Argument and persuasion are not the same thing. An argument is a series of statements, or premises, arranged and propounded to entail a conclusion – to support a claim. Persuasion is the attempt to influence and change minds. Ideally, the former plays the major role in the latter, but in politics and policy, as in life, this is not always so. Armed robbery is an act of persuasion. The barrel of a gun makes a weak argument that its holder is entitled to your wallet, but it makes strong case that you should hand it over. At the point of a gun, one is persuaded to give up the goods.
Negotiations are persuasion, not argument. Around the negotiating table, people may seem endlessly to argue, in order to prove the justness or necessity of their positions: people need to justify themselves and they sometimes play to a public. What negotiators really do is attempt to develop in the minds of their opponents the conviction that failure to accede to demands will produce in the opponents the state of being sorry. When a negotiated settlement is reached, both sides will have, to a degree, formed this conviction with regard to the other side’s demands, traded off against their own. In this conviction, and to justify their efforts and the end result, they will present the agreement to their constituencies in just this way. No negotiating team returns to those it represents with the report that a better deal was possible, but that the team decided to settle for less.
Sometimes constituencies accept this claim, sometimes they do not. Negotiated agreements are sometimes rejected, both for good and for ill. The proof is in the further pressure applied to the other side, succumbed to in time or not, and what is lost in the process.
A negotiating team needs to persuade its voting constituency to accept the deal. It makes an argument for the agreement it reached with the other side. This argument may, and should, consist of propositions regarding the detailed substance of the agreement and how it reasonably meets the demands and needs addressed in the negotiations, all things considered. To the degree that the constituency is satisfied with the agreement, and arguments in support, on its face, there will be need for little more.
Opposition to the agreement changes everything. In the real world, opposition degrades argument. It may degrade argument in two senses, both of them manners of discrediting the argument. In one sense, argument is literally degraded in quality, as the various vested interests turn from argument proper to naked persuasion. Common to this persuasion is the effort to discredit the argument by discrediting the opponent. Poisoning the well and ad hominem attack are both fallacious forms of argument that pretend to discredit the position by attempting deceptively to discredit the person instead. There can be legitimate arguments to the person, and we see them in the debate over the Iran deal when the expertise and authority of individuals to evaluate various technical areas of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is challenged. However, mere argument to expertise is superficial, and ultimate authority is to be found in the intellectual substance of the argument.
The basest attempts to discredit the person in the arguments over the Iran deal can be seen in charges that President Obama is an appeaser or even, most vilely, antisemitc. The President and those supporting the JCPOA have been no less base in tarring opponents as war mongers, neocons, or dual-loyalist Jews. Just as supporters of President Bush, in advance of the invasion of Iraq, challenged the patriotism of those who opposed the war, supporters of President Obama, in putting forth the JCPOA, are attacking opponents’ honesty and patriotism.
Currently, New York Senator Chuck Schumer is being subjected to the lowest kinds of disreputable sliming, including from the most well-known voices for President Obama. An even lower example actually appeared in Foreign Policy, penned by Jeffrey Lewis, resorting to attacks on Schumer’s dignity as a human being.
There is another, legitimate way to discredit an argument – the actual argument, and not those offering it – and that is to discredit a fundamental premise of the argument. Next, I will attempt to discredit the single most prominent defense of the Iran deal, made by every supporter of it.