A Star Is Born

[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 Horton.

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 point):

"’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 Locke’s Second 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 ago."

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 or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org