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The Observer, on its front page on December 21st 2003, proudly proclaimed David Aaronovitch to be "columnist of the year". It also trumpeted his column for that week, which I believe to be thoroughly bad. What follows is an attempt to debunk it.
The first problem with this column is that it is obfuscatory. At least three ideas are dealt with that have no connection whatsoever to the untrained observer (Libya and its chemical weapons, the invasion of Iraq, and the terrorist attack on New York of September 11, 2001). No plausible connecting theme is developed, and the jumps between them are startling.
So it is necessary to attempt to unpick the logical structure of the piece. Here is my impression of his main points, paragraph by paragraph:
This may seem like a trite parody. While I am responsible for the parody, I believe the triteness was not introduced to the piece by me. In particular, I claim to have missed out from my summary no piece of serious argument or motivating example that he has given.
A detailed analysis reveals many non sequiturs. In places, concepts are seemingly introduced solely to be confused with other concepts. Here's a list of the problems most glaring to me:
The third paragraph, with its mention of "dodgy holders of WMDs", suggests at once that there is such a thing as a non-dodgy holder of WMD, which is not obviously true.
We are clearly expected to believe that WMDs are safe when they're owned by, say, the US, or Israel, or the former Soviet Union, but not when they're owned by Libya. In the current climate, I'm about as likely to be concerned by WMD possession by these three countries I've mentioned as by Libya. (The US because they have by far the largest history of using them, and because respected current US administration figures have advocated their use recently with little backlash; Israel because they are currently, as always, engaged in international aggression against Palestine, which is more than anything Libya's doing right now; the former Soviet Union for their antiquated fire control systems and dodgy security practices).
In the sixth paragraph is the body of his only attempt to connect the three key themes of his column (Libya, Iraq and terrorism). He suggests the following connection between them: that "odd scientists and strange labs seeking customers" have "pitched up in the tyrannies and theocracies of Asia and the Arab world". Thus he suggests that "their proliferation threatens to spill over into non-governmental hands".
However, it is only a suggestion (no examples are given, no references are cited, and neither examples nor references on the subject are known to me), and I find it rather hard to imagine that the control-freakery of Saddam's government would have made it very easy to proliferate WMDs all over the place even if they existed.
More dazzlingly yet, his final thesis is going to require us to believe that, if a state looks a bit "dodgy" and has WMDs, it's better to launch a bloody full-scale invasion to grab those weapons than risk them falling into the wrong hands. Particularly in the case of Iraq, I can't imagine that anyone can possibly believe it less likely that such weapons would have been used against US troops in a ground invasion, than given to some terrorist group that Hussein had never shown any love for in the past.
The seventh paragraph doesn't make any sense as I've summarised it, doesn't make any more sense in the original, and doesn't appear to have any hope of being easily redeemed to make sense.
The claim Aaronovitch is trying to undermine is the claim that Al-Qaeda cannot do anything particularly significant on a world scale of atrocities. To investigate the truth of this, we must ask how big world atrocities have been in the last few years.
The example Aaronovitch himself has cause to mention is the devastation caused by bombings in the Second World War. We might also mention the few million killed in the US war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I would propose Afghanistan as a further example (since the thousands of poor people killed and millions of poor people sufferring have little connection to the one multi-millionaire used as justification for the assault), though in this context that would be committing the logical sin of begging the question.
Whether or not the claim is true depends, for example, on whether or not Al-Qaeda can do something of this sort of magnitude. I can't see any possible relevance of asking whether they can do something of the magnitude of "obliterating the Israeli peace movement" (to quote Aaronovitch himself).
The ninth paragraph badly misconstrues the position of the entire peace movement. Of course Libya is great news. I know of nobody who wants Libya to have WMDs. But the claim that this shows "things can be achieved 'through more than purely military means'" is both obvious and missing the point.
The central tenet of the peace movement was that "things can be achieved 'through more than purely military means'" in the case of Iraq, in the case of Afghanistan, and in the case of other rapacious US/UK actions. This success in Libya can only strengthen our case.
This is made all the more valid by the following facts:
The eleventh paragraph draws a conclusion, which may well be false, from inadequate evidence. The conclusion he draws is that the "Iraqodox" were wrong to think that "attitudes in the region were going to harden dangerously". Let's give Aaronovitch the benefit of the doubt and suppose, plausibly enough, that Libya is indeed "in the region".
It is certainly premature to assume that this is false merely because one deal has been made (presumably for economic gain, not out of the goodness of its heart) with one Muslim nation.
Also in the eleventh paragraph, he partially contradicts what he said in the ninth paragraph by deriding Menzies Campbell for thinking that "soft words trump hard action", while having earlier praised Tony Blair for thinking that "things can be achieved 'through more than purely military means'".
Throughout the piece, he makes his support clear for the invasion of Iraq, mostly by ridiculing its detractors. But the only argument developed in the piece is in paragraphs 4 and 6, and runs roughly as follows: September 11th made it clear that Iraq was threatening terrorist acts against the West (despite there being no evidence that Iraq had any involvement in the terrorist groups responsible), which it might carry out by proliferating WMDs to private terrorists (despite there being no evidence that Iraq had any WMDs).
As stated, this is an argument with two stages, both of which are fallacious. Yet it is the only argument about Iraq in the text; one wonders why he bothers making his support so clear without any backing.
It seems rather more insane than suggesting a US invasion of Britain to destroy British WMDs because the IRA might be able to acquire some: at least Britain are known to have WMDs, and at least IRA operatives are known to work in Britain in some number.
Finally, the twelfth paragraph is shocking in its triteness. It is suggested that Tony Blair "comprehended what needed to be done after the twin towers fell". Yet, on the night I write this (Christmas Eve 2003), Air France is cancelling flights fearing recurrences of the very same thing.
Two countries have been invaded, and there is no evidence that much good has come of it. In particular, there's nothing to suggest that a recurrence of something like the falling of the "twin towers" has been rendered any less likely. If that constitutes "what needed to be done", then I hate to imagine what Tony Blair wanted to do but didn't think absolutely necessary.
Some of these faults may be partially excused due to the columnist's requirement of brevity. On the other hand, this is not an excuse to abandon the necessity of writing within a transparent logical framework. And, furthermore, one hopes that a skill vital to winning a "columnist of the year" award would be the ability to manage this space problem by compressing an argument cogently. Indeed, the citation, quoted by the Observer, mentions "presenting the case for action in a cogent and persuasive manner". No such manner is evident in the piece I read.
It must be said, as a last specific complaint, that "Iraqodox" is a bad neologism, not least because it's not obvious whether it's suppose to resemble "orthodox" or "heterodox". However, I suppose it is evident from the context which he means.
I don't see how he manages, by attacking the orthodoxy, to claim not to be a voice of orthodoxy himself, when he managed to receive a "columnist of the year" award for writing disconnected nonsense like the column discussed above. If you rule out the journalistic merit of joined-up thinking, deductive processes force you to believe the award was for bullish defence of the doctrines of the establishment orthodox.
The citation for his award mentions the "brave and consistent stand" he has taken. I had no idea that Tony Blair had been elevated to the status of a rebel icon, such that to eulogise him and to agree with him both in principle and on every point of action constituted bravery.