What does evidence have to do with war?

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How persuasive is President Obama?
  • AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
  • For President Obama, persuasion is as important as evidence.
Not to be snarky, but the logic of journalism needs to keep pace with the logic of the street.

I spotted this passage Thursday in the Tribune's editorial page feature, What Others Are Saying. It's from a New Republic piece by Nate Cohn:

One thing’s clear from the first wave of polls about possible U.S. intervention in Syria: The public is not on board. . . . Though Americans are clearly opposed, there’s probably room for persuasion. Only 53 percent believe that there’s clear evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. Unsurprisingly, those who believe that Assad has used chemical weapons are far more supportive of striking Assad on that basis. Realistically, there’s plenty of room for that number to grow.

I read this and thought something that just a few years ago would never have occurred to me: Does Cohn have it backwards?

Do Americans who think Assad used chemical weapons therefore support striking him? Or do Americans who support striking him therefore think he used chemical weapons? Let's put this another way: Do Americans support President Obama on Syria because they agree with the case he's made? Or do Americans agree with it because they support him?

The difference becomes easier to see if we focus on the negative. Cohn seems to think some Americans don't support Obama on Syria because they don't yet accept the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, but that these Americans could change their minds. But what if these are Americans who don't support Obama on anything—Obama being, well, just so darned perfidious—and will never accept any evidence that takes his side. I'm thinking here of evidence of global warming, or evidence that he wasn't born in Indonesia or Kenya.

Cohn's analysis is based on the old-fashioned belief that evidence is persuasive. Today we know better. Evidence doesn't lead us to our convictions; our convictions lead us to the "evidence" we require to defend them. But although the relentlessness of some of Obama's opponents is the obvious case in point, visceral logic didn't begin with them. When governments of any era contemplate acts of war, the logic of the case they make to the public is the logic of national honor.

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