[Guest post by James Downie]

I agree with Matt Yglesias: we do need to bring more "stark moralistic language" into the political discussion. The post in the link is an excellent example of how to do so: he not only makes his moral charge, but brings out charts and data from respected sources to solidify said charge. When arguing that a politician "bought his Medicare concessions by threatening to kill people," or that a writer belongs to a group that "advocate[s] for humanitarian goals in Africa if and only if those goals can be advanced through the use of military force to kill other Africans," the accuser is making serious charges, and as a result should make sure the facts of the case, so to speak, are correct. Unfortunately, here's the first paragraph from Yglesias's broadside against Chait:

Similarly, the fact that we’re not using our influence over the Yemeni government isn’t a reason not to intervene in Libya. Nor is the fact that we’re declining to deploy our military to restrain civil conflicts in Congo or Chad or Cote D’Ivoire exactly a reason not to intervene in Libya. And by the same token, the fact that the invasion of Iraq turned into a costly and bloody fiasco doesn’t show that intervening in Libya is futile. Nor does the mere fact that American public policy is utterly indifferent to the interests and human rights of Palestinian Arabs mean an intervention in Libya is unworkable. Nor does the fact that our most recent military incursion into Africa led to the total destabilization of Somalia have any particular bearing on the merits of no-fly zone in Libya.

There are three major holes in this paragraph:

  • "Similarly, the fact that we’re not using our influence over the Yemeni government isn’t a reason not to intervene in Libya." – Considering that the American behind-the-scenes lobbying at the UN, and the debate within the Obama administration about Libya both went unreported until the Security Council approved the no fly, nobody can say for sure whether we're pressuring the Saleh government. Furthermore, the Yemeni president’s own tribe is calling for him to step down, yet Saleh still refuses to go. Who thinks the United States would have an easier time pressuring him?
  • "Nor is the fact that we’re declining to deploy our military to restrain civil conflicts in Congo or Chad or Cote D’Ivoire exactly a reason not to intervene in Libya." – Chad had UN peacekeepers until the end of 2010, when the mission left in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections that both sides had agreed to, and both the Ivory Coast and the Congo still have UN peacekeeping missions, all of which have troops from countries that do not have other major commitments, and whose ranks are not already exhausted from multiple deployments. Given that none of these missions need Predator drones or other American weapon systems, it makes sense to use troops from other UN members.
  • "Nor does the fact that our most recent military incursion into Africa led to the total destabilization of Somalia have any particular bearing on the merits of no-fly zone in Libya." – The first American missile strikes under Bush took place three years after the incoming Somali government was sworn in in exile in Kenya, and two years after Mogadishu fell to Islamist control and constant fighting between militias. And if Yglesias was referring to Mogadishu in 1993, that catastrophe took place two years after Somalia’s military dictatorship was overthrown, and after the UN had unsuccessfully tried to impose a ceasefire. In short, the country has been destabilized for two decades.

Is every comparison in the paragraph shaky? No - I've left two of the five unchallenged. But whereas the health care post was solidly grounded in fact and data, 40% is not good enough for such serious accusations. And in the rest of the post, Yglesias focuses on arguing that providing malaria nets would be cheap and logistically simple compared to bombing Libya, yet never provides any evidence other than his own instinct that this is true. (While it obviously would be cheaper--one net costs less than ten dollars--distributing malaria nets is actually nightmarishly complicated: many recipients refuse to sleep under them, and since the nets only last three or four years, "if local people do not seek out new ones...today's remarkable and historic net donation effort will have to begin anew, and be repeated, indefinitely.")

This is not to say I disagree with Matt on Libya. (There are so many good reasons on both sides, so many different possible outcomes, that my only sure conclusion is that I'm glad I don't have to make a decision.) No, the point here is that "stark moralistic language" makes people uncomfortable because it confronts them with reality. However, that raises the stakes of the debate, and if the evidence one is relying on is spotty, why should people who disagree with you accept the charges? Instead, those on the fence, whom a writer or blogger is trying to persuade, are inclined to react against the writer's argument. Such language, though powerful when supported with a strong case, is useless on its own.