evidence to support the conclusion that he posed a terrorist threat, officials did not stop him from boarding his plane and flying to the United States. Independent of any oversights, ineptitude, or bad luck that may have played a part in the investigation, the facts of the case underdetermined what conclusions were to be drawn regarding the threat; the thesis that he posed a terror threat was as equally compatible with the facts as was the thesis that he posed no threat.

To be sure, the facts that would tend to confirm the threat posed by Abdulmutallab were numerous: his father's warning to the US embassy about his son's radical views (4); his presence on the TIDE list, a database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center on people with known or suspected links to terrorist organizations (5); US Custom's knowledge that he was on the plane (6); the purchasing of a one-way plane ticket in cash and the airline's knowledge that he did not check any bags (7).

However, there was also disconfirming evidence for the theory that he posed a threat, such as one official's belief that the father's warnings were “thin, with minimal information.” (8)

Depending on how this fact pattern is hung, it could plausibly support either theory regarding the threat posed by Abdulmutallab without logical inconsistency. The inference—or theory—that he was a terrorist may successfully correlate the disparate facts about the case but so would the contrary theory.

This is not to say that the theory that he posed a threat was not highly corroborated—indeed, it turned out to be true—nor that it ought not to have been believed or acted upon. Rather, it is to say that hindsight has a tendency to clarify what were previously shrouded relations between facts.

As the case of Abdulmuttalab illustrates, the underdetermination of a theory by the available evidence is simply part of the framework in any investigation.


(1) Superville, Darlene. “Obama Says 'Dots' Not Connected in Airline Attack.” US News & World Report, January 5, 2010.

(2) “FLIGHT 253: Danger Averted, But Why Were Dots Not Connected?” In Depth News, January 10, 2010.

(3) See, Quine, W.V.O. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in Quine, From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. 42-43.

“But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience.”

(4) Cohen, Stefanie. “
Father of terror suspect reported Mutallab to US Embassy 6 months ago." New York Post, December 27, 2009.

(5) “Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab: US Knew Suspect May Have Terrorist Ties, AP Reports." Huffington Post, December 26, 2009.

(6) “US officials awaited Nigerian plotter to land.” Agence France Presse, January 7, 2010.

(7) “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: one boy’s journey to jihad.” The Sunday Times, January 3, 2010.

(8) DeYoung, Karen and Michael Leahy. “Uninvestigated terrorism warning about Detroit suspect called not unusual.” The Washington Post, December 28, 2009.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Belief that Waterboarding is Not Torture Turns Out to be Falsifiable

Conservative radio host Mancow underwent waterboarding on Friday in an attempt to prove that the practice was not torture (video). Despite having previously argued that the practice does not amount to torture, Mancow changed his mind after just six seconds under the water (1) (2). Like others who have written about their personal experience with waterboarding (3) (4), after his ordeal the radio host emphatically declared that the technique was "[a]bsolutely torture. Absolutely."

While this demonstration may help some to settle the issue of whether waterboarding amounts to torture, it does little formally beyond defining torture by ostention-- which, as was noted earlier (5), can be problematic. The demonstration also fails to entail any particular policy conclusions beyond the use of this one tactic. Even if waterboarding is torture (it most certainly causes physical and psychological harm (6)), it and other methods of torture may still be determined to be effective tactics for obtaining intelligence. This contention, however, will require empirical support that is currently lacking (7) (8) .

Independent of any further entailments, Mancow's experience is notable in that it confirms that his previous belief was indeed falsifiable. That is, his adamantly held belief that waterboarding was not torture was susceptible to disconfirming evidence; when presented with this evidence, he rationally decided to amend his theory. It gives one hope to think that more political differences may be dissolved through an earnest investigation and a frank appraisal of the evidence.

(1) Pollyea, Ryan. "Mancow Waterboarded, Admits It's Torture." NBC Chicago, May 22, 2009.
(2) Byrne, John. "
Conservative radio hosts gets waterboarded, and lasts six seconds before saying its torture." The Raw Story, May 22, 2009.
(3) Hitchens, Christopher. "Believe Me, It’s Torture." Vanity Fair, August 2008.
(4) Lomax, Eric. "Waterboarding: the most horrific experience of my life." Times Online, March 4, 2008.
(5) "Torture Debate Relies upon Definition by Ostention." Analytic Politics, November 3, 2007.
(6) Ballantyne, Coco. "Does waterboarding have long-term physical effects?" Scientific American, May 1, 2009.
(7) Soufan, Ali. "My Tortured Decision." The New York Times, April 22, 2009.
(8) Applebaum, Anne. "The Torture Myth." The Washington Post, January 12, 2005.
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