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How I Would Have Argued Intelligence Squared's "Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators" Part II

When we last talked, I told you how I would have argued in favor of the motion, “Better Elected Islamists than Dictators”, a topic from Intelligence Squared U.S. from last fall. I laid out my argument along four points: this is about the long game, “let’s drop the -isms”, elections always trump dictators, and American foreign policy can be incredibly hypocritical.

Since I was not invited to this debate, I didn’t get to make those points. Today, I want to dissect the points that were argued in the debate. Consider this section my “in person rebuttals” to the debaters. (In fairness to the debaters, I had weeks to hone my arguments.)

Criticizing my side’s arguments:

Overall, from an intellectual standpoint, I liked my side’s main points. However, they didn’t really sell the audience on one key takeaway. Without one (and only one) take away, it’s hard to win an Intelligence Squared debate.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, arguing my side (for the motion), immediately linked the argument to terrorism...which is something I would have avoided. When challenged during the debate portion, I would have described how free and open elections help stamp out terrorism, but I wouldn’t have led with it. Here’s what Gerecht said:

“...better dictatorship forever than allow the Muslim common man, woman to elect Islamists in a free vote. Now, that's a pretty, I think, ironic position for them to take, because what they're essentially saying is they want to perpetuate the political systems which have allowed Islamic fundamentalism, including its most radical offshoots, jihadism, most famously al-Qaida, to actually grow stronger.”

Gerecht pulled this big gun out too soon. You just can’t give the other team time to counter it (which they did). By leading with it, the other side was able to (deceptively) criticize this position.

Gerecht also brings up Turkey in an excellent example of Islamists winning at the ballot box. A lot of this debate hinged on which side provided better examples, and this is a good one. The military ruled Turkey for years, then the Islamists took over. As Gerecht pointed out, the sky didn’t fall. The sky isn’t falling. And it doesn’t look like it will fall. Sure, Turkey’s Islamists aren’t perfect, but they are better than military dictatorships by a long margin...and they haven’t inspired Islamism either.

Brian Katulis also emphasized in his introduction that democracy and Islam are compatible. The key to any Intelligence Squared debate is to define the motions on your terms. He does that here. He also mentions the terrible actions of Moammar Gaddafi. I would have brought up Saddam Hussein too. Why did we go to war with Saddam if we should have embraced him as an ally? The opposition--which basically argued this ironic position--wasn’t forced to respond to this.

How I would have attacked my opponents:

In his introduction (in the transcript and on YouTube; not in the podcast), Rob Rosenkranz captures this (apparent) conundrum of supporting dictatorship, “the pro of dictatorship is a lot of these dictators are fairly reliable allies.” This has an incredibly easy counter: would Hitler have made an excellent ally? If rebels rose up to overthrow him, as he was committing a genocide, would you have supported him if he helped America fight the Communists? In this alternate history, I guess Rob Rosenkranz would say, “If he’s a reliable ally.”

To any clever internet debaters are out there saying, “Sure, bring up Hitler. That’s a crappy way to win a debate”: that rule doesn’t apply if the debate actually is about dictators, because you can’t discuss dictators without discussing Hitler. And you’ll lose a debate on dictators if you don’t bring him up.

Which the other side promptly did! Daniel Pipes argued that Islamism is the most reprehensible ideology ever created. In his words, “I think that the Islamists, whether elected or not, whether violent or not, Islamists of any sort whatsoever are barbarians, are totalitarians, are far worse than dictators.” Pipes went on to--brilliantly and academically disingenuously--distinguish between ideological dictators and “greedy dictators”. In the ideological camp he parked, you guessed it, Hitler, Stalin and “Islamists”.

This should be an incredibly awkward point, that one side supports mass murdering dictators. Ironic, hypocritical and argument-destroying. However, my side in the debate never crushed the other side with it. That’s why, ultimately, I think they lost.

Worse, the other side got away with it because of its sheer audacity and inaccuracy. Americans have forgotten the threat of fascism, are forgetting the threat of communism and now only live in fear of terrorism, er, Islamism. As a result, “Islamism” somehow becomes worse than tyranny and dictatorship. “Islamism” is somehow killing Americans regularly...when it isn’t. At all.

Frankly, on the spot, I would have trouble with this accusation. In hindsight, I would play up this myopia. I would also bring up examples of the benefits of democracy, and the threat of dictatorship. I would hope, though, had I been there, that, for the rest of the debate, I would destroy this distinction. Every dictator is ideological; every dictator slaughters his people to keep power; every American who supports dictators spits on the Constitution.

My side didn’t. But the pro-dictatorship side came out swinging in this debate. They helped the audience believe the impossible, that supporting dictatorships makes you a good American. Or that, somehow, the U.S. can encourage democracy in the Middle East, intervene to stop Islamists from winning the elections (how again?), and not create more terrorists along the way for meddling.

As a result, the correct side lost this debate.