Friday, April 18, 2008

Refutation by Association

According to this story on the Huffington Post, a McCain fundraising letter quotes a Hamas leader as hoping for an Obama victory. Even though Senator Obama has condemned Hamas (a point omitted from the fundraising letter), the implication is clear: If a terrorist organization is hoping for an Obama victory, then America-loving Americans should try to defeat him.

This view is not entirely misguided. If an organization whose goals and tactics I find deplorable supports a candidate, that is a reason to examine whether the candidate shares the goals and tactics I deplore. But in the particular case, if we examine Obama's record and statements, we find absolutely nothing in them to suggest common ground with Hamas.

Indeed, we need look no further than the latest rantings of al Qaeda's Ayman al Zawahri for confirmation of the proposition that one shouldn't necessarily assume the opposite of what terrible people believe. Zawahri says that the United States has no good options in Iraq: maintaining an occupying force will not pacify the country and will only continue to fuel the insurgency, while withdrawing troops will lead either to a bloodbath or a Shiite autocracy under Iranian influence. Is Zawahri wrong merely because he's a mass murderer? No, of course not.

Nor is it at all clear that U.S. policy should be guided by the goal of doing whatever al Qaeda dislikes. For example, Zawahri mocks Muqtada al Sadr as an Iranian pawn, and given the enmity between the Sunni al Qaeda movement and the Shiite Sadr, this is hardly surprising. But it hardly follows that because our number one enemy opposes Sadr, we should therefore support him.

One would hope that the strength of an argument would be judged by its merits, rather than who happens to be making it. And in that spirit, I'll retract the disappointment I expressed yesterday with Pope Benedict XVI's silence on the Iraq war. His speech at the UN both condemned unilateralism and embraced the notion of multilateral humanitarian intervention. Although the Pope did not mention specific conflicts, it was hard to miss the import of his remarks. And it would be absurd for anyone who disagrees with the Pope on other issues---as I disagree with his views about the relation between religious conceptions of sexual morality and the legitimate scope of state authority---therefore to dismiss his views about international relations.

I mean to be making an incredibly simple and seemingly obvious point, but one that is so often disregarded: Bad people (like Zawahri or the Hamas leadership) sometimes say things that are true, and good people (like Pope Benedict XVI) who hold some views with which one might strongly disagree, can also hold other views with which one agrees. The relevant questions concern the views, not who holds them.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Unknown said...

The relevant questions concern the views, not who holds them.

The reasons a person holds some view are in many cases just as important as the view itself. But who the identity of the person is who holds that view is frequently a good proxy for why they hold it. The reason we shouldn't be skeptical about the Pope's views on unilateralism is that by and large his interests are aligned with our own.

When a group like Hamas comes out in support of some candidate, however, we can be fairly certain that it's not doing so because it believes that that candidate's election would be most likely to bring about a peaceful resolution to the turmoil in the Middle East, but because it believes that that candidate's election will interfere least with its goal of murdering Israelis.

This, granted, is not to say that Hamas's view on this matter is correct (or that they aren't using reverse psychology on us, or something similarly absurd). But to dismiss it on the grounds that odious people can sometimes be right is silly. If Hamas is right in this matter, this would be strong reason not to support Obama.

Sobek said...

If Hamas endorses Obama, the relevant inquiry is not whether we can fairly ascribe all of Hamas' views to Obama (obviously we cannot), but the reason for the endorsement.

If Hamas thinks Obama is most likely to step up foreign aid that will alleviate the suffering of Palestinians, the endorsement is not necessarily a bad thing. If Hamas endorses him because Obama is least likely to interfere with Hamas' Jew-killin', then (to the extent Hamas' judgment on that point is accepted) Jews certainly might take that as a strike against Obama.

In the first scenario, we might examine Obama's statements for evidence that he would, in fact, increase foreign aid to Palestinians. But in the second, of course we won't find Obama say anything like "I approve of Hamas' Jew-killin' stance." We look for other indicia that Hamas might be correct, such as refusals to assist Israel, committment to failed peace processes, or promises of multilateralism (which invariably favors Palestinians over Israelis).

Then again, Obama does have an unusually high number of contacts with terrorists, so ...

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