Paul Pillar

Four Myths About the Refutation of Myths

A regular feature in the Observer section of the Sunday Washington Post is an article in which a commentator refutes five myths, or what are described as myths, about some public issue. This is a popular form of argumentation, which appears in various forms elsewhere. One variant, for example, is the “Think Again” feature in Foreign Policy, which has the same format of serially evaluating several supposedly popular beliefs, although among the beliefs that get refuted there as myths are sometimes others that win the author's agreement or at least conditional agreement.

The appeal of a refute-the-myths approach is understandable. There are indeed some pretty big myths out there in discourse about public policy, and they deserve to be shot down. The format is a concise and direct way of doing the shooting. (I have in effect used variations of this form of argumentation myself, including in a book being published next year that has “mythology” in the title and addresses widely held but mistaken beliefs about the book's principal subject, U.S. intelligence.)

The refute-the-myths approach often gets used, however, in ways that do not advance public understanding as much as they might seem. The approach can be an evasive form of argumentation that sidesteps rather than squarely addresses important aspects of a problem. It enables the author to put words in the mouths of opponents and to address the implanted words rather than any real words from the opponents. It also enables the author to stay on the attack and thereby divert attention from whatever in his own position is vulnerable to attack. Used this way, the approach is akin to the technique of some public figures, of whom the most conspicuous recent practitioner was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, of posing and answering their own questions, and in the process shoving aside questions being asked by journalists or someone else.

The most recent installment in the Sunday Post's knock-down-the-myths feature is by Aaron Miller, writing about peace in the Middle East. Miller makes some valid and important points, especially about the need for an active U.S. role and how the United States has too often failed to be an honest broker. But his piece also illustrates some of the less insightful ways in which the format sometimes gets used and inspires the following thoughts about myth-smashing—which, to get in the spirit, I put in the same format:

Myth #1: If something doesn't explain everything, then it doesn't explain anything. Miller repeats the hoary observation that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the sole cause of all the strife and mayhem in the region, and that resolving that conflict will not bring all the strife and mayhem to an end. He observes that an Arab-Israeli peace would not stabilize Afghanistan, resolve political impasses among Iraqi factions, or end anti-Americanism fueled by U.S. military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course it wouldn't. But the enormous resonance that the Arab-Israeli conflict has throughout the region means that it has contributed significantly to a host of problems, most notably the anti-Americanism, as a distraction, excuse, and cause celebre. Resolution of the conflict certainly would not solve all the problems of the region, but it would substantially attenuate some and make others more tractable.

Myth #2: If something isn't the most important cause of a problem, then it doesn't contribute to the problem at all. Miller identifies one of the myths he seeks to demolish as “Settlements are the main obstacle to peacemaking.” The Arab-Israeli conflict has many obstacles to peacemaking, and there is no logical reason to base a diplomatic strategy on a determination of any one of them being the single, “main” obstacle and to brush aside the others. Miller appears to nominate for the status of “main” obstacle the intra-Palestinian division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. One could easily nominate others, such as the profound distrust among both Israelis and Palestinians about the other side's willingness to make peace. But none of this removes the fact that expansion of settlements in occupied territory is a unilateral measure that negates the whole concept of settling disputes through negotiation, that the construction of settlements has narrowed the negotiating space for a peace agreement and as such has made an agreement more difficult to craft than it otherwise would be, that continued construction of settlements will narrow the negotiating space further and make achievement of an agreement even more difficult, and that the illegal exploitation of conquered territory destroys confidence that there is intent on the exploiting side to reach an agreement.