The Associated Press and the Metaphysics of Illegal Immigration

The Buzz

There are, in the eyes of the Associated Press, no longer any illegal immigrants.

The media group announced that the AP Stylebook, a set of guidelines used by it and many other media organizations, will now direct writers to refer to persons “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.” “Illegal immigration” is still acceptable, but writers must “use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person.” AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll linked this to a broader effort to “[rid] the Stylebook of labels,” noting that its section on mental illness now advises “using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was 'diagnosed with schizophrenia' instead of schizophrenic, for example.” Carroll explained that “while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

We can interpret this notion that certain labels for people are “not accurate” in two ways. The first is that the Associated Press is taking an epistemic position: The claims in reporting must be readily verifiable. People may or may not be schizophrenic, but an overworked journo can only verify that they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. They can’t peer into someone’s mind and see their schizophrenia, at least not while on deadline. Someone may or may not be an illegal immigrant, but reporters can only report what they can attribute, and should bolster the claim: “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

The epistemic position is reasonable enough—it ensures that the press doesn’t accuse someone of breaking the law without establishing they actually did. Yet it is also extremely modest—it takes no position on whether people actually have traits like being an illegal immigrant or being schizophrenic. It merely takes a position on what a reporter can quickly and easily confirm, and bids they venture not one inch further. It doesn’t deny the existence of illegal immigrants, which would make the praise for the AP’s revision among advocacy groups unwarranted. It would be a minute change unworthy of a public announcement.

Yet under the epistemic position, one could still call someone an illegal immigrant. Someone might be “accused of being an illegal immigrant.” A reporter might observe someone crossing a border surreptitiously and assert that they “appear to be an illegal immigrant” based on this action. The fact that the Associated Press maintains that such uses of the term would be “not accurate” suggests that they are not taking an epistemic position, but an ontological one. In other words, a person cannot be an illegal immigrant or be schizophrenic. These are not actual properties, but mere labels that others apply.

The problem is that it is difficult to confine this logic. What properties can people have that aren’t mere labels? For example, is Kathleen Carroll the executive editor of the Associated Press, or is she merely a person who people say is the executive editor of the Associated Press? Are there baseball players or astronauts or fishermen or accountants? Things get even stranger when we remember that the AP still accepts, full stop, the notion that there is a phenomenon known as “illegal immigration.” Phenomena can have properties, but people can’t?

Of course the AP Stylebook does not intend that we believe such strange things. What has happened is far simpler: the Associated Press has decided that there are some accurate labels that it does not like and will no longer apply. Reports on illegal immigrants have not been made more accurate or more verifiable. They have merely been made more politically correct.

TopicsPhilosophy RegionsUnited States

Unlearned Lessons and the Syrian Civil War

Paul Pillar

Just when it seemed we could move beyond the anniversary-related armchair refighting of the Iraq War, we get from Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post editorial staff another mis-aimed salvo from a proponent of that war. Diehl's more immediate subject is the current Syrian civil war, into which a U.S. armed intervention has been a favorite cause of the Post's editorial page for many months. Diehl's declared objectives in his signed column are to absolve himself and other Iraq War proponents from any credibility gap when they advocate U.S. immersion in yet another Middle Eastern war, and to warn of how any Iraq War syndrome might unwisely dissuade the United States from conducting worthwhile military interventions—such as in Syria. If the Iraq War is to be used to make such a case on an issue of current importance, then we had better wallow a little longer in issues involving the old war.

Diehl begins his comparison to Iraq with the thundering understatement that the situation there “hasn't turned out, so far, as we war supporters hoped.” (“So far”? That has to be one of the choicest examples of hope springing eternal.) He then addresses his topic from a humanitarian angle, giving us some figures to try to make a case that “the larger humanitarian price of Syria has been far greater” than that of war in Iraq. His methodology of comparing current rates of casualties in Syria with averages for the entire period of the U.S. presence in Iraq is deeply flawed by the fact that the period of intense, high-casualty civil warfare in Iraq, which was comparable to what we have seen in Syria over the past couple of years, was only one portion of the longer period of U.S. occupation. A more fundamental flaw is that he gives us no reason to believe that adding more flames to an existing fire through military intervention would lead the humanitarian problem in Syria to lessen rather than worsen. Nor does he make any moral, as well as policy, distinction made between a war that one starts oneself and one that is already under way.

The next topic in the column is al-Qaeda, with Diehl repeating the flypaper theory of counterterrorism by saying that “in Iraq, the United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat.” The fallacy with this theory is that it assumes there is a fixed number of terrorists, with the task simply being one of attracting them to where we can kill them. In fact, by its invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States generated far more terrorists, including those of the al-Qaeda ilk, than it killed. There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion and the ensuing civil war created it. Moreover, the entire war was a propaganda bonanza for Osama bin Laden, lending credibility in many eyes to his accusations about the United States being out to kill Muslims, occupy their lands, and plunder their resources. The war unquestionably gave a major boost to jihadist terrorism.

Diehl asserts that “the Iraq war prompted low-level meddling by Iran, Syria and other neighbors but otherwise left the surrounding region unscathed, thanks to the U.S. presence.” Actually, the “low-level meddling” by Iran amid the U.S.-triggered disorder brought Iran the payoff of now being the dominant foreign influence in Iraq. And far from leaving the surrounding region unscathed, the U.S.-unleashed turmoil in Iraq stimulated a wider regional sectarian conflict, with the civil war in Syria being itself the bloodiest current manifestation of that conflict.

Of course, advocates of entering the Syrian war have to deal with public resistance to anything like the long and costly Iraqi expedition. So Diehl assures us that he is only talking about “limited use of U.S. airpower and collaboration with forces on the ground,” which, he says, “could have quickly put an end to the Assad regime 18 months ago, preventing 60,000 deaths and rise of al-Qaeda.” He offers no explanation of how, given all the ingredients (especially the sectarian hatred) of the current civil war, dispatching the Assad regime would have had anything like the salutary effects he postulates, or would have those effects if the regime collapsed this week. What, for example, happens to the Alawites if the regime goes, and what happens to all the desire for vengeance on the Sunni side when that happens?

Note especially the remarkable parallel (which Diehl himself does not highlight) between what is being promised (or hoped for) here and what was promised and hoped for with the invasion of Iraq: that toppling the incumbent regime would be quick and cheap and could be done without any messy, resource-devouring turmoil to follow. The column has other remarkable echoes of the selling of the Iraq War. There is even a line about how if we don't intervene in Syria, al-Qaeda will gain control over chemical and biological weapons.

Diehl says, “The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons.” If his column is any indication, that is very much a problem.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyHumanitarian InterventionPost-ConflictWMD RegionsIranIraqSyria

False Choices on Iran

Paul Pillar

A well-recognized attribute of opinion polling is that the wording of questions heavily influences the results of a poll. Even experienced and reputable organizations without any apparent ax to grind nonetheless sometimes fall into sloppy wording that heavily and misleadingly skews the responses. This is especially apt to happen with topics encumbered by conventional wisdom that is widely accepted even if it may be erroneous. The Iranian nuclear program is one such topic.

The Pew Research Center produces some of the most informative and useful opinion research on foreign affairs—addressing both American attitudes toward overseas problems and attitudes of foreign populations on issues pertinent to U.S. foreign policy. But a question that it asked of a sample of 1,501 Americans a couple of weeks ago about Iran and nuclear weapons was not one of its more carefully constructed efforts. Respondents were asked whether it is “more important” to “prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action” or to “avoid military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons.” Worded this way, it is hardly surprising that a solid majority of 64 percent picked the first choice and 25 percent chose the second, with the rest categorized as “other/don't know.”

Set aside the fact that the question implicitly accepts the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a very bad outcome. Also never mind that the question does nothing to suggest to the respondent any of the respects—including ones highlighted in the recently published study of the subject conducted by the Center for the National Interest—in which war with Iran would be a very bad outcome. Then note that the question conflates what are really two different questions: the apple of war vs. no war with Iran, and the orange of how much to worry about the Iranian nuclear program.

Worst of all, the question as worded wrongly posits a military attack and an Iranian nuclear weapon as alternatives to each other, when in fact they would be more likely to occur in tandem. As the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, Iran has not to date decided to build a nuclear weapon. One of the likely consequences of a military attack on Iran, by either the United States or Israel, would be to precipitate just such a decision.

A more factually based question that would retain as much of the original version's structure and wording as possible would be:

Is it more important to...

Take military action against Iran, even though this may lead Iran to decide to build nuclear weapons, or

Avoid military conflict and rely on diplomacy to try to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is used only for peaceful purposes.

The result of asking this question is apt to be at least as one-sided as the one that Pew asked—and this time it would not be the first alternative that gets the majority.

The problem is not to be laid only at the feet of Pew or of pollsters in general. The problem is a cloud of presumption that has made debate in the United States over Iran's nuclear activities one of the least informed debates among any that have gotten as much attention as this one has.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kevin Zollman. CC BY-SA 2.5.

TopicsPublic OpinionNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

Who Says North Korea Is Bluffing?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Why is everyone assuming that the latest supreme leader of the Hermit Kingdom is bluffing when he says he intends to settle accounts with South Korea and the United States? Apart from Victor Cha in Foreign Policy, the consensus seems to be that Kim Jong Un doesn't really mean anything he says. But maybe he does. Maybe he's spoiling for a fight. As he orders rockets to be readied for attack, the Dear Leader may be out to show that he's not so dear and that he has other things on his mind than hanging out with the eccentric basketball star Dennis Rodman.

It's not like anyone in North Korea could really stop him. The Generals would be hard-pressed to countermand an order to attack. If he lobs some short-range missiles at South Korea, how would America and its ally react? Would they stand by passively? Or would they respond and risk all-out war? In a situation like this the fruitcake has the upper hand, and Kim may just be delusional enough to go for it. The reckless gamblers, the Hitlers who try to overthrow the board and dice of international relations, don't show up that often. Before Hitler it was Napoleon who tried to thwart the natural balance of power. He failed. But it didn't stop either of them from trying. Perhaps young Kim is operating on the same faulty logic, though Victor Cha suggests that it would be premature to conclude that he is insane. Though anyone who runs North Korea, which amounts to a massive concentration camp, must, by definition, have a somewhat different grasp on reality than most other leaders.

Whether or not he actually wants a conflict, the Korean imbroglio also suggests that, like the man searching for his keys under the streetlamp because that's where it's bright, most American analysts have been focusing too much on Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and not enough on the country that already possesses them. It's an interesting irony that Iran hasn't really made the kind of threats against America that North Korea has uttered against Washington, but it has been Iran, by and large, that has been the dominant topic of debate over the past year. Perhaps Kim is only seeking to rectify the imbalance by drawing attention to himself. Perhaps he's just in a snit because the U.S. sent several B-2 bombers over the Korean peninsula to drop dummy munitions.

But given the stakes, the U.S. is doing all the right things. Contrary to the prescriptions of some self-described realists, it would be wholly unrealistic for Washington to abscond from the area. It would be deserting an ally. It would effectively cede a sphere of influence to China. And it would be tantamount to deserting Japan, which would be bound to develop, almost overnight, its own atomic weapons. This is not a prospect that Washington could contemplate with indifference.

Still, the country that probably has the most to lose isn't America. It's China. The sight of America being further drawn into the region is anathema to it. But already President Obama is beefing up American defenses against North Korea. Maybe Kim figures time is not on his side. Better to take a swipe at South Korea and the imperialist running dogs sooner rather than later. He is, after all, running a country that doesn't have all that much to lose. The scary prospect isn't that North Korea is playing a game. It's that it might not be playing.

Image: Flickr/(stephan). CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Intelligence and Public Perceptions of It

Paul Pillar

A common current piece of advice to U.S. intelligence agencies, coming from many places including reportedly from official advisory panels, is that those agencies ought to de-emphasize whacking terrorists and redirect some of that effort to traditional functions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, lest the United States be blind-sided by something in China or the Middle East or elsewhere. Just about everyone who comments on what U.S. intelligence agencies ought to be doing seems to be saying something along that line; we don't need to turn to any official panels with privileged access to hear that. The message has an appealing, back-to-basics ring to it, as well as having the appeal of sounding forward-looking. And the message is substantively sound; intelligence agencies ought indeed to focus on the core missions of collecting and analyzing information about the world outside the United States.

Sound though this particular message is, it is another illustration of publicly expressed conventional wisdom about intelligence that exists as a sort of parallel universe, separate from what the intelligence agencies are actually doing—of which, given the classified nature of that activity, the public commentators know little. Without access to the real thing, purveyors of conventional wisdom feed on each other's output until the conventional wisdom gets treated as if it were hard fact. When the conventional wisdom says something about how the intelligence community has been devoting too much attention to one topic and ought to shift attention to something else, this is really much more a reflection of where the public commentary itself has been devoting attention. The same is true of what counts as a “surprise”; this often has less to do with what intelligence agencies were or were not telling their official customers behind closed doors than with what the public had or had not been conditioned to expect, based on public statements and discussion.

Amid pronouncements coming from the parallel universe, several realities about the actual world of intelligence ought to be noted.

One is that disproportionate public attention to certain subjects or activities does not reflect the actual allocation within the agencies of resources and priorities. What is controversial or receives much public attention does necessarily seize the attention of senior managers who have to deal with Congress. But that is not true of the large majority of the work force, most of which has always been focused on the core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, or directly supporting those who do.

Another reality is that the swing of the pendulum of attention from one topic to another in the actual world of intelligence is not nearly as exaggerated as swings in the parallel universe. This gives rise to myths, such as that during the Cold War the intelligence community devoted nearly all of its attention to matters involving the Soviet Union.

Yet another reality is that the intelligence community devotes much effort on its own to keeping its priorities well-grounded and up-to-date, applying the dual criteria of what is of long-term importance to the country and what the policy-makers of the day most want to hear about. Here the mistaken myth is that it takes kicks in the pants from outsiders such as advisory panels to make priorities up to date.

It is true—and here is where the two otherwise parallel universes intersect—that some of what the intelligence agencies do in reallocating resources is in response to shifting public demands. The agencies certainly expanded work on terrorism greatly after 9/11. This was not because the nature of the terrorist threat had suddenly changed (it didn't) or because before 9/11 the intelligence community did not understand that threat (it did). It was because with the sudden and enormous change in the public mood and public concerns, intelligence managers had to show Congress and others on the outside that they were beefing up work in this area.

What does not get nearly as much public attention in such circumstances is what trade-offs are involved in any such reallocation. With resources always limited, responding to public demands on one thing may increase the chance of genuine surprise in the future on something else—something that inhabitants of the parallel universe probably are paying scant attention to today.

TopicsDefensePublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States