Running the Table

How to win a debate with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

Sean Locke/istockphoto
Sean Locke/istockphoto

This Thursday, Americans will sit down for a celebration of food, family… and completely wrong-headed political opinions. Here are a few talking points for taking on your less-informed relatives.


Let’s stop worrying so much about hurting civilians. We’re supposed to be killing terrorists, damn it!

As the war in Afghanistan nears the decade mark, Americans are understandably impatient about slow progress. And an increasingly popular target is the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) restrictive rules of engagement and limits on airstrikes, meant to prevent civilian casualties. Don’t these limits just leave more Taliban alive to attack NATO troops and Afghan civilians?

Actually, fewer civilian casualties lead to fewer attacks. A U.S.-commissioned study by the National Bureau of Economic Research released this year found that when ISAF troops killed at least two civilians it results in an average of six additional violent incidents between ISAF and insurgents occurred over the next six months. And while it’s true that the Taliban causes 76 percent of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, opinion surveys show that Afghans believe that international forces are equally responsible. It’s not a fair playing field, and that’s precisely why the rules need to be so tough.

In any case, the United States isn’t going soft. The number of airstrikes in Afghanistan is on the rise, with more than 1,000 in October alone. Perhaps these bombings will finally shock and awe Afghans into submission, though the evidence from across the border in Waziristan, where the United States has escalated its drone-strike campaign, isn’t all that promising.


Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires!

You’ve heard it a thousand times. Afghanistan, with its rough terrain and hostile inhabitants, is impervious to outside attempts to bring it under control. The Americans are doomed to meet the same fate as the Soviets, the British, and a long line of would-be conquers stretching back to Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.

Actually, Afghanistan’s history has seen little but empires. "For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody’s empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C.," historian Thomas Barfield told Foreign Policy. The Greeks controlled Afghanistan for about 200 years. The Mongols, in the 15th century, moved their imperial capital to Herat. It’s true that the British were badly beaten in Afghanistan in the mid-18th century, but they later succeeded in occupying much of the country as a buffer against Russia. The Soviets were forced out too, but that had quite a bit to do with the United States supplying local insurgents. (Today it’s just Pakistan.)

This argument often goes hand in hand with the perception that Afghanistan is a medieval society incapable of political or technological progress. But this ignores a brief but promising period in the mid-20th century during which Kabul was a thriving, up-and-coming city of factories, parks, and universities, where both men and women worked, played, and learned. If your dinner guests don’t believe you, show them the pictures.


So-called climate science has been completely discredited.

Climate skeptics still haven’t given up on the notion that the so-called Climategate controversy, stemming from emails between leading climate scientists at Britain’s University of East Anglia, proves that scientists are exaggerating or simply making up data showing that the Earth is warming and humans are to blame. Never mind that investigations by the universities involved, the British government, and the U.S. National Research Council have all vindicated the scientists in question, or the fact that an influential congressional report raising questions about the scientists’ data was itself partially plagiarized from textbooks and Wikipedia. 

Thanks to a newly influential batch of climate skeptics in Congress (including Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, who cites the Book of Genesis as evidence that global warming is nothing to worry about), we’re likely to be hearing more about "Climategate" in the coming months. Meanwhile, 2010 was the hottest year in history.

But even if one doesn’t buy the irrefutable science that the Earth is heating up, it’s impossible to discount the role of fossil fuels in creating pollution. Would cleaner air and money for new industries really be such a bad thing?


Obama is selling out our nuclear security to Russia.

Under the proposed New START treaty –currently being held up in the Senate by the recalcitrant GOP opposition — the United States would still maintain 1,550 warheads, more than every other country (besides Russia) combined and more than enough for any combat scenario. Additionally, the White House is planning to spend around $84 billion over the next 10years to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Sure, the Russians may have cheated on inspection deals in the past, but even a flawed system of inspections would be better than the current situation, in which there’s no verification of the Russian arsenal: U.S. inspectors haven’t been on the ground in Russia in nearly a year.

But more important than reducing U.S. stockpiles to levels still sufficient for multiple mutually assured apocalypses, is the blow that failure to ratify the treaty would deal to U.S. credibility. If the treaty fails, it will vindicate Russian hard-liners who never trusted Barack Obama’s "reset" strategy and make other allies wary about the credibility of treaties with the administration. In short, while New START might be a small step toward reducing the risk of nuclear war, its failure could make the world a much more dangerous place. 


What’s wrong with a little more security if it makes us all safer?

While U.S. federal spending on airport security has increased dramatically since 9/11 — along with a corresponding increase in inconvenience and, at times, humiliation — there’s little evidence to suggest that these enhanced techniques really accomplish much. A study by Harvard Medical School researchers in 2007 argued that though new medical testing procedures for diseases have to themselves undergo rigorous effectiveness testing before they are introduced, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has never presented any data showing that increased security reduces the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Yes, the TSA intercepts about 13 million prohibited items each year but the vast majority are lighters and toothpaste tubes.

Major terrorist plots against planes have been prevented by intelligence work, as in the case of the 2006 transatlantic airline plot and the recent Yemeni printer bombs, or quick-thinking crew and passengers in the case of the shoebomber and last Christmas’s underwear attack.

And it’s not just fed-up American passengers that are tired of the procedures. Foreign airports and airlines are growing increasingly frustrated by the increased security measures required by the United States. Italy’s airports abandoned use of the infamous full-body scanners this year after months of testing found that they were no more effective than regular scanners and caused longer delays.

In addition, the TSA has been particularly unforthcoming about the new scanners, first claiming that the machines can’t store images and then admitting later that they can when running in certain modes. So yes, the anti-TSA hysteria has gotten out of hand, but the onus is on the agency to allay travelers’ discomfort and demonstrate why new measures are worth the cost and hassle. 

Snappy Answers to Stupid Arguments

Some other recent FP pieces to mine for conversation fodder:

"Why hasn’t Britain gotten rid of the royal family yet?"

Actually, journalist Alex Massie argues, the United States would be lucky to have a head of government who, like the British prime minister, can avoid the "monotonous diplomatic role of head of state."

"Obama’s Asia trip was a complete failure."

Not really, says Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis, who explains why the president scored an important strategic victory in India.  

"I heard the United Nations brought cholera to Haiti."

It’s possible, but scientists say it’s also quite likely that the disease was already present in the country reports the FP Explainer.

"The Republican victory won’t really affect Obama’s foreign policy."

Don’t be so sure, says The Cable‘s Josh Rogin, who highlights 10 ways the new GOP majority can stymie Obama’s international agenda.

"Berlusconi’s latest salacious scandal will force him to finally resign."

Don’t count on it, says Rome-based academic James Walston, who notes that the Italian prime minister’s greatest advantage is the inept opposition he faces. The bunga-bunga parties won’t be ending anytime soon. 

"If the UNESCO can protect the French gastronomic experience, why can’t our Thanksgiving dinner get a little more international respect?"

It’s not the United Nations’ fault, writes Turtle Bay’s Colum Lynch. The problem is that the United States hasn’t ratified the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, making Thanksgiving, the hamburger, or sitting around and watching football ineligible for the UNESCO designation. So, for now at least, it’s tough turkey.

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