Thursday, April 26, 2007

Exam Preparation, Rhetoric, and the Debate on Iraq

It's exam time! This fact means that I am training my mind to do two things right now: first, I am cramming as much raw information into my head as will fit without causing me to explode or wet myself; second, I am brushing up on the rules of logic.

Often, law professors test students by presenting partial problems. The trick is to determine whether the limited facts justify applying a law meant to address a more developed problem. I like to employ the old distinction between necessary and sufficient causes.

The classic example is that oxygen is a necessary condition for human life: no air, no humans. Oxygen, however, is not a sufficient condition. There are lots of places where we find oxygen but no people. Or, to refer back to my favorite professor this semester, I could say that being a smart person is a necessary but not sufficient cause of being a good teacher. Good teachers require intelligence, but lots of smart people are terrible teachers.

I saw an example of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid failing to recognize this distinction in the news today. See if you can catch the error he makes in evaluating a statement by General Petraeus. It's not too subtle.

I'll give you the General's comments, and then an excerpt from an interview with the Senator. (Note: Reid was not present when the General made his comments).

Gen Patraeus: "And I think, again, that any student of history recognizes that there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq. Military action is necessary to help improve security, for all the reasons that I stated in my remarks, but it is not sufficient."


Interviewer:Is there something to that, an 18- and 19-year-old person in the service in Iraq who is serving, risking their lives, in some cases losing their life, hearing somebody like you back in Washington saying that they're fighting for a lost cause?

Reid: General Petraeus has told them that.

Interviewer: How has he said that?

Reid: He said the war can't be won militarily. He said that. I mean he said it. He's the commander on the ground there.


It appears, by the Senator's logic, that since air is not sufficient to create and sustain human life, air is not important to us humans. If we can't win by force alone, then I guess force isn't important. Right, Senator. That's exactly what Petraeus said.

I mean, heck, didn't the General actually use the words "necessary" and "sufficient?"

1 comment:

J said...

i'm glad to know that we will soon have someone like you in our legal system. it makes me somehow feel safer.