[Author's note: As some of you may have noticed, I
took August off. I needed to and I have come back fresh. I will be writing
at least one article a month from now on, and occasionally two.]
One of my biggest frustrations when watching
debates is that most of them fall into one of two categories. The first is
what I call "two drunks fighting." In that category, neither lands
many punches – points that go to the heart of the issue and that the other
side doesn't respond to effectively. Both sides flail about. In the second
category are people who, on one or both sides, make good points, but dress
up their points with sighs, attacks on character, and innuendo. Especially
frustrating for me in this second kind of debate is when my side has good arguments
but can't resist the temptation to attack. Only rarely do I see a debate in
which even one side sticks to the argument, cites facts in a way that they
can be checked, shows passion about the issue, defends himself from attacks
but doesn't exaggerate the defense or do it too often, and refrains from attacking
or belittling his opponent. Well, I saw such a debate
last Friday. On that basis, I can say that a star was born. His name is Scott
In a way, the debate was a setup, whether intended or not. The date was 9/11,
no doubt purposely chosen given that the topic was terrorism and war. The sponsor
was the Young Conservatives of Texas at Texas A&M University, a school
that, I would bet, has a very pro-war student body. On one side was Harvey
Kushner, whose Web site identifies him as "a conservative commentator
and internationally recognized authority on terrorism" who "has advised
elected officials, military personnel, and foreign government officials as
well as trained many U.S. governmental agencies, including the FBI, DHS, FAA,
DEA, INS, and U.S. Customs." On the other side was Scott Horton, who does
radio interviews for Antiwar.com. On the basis of date, topic, and audience,
one would expect Horton to lose and Kushner to win. Of course, it requires
a careful sifting of the evidence and arguments to decide who, if anyone, won.
I do some of that sifting below. But, in debates, there are other indicators
of winning: who got the loudest applause, if there were boos, who got booed
the most, etc. Here are the two bottom lines: First, no one got booed. Second,
no one got applause until the end, when both were applauded at the same time.
I wondered if that was because the organizers had announced that standard enthusiasm
suppressant, "Please don't applaud until the end." But on two listenings
from the beginning, I found no such stricture, and a call to Scott Horton confirmed
that he had heard no such stricture.
Think about that. Scott Horton goes into a lion's den with a fairly experienced
lion, in front of people who, presumably, are ready to cheer for the lion.
But they didn't cheer. Why? I think it was because Horton knew the arguments,
knew the evidence, conducted himself with tact and grace but also with passion,
and never fell for the low blows that Kushner tried to land. I would bet that
the majority of the facts and arguments Horton cited were ones that many in
the audience found persuasive but had probably never heard. My guess is that
many of them were shocked when they heard these arguments and that they figured
Horton's arguments or facts must be wrong. They may have been waiting for Kushner
to correct them, but, instead, Kushner ignored Horton's arguments, implicitly
agreed with his facts, misstated Horton's arguments and/or facts, accused Horton
of concocting fantasy rather than stating facts, and, in one case, outright
accused Horton of lying. The silence following what Kushner must have planned
as applause lines was deafening. On that count, I would say that Scott Horton
won an impressive victory.
I encourage you to take some time and watch the debate
rather than take my word for it. Nevertheless, I want to mention some highlights,
both because of what they show about Horton's debating skills and because we
can learn from him in our own debates. Scott Horton is an incredible rhetorician.
And, if you think rhetoric has anything to do with bulls**t or bluster, then
consult a dictionary. Rhetoric is the art of argumentation, a fact that virtually
everyone in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th
century understood. We can hone our own rhetoric if we learn from the masters.
Kushner led off by making the case that the U.S. government should spread
democracy around the world. (Around the 7:00 to 9:00 segment.) He tried to
justify this point of view by making the case that the U.S. government should
do this for its own sake and, because without democracy in the rest of the
world, the U.S. would be threatened by 9/11-type events.
What would you do if you were given a chance to rebut Kushner's points? I
know that the trap I sometimes fall into is to take on abstract statements
such as Kushner's by giving an equally abstract retort, informed by a few examples.
But here's the start of Horton's rebuttal, word for word (starting at the 9:00
"'Democracy,' said Benjamin Franklin, 'is two wolves and a lamb voting
on what's for lunch.' And we see the results of American foreign policy in
attempting to export democracy to the Middle East in the Iraqi government,
which is made up of the Dawa
Party and the Supreme
Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the guys who were the Iraqi traitors,
who fled to Iran, back when America supported Saddam in the war against Iran.
So now the Iraqi government is a joint effort between the American government
and the Iranian one. And the Supreme Islamic Council and their Badr Brigade
have spent the last four years putting drills in the heads of Sunnis, murdering
them, slaughtering them, and ethnically cleansing Baghdad of them. They voted
on what was for lunch; it was Baghdad. …
"We can see the hypocrisy of the American war party when they claim
that they want to promote democracy and we see the results. They demanded elections
in Palestine. Hamas won. They immediately announced, 'You don't have to deal
with Hamas even though they were democratically elected. They're a terrorist
group. They're off limits.' They demanded elections in Lebanon, and Hezbollah
didn't win outright, but they did a lot better and formed a new coalition with
the Christians and have increased their power more than ever in the government
of Lebanon. Would anybody say that that was in the interest of the West? …
"Democracy means nothing if the people living in that democracy do
not believe in liberty. … When one speaks of the shining city on the hill,
that's supposed to be the light of truth, not the laser sight for high explosives
falling out of the air on people. I do believe that America is different and
is exceptional. … What America has for the world is the philosophy of liberty.
The way you deliver that to the people of the world is that you e-mail it to
them and you fax it to them and you send them an iPod with John
Treatise on Civil Government on audio book and spread those throughout
the world. But when America – when our government – takes our money and takes
our blood and uses it to force liberty on people, they just identify what we
call liberty with the tyranny that our government brings to them. I think it
is noteworthy that none of the September 11 hijackers were from the Axis of
Evil countries – Iraq, Iran, or Syria [North Korea, not Syria, was in Bush
II's original list, but Horton later explained to me that he put Syria in on
purpose because 'the neocons have always considered regime change in Syria
as a high priority.'] They were all from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other
Arabian states where there are American combat forces stationed in their land.
It wasn't a lack of democracy that made them angry. Certainly our support for
their dictatorships was part of their anger, but it wasn't that we had yet
to invade Egypt, and yet to invade Saudi Arabia and change their regimes and
force them to have democracy that motivated them; it was the fact that our
government was already in their country. …
" A lot of the debate since September 11 has rested on the premise
that history began that day, as though America had not occupied Saudi Arabia.
… We're supposed to just think that the attacks happened just like those planes,
out of the clear blue sky, they hate us for no reason but for how good we are
and maybe because we haven't invaded them and given them a democracy yet. I
think as long as our foreign policy operates on that premise, more Americans
are going to be killed in spectacular attacks like what happened seven years
Wow! If I were teaching rhetoric, I would use Horton's response above as a
teaching tool. Notice that Horton goes right for the evidence on democracy
in Iraq. Notice the degree of detail and compelling historical knowledge he
brings to the debate. Horton also points out that the U.S. government doesn't
really want democracy in other countries unless their people vote the way the
U.S. government wants them to vote. Notice, also, that he shows his understanding
of American exceptionalism in the best sense of that term, as a beacon of liberty
rather than as a dropper of bombs.
I imagine that Kushner had no idea what hit him. Later in the debate, Kushner
talks about the Left, as if Horton was of the Left. It was as if he hadn't
heard Horton speak positively of John Locke. Maybe that explains why, in his
immediate response to Horton (13:25), Kushner showed so little class, telling
the audience that while Horton had been speaking, he, Kushner, had been texting
his friends. He accused Horton of being naïve and claimed that Horton,
in seeking the reasons for the 9/11 attacks, was blaming the victim. I strongly
suggest that you watch at least Horton's first few minutes above and Kushner's
response to see just how unresponsive to Horton's argument Kushner was.
Frequently throughout the debate, Kushner advocated "sophistication"
in foreign policy, supporting, for instance, hostile governments such as Saudi
Arabia's. At the same time, Kushner said that decisions must be made quickly
in the heat of battle and, unfortunately, there will sometimes be blowback,
as in the case of the mujahedeen allied with the U.S. government to fight the
Soviets in Afghanistan. He never tried to reconcile sophistication with quick
decisions. Horton, however, actually showed sophistication simply by
having tremendous command of the facts. In response to Kushner's claim that
there were very good reasons to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of
mass destruction at the time Colin Powell gave his 2003 UN speech, Horton pointed
out that the day after Powell's speech, Scott Ritter had given a speech in
Japan refuting every major part of Powell's case, from aluminum tubes to the
Niger uranium documents. Having handled Kushner's main points, Horton used
his remaining minutes to practice the good rhetorical method of circling back
and tying up loose ends that he couldn't on the previous question because Kushner
had had the last word. Horton pointed out that he wasn't blaming the victims
of 9/11 and that any good cop, when he investigates a crime, tries to find
out the motive of the perpetrator.
There's so much more in this debate: Horton laying out the consequences of
the USA PATRIOT Act; pointing out to the audience that under the Military Commissions
Act, any of them can be turned over to military and held indefinitely if the
U.S. president decides to do so; and noting that under the Detainee Treatment
Act, CIA agents are allowed to torture people.
Another high point occurred after Kushner accused Horton of undermining our
troops by criticizing the Iraq war. In response, Horton pointed out (51:30
and following) that if that were so, then among those who undermined our troops
were James A. Baker III, secretary of state under Bush I, and Gen. Brent Scowcroft,
Bush I's national security adviser, who wrote "Don't Attack Saddam"
in the Wall Street Journal.
Horton also pointed out, using irony, that the U.S. is an empire: "We
have hundreds of bases in over 100 countries around the world." (For why
I think Horton should not use the word "we" when he really means
the U.S. government, see my "Who
Is 'We'?".) Horton quoted Max Boot's Weekly Standard essay
"The Case for American Empire." While Kushner tried to deny that
the U.S. is an empire, he said (58:40), "If we're an empire, I'm proud
that we're an empire." Later, in response, Horton said, "It's funny;
America's not an empire and yet we have a border conflict with Russia?"
I could go on and on. Horton scored knockout punch after knockout punch. Unfortunately,
when Horton crossed the stage at the end of the speech to shake hands with
Kushner, Kushner refused.
But that's Kushner's problem. If you want to see one of the strongest cases
that can be made against the war in Iraq, U.S. imperialism, and U.S. military
intervention in general, then watch the whole debate.
Watch, listen, and learn.
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author