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