Logical Errors and Propaganda in Republican Debate on the Middle East

The candidates to be the Republican standard bearer in this year’s presidential campaign addressed Iran and Syria in the course of their debate. Except for Ron Paul, they resorted to propaganda and logical fallacies. This use of erroneous arguments by canny men who have been in positions of high responsibility can only be explained if we assume ulterior motives. That is, they have actual reasons for wanting to do something that are not acceptable to the public, so they have to promote their policies dishonestly.

All but Paul virtually promised the US public that they would go to war with Iran if elected. As Paul pointed out, the US has no money for such a war and it would be illegal and unconstitutional for the President just to launch it.

Newt Gingrich was the first to take the Iran question. He criticized Gen. Martin Dempsey for saying that the Iranian regime is “rational actors.”

Gingrich said, “The fact is, this is a dictator, Ahmadinejad, who has said he doesn’t believe the Holocaust existed.

Gingrich begins with name calling, to appeal to the emotions. Who likes a dictator? Then he points to a negative attribute of Iran’s president, his questioning of the Holocaust.

One problem is that Ahmadinejad is not a dictator. The presidency in the Iranian system is like the vice presidency in the United States. Ahmadinejad has lost fights with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and even with parliament over appointments. The Wikileaks cables say that a Revolutionary Guard officer even slapped him.

Another is that while it is true that Ahmadinejad has– disgustingly– questioned that fully 6 million Jews were killed by Hitler, this stance does not prove he is not a rational actor on policy decisions. Moreover, since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei makes the important decisions, whether Ahmadinejad is all there is again irrlevant. This fallacy is known as “missing the point.”

Gingrich continues, calling Ahmadinejad a dictator yet again, and accuses him of saying that he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth.

So Gingrich repeats the name calling. Then he makes a false assertion. Ahmadinejad once quoted an old speech of Ayatollah Khomeini’s from the 1980s, in which Khomeini said, “this occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” “mahv shavad” or vanish is intransitive, so transitive verb like “eliminate” is incorrect as a translation. It was not a threat to destroy Israel through military action, but a prediction that the occupation regime would collapse rather as the Soviet Union had. The occupation regime over Gaza, after all, has in fact collapsed.

This propaganda technique is known as “stacking the cards,” since Gingrich has not told his audience that Ahmadinejad has relatively little power in the Iranian system and despite being president he is not the commander in chief of the armed forces. That would be Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Gingrich says that Ahmadinejad wants to “drive the United States” out of the Middle East. While Ahmadinejad is an anti-imperialist, he has not threatened to attack the United States, as Gingrich implied. Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei has repeatedly said that Iran has a “no first strike policy” and will not be the first to initiate hostilities.

Gingrich then, having completely misrepresented Ahmadinejad, ends by saying it would be wise to “believe dictators.” So having smeared Iran’s relatively weak and besieged president as a praetorian dictator, having put words in his mouth, Gingrich then makes his own slur the reason for which credibility should be given to Gingrich’s misstatement of Ahmadinejad.

Gingrich is engaged in a form of the ad hominem argument. We should believe that Ahmadinejad’s aggressive statements (most of which he did not actually make in the form alleged) because Ahmadinejad is dictatorial.

In fact, Gingrich cannot refute Gen. Dempsey’s assertion that Iran is a rational actor by reference to Ahmadinejad, who does not make military policy.

Gingrich also errs in not taking account of Iran’s military weakness and inability to attack or destroy Israel. Iran has no air force to speak of, whereas Israel has the best air force in the region. Iran does not have a big tank army. It is far from Israel and could not send tank columns through Turkey or Iraq or Jordan. Besides, the Israelis would just destroy the tanks. And Israel has 400 nuclear bombs, which would deter Iran from attacking it even if Iran had that capacity, which it does not.

More card stacking.

Gingrich then says that we should acquiesce in Netanyahu’s plans for bombing Iran because he is a “holocaust survivor.” This is the propaganda technique of the testimonial, when an attempt is made to sway listeners by appealing to the authority of one leader. Gingrich concludes by supporting preemptive war, but nothing he said actually argued for it.

Romney said, “Ahmadinejad having fissile material that he can give to Hezbollah and Hamas and that they can bring into Latin America and potentially bring across the border into the United States to let off dirty bombs here. I mean — or — or more sophisticated bombs here, this — we simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weaponry.”

This is Propaganda with a capital ‘p’. Romney is appealing to an argument that stacks the cards. No nuclear country has ever given bombs to terrorist groups and there is no reason to think Iran would either. Iran does not, of course, even have such a bomb. Hizbullah and Hamas could not in fact carry a nuclear bomb (they are heavy, complicated and dangerous) around Latin America and up through Mexico to the US because Mexican authorities would detain them. Assuming there were Hamas in “Latin America,” which there mostly are not. Romney is just making sh*t up with which to scare us.

He has to do this because Iran is far away from the US, is militarily weak, and poses no threat to the American mainland. By inventing radical Muslim fundamentalist Mexicans with a nuclear bomb miraculously supplied by an Iran that doesn’t have one, Romney brings a sense of danger to an American audience.

Santorum brings up the rear arguing that US funding for anti-regime elements in Iran would have allowed the overthrow of the Khamenei government. But a few tens of millions of dollars cannot bring down a government, and open association with the United States is the kiss of death in Iranian politics.

This squalid performance by three of the leading lights of the GOP is a very troubling development. All seem reckless and willing to risk war with Iran. None seems terribly interested in the outcome. It is almost as though they were working for big munitions corporations.

30 Responses

    • The difference is that it was not the “Supreme Leader” Gingrich was referring to. But Gingrich doesn’t care about niceties. He is in full egomaniac mode, spittle flying. His vaunted abilities as a “historian” desert him in these situations.

  1. This is very useful and should be better known. My gripe is the cherry-picking.

    Right wing Rabbis often call for things like the expulsion of all Palestinians, or the destruction of Iran. Are they criticized too? No.

    Christian pastors often denounce Islam as Satanic — even though it has no idols or even images in its liturgy, a far cry from many Christian churches. And even though the Moslems do a vastly superior job of following Biblical morality than Christians do, whether you agree with it or not. AIDS statistics do not lie. Are the Christians denounced for these ad hominem attacks? No.

    But still the sauce is served up for the gander in steaming portions.

  2. Watching this segment of the debate enraged me: Ahmadinejad labeled as “Dictator” is so beyond ignorance that to use the term three times is lying with mischievous intent! (Ahmadinejad won’t even be in office next year) This PR campaign is running out of time and these three (a little less so Romney though…) are pushing the American people to believe the lie and be prepped for war. I know Ron Paul has his problems but I’m glad his voice is there,-even if to be mocked–as he offers an opposing viewpoint.

  3. link to spacewar.com

    Defense industry at risk from slow demand
    The U.S. defense industry, currently top of global rankings with a record $700 billion turnover in 2009, risks losing its pre-eminence due to slowing demand and growing competition from rivals in Asia and South America.
    Warnings of an impending slump followed a spate of defense cutbacks in Europe, the end of U.S. combat role in Iraq and predictions of a drop in U.S. military procurement. The Obama administration’s plans to cut $100 billion in Pentagon overhead from 2012-16 is also set to affect on the industry overall.

    • “Defense industry at risk from slow demand”

      Maybe they ought to start looking to convert to the lucrative “plowshare” market…

  4. “All seem reckless and willing to risk war with Iran.”

    And thus will probably tempt Netanyahu to insinuate himself into the Presidential campaign in some way.

  5. What a disgusting bunch of un-American, power hungry, misogynistic Joe Lieberman clones we have before us.

    What the hell does it have to do with this country’s foreign policy towards Iran if Netanyahu is a holocaust survivor, other than a statement like that makes Adelson smile? So what that Amadinejad views Israel as the provocateur of unrest and controversy in the middle east? Israel being unliked by one man is not a freaking reason to go to war.

  6. Ron Paul was groomed on Cleon Skousen, Paul is also close with Joel Skousen and this association has always cast a cautious eye on the association for me. Although, agreement with Paul on the unnecessary invasions and other war issues. There is a disquieting alliance that was troublesome.

    Washington Post ran an article on the behind the scenes friends ship between Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Surprising? No. Remember Joel Skousen gave a sideways endorsement to Mitt Romney several months ago on the Alex Jones show. (interview found on The Real Mitt Romney the Weather-Vane Candidate link here: link to mittromney2012potus.blogspot.com

    Sometimes I wondered if Mitt’s three legged stool had to do with the influence (and deep influence) that has woven its way into our more or less three major political parties.
    Article from New York Times on Romney/Paul friendship, Washington Post ran another article on the same subject.

    link to nytimes.com

  7. One hopes the US Voters can tell the difference between The Simpsons and The Republican Debates? There is one isn’t there?

  8. One of the biggest problems we face politically is that our primary process had devolved upon a very small minority of the most politically rabid idealogues, and so the primary rhetoric becomes more and more charged and insane. These guys are posturing for maniacs and they know that, but to get to the general election thay have to say things that the maniacs want to hear. You won’t hear any of them saying anything even remotely like this in the general election.

    At one point they would not be frothing at the mouth like this because to do so would be held against them in the general election, but the primary electors have become so rabid that it no longer matters. They have to do this to get the nomination from the primary idealogues, and then hope they can undo the damage in the general. You can’t become president if you lose in the party’s primary.

    Meanwhile, they manage to scare the hell out of thinking people, rational electors that is, who think that these guys actually mean what they are saying. They don’t. They are just trying to get past the crazies.

  9. In a way, this doesn’t surprise me.

    In 2003 we invaded a country that had no navy, no air force to speak of, no long-range missile force, no nuclear weapons and a poorly-equipped army that we swept aside in a matter of days.

    In short, we didn’t invade Iraq because they were strong. We invaded Iraq because they were weak.

    • If Iran does get nuclear weapons, the invasion of Iran, becomes quite unlikely doesn’t it?

      That results in permanent loss of control of the oil there.

      Is that one of the big forces behind the push against iran?

      Time to get off the oil. ASAP.

  10. When I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, our pastor, a Bircher, used to tell us that Chinese troops were massing in Mexico waiting to attack. Romney’s little fantasy is the same drama with new villains.

    The term “dirty bomb” as it’s been used lately, refers to a chemical explosive packed with radioactive isotopes that are strewn all over the place by the chemical explosion. There’s no need for fissile material to do that. It would be a lot easier to steal the isotopes from hospitals and universities than to smuggle it all the way from Iran via Latin America. What shameless baloney!

    • “… from hospitals and universities…”

      And smoke detectors, old clocks and watches with radium dials that you can buy on EBay, gamma sources from construction and oil/gas drilling sites. No need for “fissile uranium” or plute.

      Moreover, these days, thanks to the soft bigotry of Bush Junior rhetoric, a “weapon of mass destruction” could be a kleenex that somebody sneezed in.

  11. It is appropriate to call Ahmednijad a “dictator”. Just like Tojo and Brezhev. It is true the last two were heads of a collective leadership, but their rule over their people was a dictatorship.

    • Not really, no.

      Ahmadinejad has rather limited power. He is not commander-in-chief of the military.

      Even though his title is “President” he has nowhere near the power of a US President.

      He may not be a nice guy, but that hardly makes him a dictator. We’ve so diluted the definition that it just means “Foreign leader we don’t happen to like” at this point.

  12. It doesn’t matter who will be the Republican standard bearer, because this primary has produced enough lode stones to tie around the neck of any candidate in the general election.

    The maniacal right is the majority in the Republican party. They are in power not by any efforts of their own. In 2010 the masses simply registered their disaffection when Obama proved not to be a miracle worker. The maniacs benefited from the fickleness of the voters, not their ideologies or polices.

    I for one exhort the Republicans into ever greater outbursts of maniacal speech, because I know 6 November next will have an entirely different outcome than what Republicans expect or hope.

    • “The maniacal right is the majority in the Republican party.”

      Actually, no. They are the 20% or so that vote in Republican primaries. It has been repeatedly shown that they are not in agreement with Republican sentiment generally.

      In California Republican state legislators have repeatedly been willing to vote in favor of budgets along with the Democratic majority, enough to create the 2/3 majority required, and have been told by the leadership in their district that if they did so the leadership would run more “pure” candidates against them and defeat them.

      That threat was valid despite polling showing that as much as 60% or registered Republicans favored the vote which the present legislator intended to cast. Only 20% of registered Republicans vote in primaries, however, and that 20% would defeat that legislator in the primary for voting with Democrats.

  13. Gingrich then says that we should acquiesce in Netanyahu’s plans for bombing Iran because he is a “holocaust survivor.”

    Netanyahu was Born: 21-Oct-1949, his Birthplace: Tel Aviv, Israel.

    How could he be a Holocaust Survivor? He was not even born in a Concentration Camp!!!

    Why these warmongers do not want to start war with Russia or China? Those have atomic bombs to give them an equal punch, to bloody their nose. They do not know what war is. They have not learned anything from Vietnam War. It is very easy to gang-up on a week adversary. They are no more than the gangsters & liars, as they have shown their colors during the debates.

    With Gingrich’s own reasoning, he should agree that all the Japanese those born outside Japan, after the American nuclear bombs created holocaust in Japanese cities, Nagasaki & Hiroshima, are the survivors of American created Holocaust.

    To show strength against Iran, USA, UK & France has all kinds of naval ships in the Persian Gulf & several bases around it, against a weak adversary. But to show US commitment in the Pacific there will be a contingent of measly 2,500 troops based in Australia. Looks like everyone has abandoned Taiwan. To show your commitment USA, UK & France should have their naval armada based in Taiwan & should patrol the strategic straight of Taiwan.

    However, we are going to have our presence in Australia to project our power & show our commitment. Won’t it be better to have our base on the southern part of Tasmania, the farthest distance from China? Gingrich or any other candidate dares not to have a base in Taiwan, just eighty miles from mainland China, but gang up on Iran.

  14. Obama administration already has at least two purely conspirological issues on its account. The first one is absurd story about the Iranian ploy to kill the Saudi ambassador. Next, we heard about the Iranian links to Alqueda.

    Once you start with high level black propaganda, it makes little sense to speak about “logical errors” made by your opponents.

  15. Here is the weakness of commentators like Juan Cole encapsulated in a sentence:

    “Another is that while it is true that Ahmadinejad has– disgustingly– questioned that fully 6 million Jews were killed by Hitler, this stance does not prove he is not a rational actor on policy decisions.”

    Which is more disgusting, the exercise of free speech about historical events of 50 years ago or starting wars and killing people? Cole would never use the word “disgusting” to apply to the war-mongering blood-thirsty statements of Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, McCain, Lieberman, etc., would he?

    As Ron Paul pointed out last night, he gets no where trying to talk about the immorality of these wars. Its just a non-issue to kill Muslims but some Muslim disagreeing with the official version of a historical event of 50 years ago, oh, thats a scandal. Can’t ignore that!

    • Didn’t Cole refer to the debate as “squalid”? That’s close enough to “disgusting”.

      Also, it might be time Rep. Paul realized that the price our society paid for centuries of blind embrace of private property and free enterprise as the only value of a man, while said systems were in fact totally rigged to favor white Christians and produce staggering national and global inequality, is that white Christian capitalist men must be viewed as superior to other kinds of humans. Thus the other kinds of humans, and anyone who dissents from the masters, has a life that is of so little value that it should simply be snuffed out at the first sign of a slave rebellion. The government exists to protect “our” property, right? That is how Western capitalism triumphed, and all those who have stood against it or its wars successfully have been those who demanded human equality in reality, not in bought-out 19th century bourgeoise cliches that libertarians still worship. That’s why the yuppies love you until it’s time to pull the lever, Ron.

  16. You say Gingrich and I say Adelson. 5 billionaires supporting the GOP candidates. Soon we will be asked to approve their selections without a vote.

  17. Professor Cole, you say “This squalid performance by three of the leading lights of the GOP is a very troubling development.”

    You are too kind to them. Lying their way into power in order to start a war is simply evil.

  18. Dear Prof Cole,

    Whatever small temptation you may have to use your time on other things than dismantling such horribly evil and pernicious assertions, please resist them:

    The multiplier effect of the skilled work you do to put refutations like this together is bound to have a real impact on a number of relatively influential people out there who find great value in a more honest perspective.

  19. I think we are reaching the point where the supporters of these candidates are whom we have to confront; interchangeable demagogues can easily outhate each other for their support. The problem is, 8 years ago, I figured the Cheney gang’s secret plan was that if the conquest of Iraq failed and the economy collapsed, they’d simply declare martial law and deputize those we now call The Tea Party to enforce it. Now, the whackos have deputized themselves and hunt for a trustworthy tyrant to do the declaring. You cannot negotiate with people who already have decided that their survival requires that you be stripped of the vote and equal protection (or lack of same) under the law. You can only show them that if they try to get their way, you are equally willing to burn down the country rather than live as their slave or their cannon fodder.

  20. The Iran-Israel nuclear broil-up does great service as a frightening wedge-issue among fellow Jewish voters and Jewish political contributors in the upcoming general election and may yet turn their votes and money against Obama, or at least make them sit on their hands and wallets. It’s also a great way to motivate the many pro-Zionist Armageddon crazies in the Christian right to embark on a strenuous new crusade to “save” the Holy Land now that we’re sort of withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    What could be more tempting to Republican strategists and military-industrial planners?

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