I have been browsing the various ‘factcheck’ sites that analyze what politicians say. The two largest seem to be Politifact.com, which is a project of the Tampa Bay Times, and FactCheck.org, which is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
FactCheck took an interesting approach with a comment made by Jeb Bush, who stated that President Obama “believes that America’s leadership and presence in the world is not a force for good.” Googling the term reveals that this is a widely used Republican trope, as I found many Republican officials using the exact term ‘not a force for good’ and many embellishing upon it.
IMHO, this claim about Obama’s belief system is not so much a fact to be checked but a possibly fallacious argument to be evaluated. FactCheck treated it as a factual claim to be fact-checked.
I think there are two related types of fallacy at work here. The first is ‘attacking the motive.’ Rather than focusing on the adversary’s arguments (or actions), the arguer attributes an improper motive to the adversary. In order to attack the motive, one sometimes has to employ the mind-reading fallacy, in which the basis for discerning the adversary’s motive was, apparently, mind-reading (see Brendhan Nyhan’s work for more on mind-reading as a rhetorical practice).
If you see the entire Bush campaign video (embedded in the article), Bush goes on to identify specific actions (i.e. protecting Christians in the Middle East and dissidents in Iran) that Obama did not take, impliedly because Obama does not believe that America is a force for good.
Similarly, when Republican Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said that President Obama “doesn’t think America is a force for good in the world” the Senator provided the basis for his opinion. Obama shows ‘reluctance’ and revulsion’ to ‘utilizing America’s military strength.
By providing the basis for the speaker’s assertion, the reader can evaluate the logic of the statement. The Senator implies that if Obama showed ‘reluctance’ and ‘revulsion’ to use military force, then Obama doesn’t believe that America is a force for good in the world. Of course the result of the ‘attacking the motive’ fallacy is to shift the discussion to a critique of Obama’s belief, away from an evaluation of how best to protect ‘Christians in the Middle East’ or ‘dissidents in Iran’ and the appropriate use of America’s military strength.
Rather than pursing this analyis, FactCheck instead critiques the statement of Obama’s mind-set as a ‘fact’ to be checked. It identified nineteen times that Obama made public statements where he declares that America is ‘an indispensable force for good’ or ‘the greatest force for good in the world’ or the like.
FactCheck’s conclusion borders on the sarcastic:
Bush is free, of course, to make the case that Obama’s deeds have not matched his words. We don’t know what Obama “believes” (and neither does Bush), but we know what he says. And he has repeatedly said that America’s leadership and presence in the world is a “force for good.”