The What-if Wars


Some people see counterfactual historical analysis as an exciting new way to probe possibilities and make unusual points. Less intellectually curious types (cough) see it as a cheap way to accuse your political opponents of crimes they thankfully didn't have the opportunity to commit. At any rate, here are two counterfactuals that make Bush's opponents look silly, from Victor Davis Hanson and Gregg Easterbrook.

NEXT: What Would You Ask Bush?

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  1. Just how tired is Gregg Easterbrook? That’s the, what, seven millionth time someone’s made that joke?

  2. Victor Davis Hanson: Seems to have skipped the part of history between 399BC and, oh, last year sometime. In 1979 there was something called the Soviet Union. I can just imagine how they’d have taken to a full-fledged US invasion of Iran. Sure is pleasant, though, to imagine that, back there somewhere, if we had only killed more foreigners our troubles would have been over.

    Gregg Easterbrook: This one is beyond laughable. A President getting impeached for starting a war without Congressional authorization? Unanimously? In my dreams. Nowhere else.

    But Matt, your review of the Clinton Admin books in the new Reason? Primo! When it hits the website I shall boom the heck out of it.

  3. Victor Hanson missed the point that Bush’s opponents, for the most part, did not object to the Afghanistan war after 9-11; it’s Iraq that pisses us off. Hanson’s scenario should have read: “Suppose that instead of sanctions against Iran, Jimmy Carter decided to invade Iraq?”

  4. What if Carter invaded France in 1979? That’s where Khomeini spent his time before returning to Iran.
    When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, why didn’t Roosevelt invade Mexico?

  5. What if Carter just told the hostages the truth: “We’re only the defense department of your country. We’re not in the business of being your protection agency when you leave the country. Looks like you’re on your own.”

  6. Hl-
    Actually, the government is supposed to provide you with some protection outside the country. Right now piracy is making a comeback in parts of the Pacific, so the Navy is getting involved even though the waters are not in our territory. When a foreign national is arrested in any country, his embassy is supposed to be contacted. And so forth.

  7. Wait, don’t you mean “makes Bush’s supporters look silly”? Because, seriously, those are both pretty stupid. Hanson’s is particularly egregious, since Athens was historically a major pain in the ass itself (and not one to emulate in process or result) – contrary to what he seems to believe, the Athenians were never known for their ‘reason’, ‘tolerance’, or ‘enlightened self-interest’ even before they whacked that infernal bore Socrates. Even a confessed neo-con like Kagan concluded that Athens brought its Pelopennesian War catastrophe largely on itself, through arrogance (like trying to conquer Egypt), aggressiveness and contempt for both allies and rivals, while its ultimate defeat had much to do with a political and policy system in terminal disarray – the wonderful archetypal democracy only ran well when a single figure like Pericles was predominant, his death being followed by ghastly disasters like Syracuse, or the infamous politically motivated execution of ten admirals… who had just WON a battle (even Byng was shot for losing, even though that was political too.) Anyway, where were we? Oh right – Hanson. As they said upthread, he did seem to forget about the Soviet Union, which is sort of like jumping off a cliff and forgetting about gravity (so much for his sneer about realpolitik)… and Easterbrook seems to have forgotten all the lessons of American history from the Quasi-war against France and the operations against Tripoli (both undertaken without congressional declarations of war, ahem) right down to Vietnam, which is notorious (among other things) for – what’s that? – oh, yeah, getting started without congressional consent! What sometimes really frosts me about conservative-types is that they’re supposed to be respectful of tradition and the learning of their fore-fathers and so on, but they muck up their history just as badly as the lefties. (An interesting note in closing – between 1969’s ‘Outbreak of the Pelopennesian War’ and 1995’s ‘On the Origins of War’, Kagan almost completely reversed himself on the question of Athenian responsibility for the war… who says neocons can’t ever change their mind, hey?)

  8. Keep in mind that Easterbrook is an Intelligent Design enthusiast, ID being little more than a wishful alternate history of the universe. So he’s an old hand at this.

  9. waitaminute, isn’t intelligent design basically saying someone was driving the evolution bus to mutant monkeyville, population us?

  10. “Victor Hanson missed the point that Bush’s opponents, for the most part, did not object to the Afghanistan war after 9-11”

    I got 27,800 hits for invasion afghanistan pipeline alone. In addition, Hansen mentions “the impassable peaks of Afghanistan, millions of refugees, endemic starvation, revolution in the Arab street, and violations of Ramadan.” I’m sure if I looked back at A.N.S.W.E.R.’s site they were originally against Af. before moving onto Iraq. And, don’t forget that the mainstream media portrayed A.N.S.W.E.R. as a mainstream group. I’m also sure you could find several statements from politicians less wacky than Jihad Cindy complaining about Bush’s proposal to invade Af.

  11. Lonewacko-
    Sure there were anti-Afghan complaints, but they weren’t mainstream, and they were mainly from people who were either pacifist no matter what, or just plain anti-Bush no matter what. Kind of like the way some of our most hawkish “let’s nuke Iraq” people probably would have opposed the war had GORE been President.

    Basically my point was that Hanson’s article MAY have had some relevance vis a vis Afghanistan, but none whatsoever for Iraq. Makes himself look silly, huh? I know the “Evil Bastards” website always uses specious reasoning and fake analogies like that; the difference is they mean to be satirical, not serious. Ditto “The Onion.”

  12. Jennifer is ubiquitous.

  13. Hanson doesn’t look silly to me. His point is that the entire disfunctional political culture of the middle east is the problem, not this or that country.

  14. Jennifer is merely bored and stuck indoors today.

  15. It is the American belief that Reganomics were directly responsible for the fall of the USSR as this article points out. I asked the same of many people on a recent trip to Veinna and Ukraine but have an entirely different answer. There was an estimated possible 300,000 deaths at Chernobyl in 1986 and all the dangers of the meltdown were hidden by the government. While the worlds papers has front page headlines, USSR papers had a 3rd page paragraph 2 days after the explosion. People did not trust the government. Also, they did have econamic issues, yes Reganomics didn’t help, but they were also loosing a war in Afghanistan too. They can try to tell the outside world they are developing a star wars type program, and not spend a dime on it, but you cannot fake the war in Afghanistan.
    most people in the USSR didn’t care about being poor..the country told them they were better off then us anyway. The people lost trust in the Government due to lies to enourmous to hide.

  16. I got 50,000 hits for “area 51 bush osama”. I am sure this proves something.

  17. Great minds think alike.

    Coincidentally, so do Easterbrook
    and Kathleen Parker.

  18. Jennifer,

    So at what point, prior to 9/11, would you have supported a full fledged military invasion of Afghanistan? I mean 1993, 1995, 1998, 2000? Why that particular date and not an earlier one? Clearly, Hussein’s history of ruthlessness and bad judgment did not cross your threat threshold. At what point did Bin Laden and the Taliban cross the threshold prior to 9/11?

  19. Isn’t the point that one can make counterfactual analysis say anything whatsoever?

    Political opponents can look at any given event with hindsight, and write themselves in as the heroes who knew better all along. Problem is, this sort of thing never seems to be useful for predictions.

    This whole 9/11 commission head hunt is a fine example. I don’t like the guy, but some folks are just rediculous. Clearly, the administration at the time did not believe that there was actionable intelligence, and they were basing that assumption on the value these reports historically had. Were there problems with intelligence dissemination that need to be addressed? Certainly. The idea that every other president re-tasked all assets based on these types of non specific threats is exactly the same sort of exercise in fantasy Easterbrook undertook.

  20. Shannon-
    Actually, I was talking about the invasion of Afghanistan we actually did. You know, the one after 9-11? But in truth I’d’ve supported an earlier one to throw out the Taliban over their treatment of women. The thing about Iraq was, as bad and evil and fucked up as that country was under Hussein, in a lot of ways it was still better than other countries in the Middle East. And less likely to be an Islamic threat than, say, Afghanistan or our “allies” in Saudi Arabia.

  21. Jennifer
    That’s hard for me to understand. You say you would have supported US intervention on purely moral grounds in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq? Far more people have been killed by the Iraqi government, why the difference?

  22. As a woman, I can’t help but judge countries in part by how they treat women. As bad as Hussein’s Iraq was (and I make no apologies for it) the fact remains that it was practically the only country in the Middle East where a woman was legally human, rather than glorified, sexy cattle. Apparently there was a saying among Iraqis themselves: In Arabia women are not allowed to drive at all; in Iraq women can become bus drivers.”

    Imagine how a black man may have felt about Alabama in 1940: an evil, dangerous place whose corrupt government may well have you killed; but still, better to try your luck there than in Nazi Germany. Likewise: Iraq’s been a hellhole ever siince Hussein came along, but as a female I’d rather live there than in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

    Also, remember that the main topic here is national security. Iraq was NOT a breeding ground of Islamic terrorism before we came along, whereas Afghanistan was.

  23. “most people in the USSR didn’t care about being poor..the country told them they were better off then us anyway. The people lost trust in the Government due to lies to enourmous to hide.”

    I am not sure of you were making a point about counterfactual analysis and you are right about Reaganomics not being the prima facia cause, but the points noted above are just factually wrong (and yes, I have also spoken to people living in the Soviet block):

    1. In the late 1980’s, shortages of food and basic material in Eastern Eurpoe were quite pronounced. People were starving – so, yes, they cared about being poor. Most poor people do, indeed, care about being poor.

    2.The people lost trust in their government sometime around, oh, 1949.

    3. People listened illegally to Radio Free Eurpoe and the like and knew they were not better off than people in the west. No one could drive a Soviet-made car and think they were better off.

  24. Jennifer,

    I’m afraid you have just committed the rhetorical version of “screwing the pooch.” It is simply untenable to argue that the US should have invaded Afghanistan pre-9/11 because of the Taliban’s treatment of women and then continue to make the arguments you make against the campaign in Iraq.

    We are not talking about countries otherwise equivalent in tyranny but differentiated by their treatment of women. Good lord, we are talking about a fascist state that murdered hundreds of thousands of people, tortured and maimed many more, and, yes, abetted international terrorism in a variety of ways. Saudi Arabia is an exporter of Islamism and an oppressive dictatorship of a thousand cousins, but it is simply not in Iraq’s league in the tyranny-and-death department. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan, nominally ruling a coutnry roughly similar in population to that of Iraq for several years, was not responsible for as much death and suffering, though given time perhaps they would have caught up.

    I’m not saying that an invasion of Iraq was justified solely on humanitarian grounds. That’s not an appropriate decision rule for a constitutional republic, in my opinion. But if humanitarian grounds are your decision rule, then in the Middle East you would start with Iraq and probably Iran, and then get to the other states you mention.

    I’m going to have a hard time taking your seriously now. Did you just have a slip of the finger?

  25. John-
    I don’t get your “screwing the pooch” comment. However, I didn’t say we SHOULD have invaded Afghanistan pre 9-11; I’m just saying that if we did I’d’ve been more amenable to the idea. I’ve seen bits of the videos RAWA smuggled out of Taliban Afghanistan, and I don’t buy your argument that they were humanitarians compared to Hussein.

    Again: I am NOT saying anything good about Iraq; I am just saying that if I personally had been forced to choose between living in Iraq, Arabia or Afghanistan, I personally would have had the best (albeit still poor) chance in Iraq. At least there I and half the population would not be under automatic and permanent house arrest, forbidden to earn a living.

    Also, let me stress AGAIN that I am not using humanitarian grounds as an excuse for invasion, but US security. By Bush’s own protect-the-homeland argument, invading Afghanistan made more sense than Iraq, because Afghanistan was actually harboring terrorists who attacked us, whereas Iraq didn’t. Until now.

  26. Jennifer:

    “Screwing the pooch” is a pilot/astronaut saying about messing something up big time. Sorry, perhaps I just saw “The Right Stuff” too recently.

    But in truth I’d’ve supported an earlier one to throw out the Taliban over their treatment of women.

    I interrupted this comment to mean what it said. If that was not you meaning, I am relieved.

    It is silly to say I intimated any of these countries were “humanitiarians,” even by comparison. To not kill people is no evidence of humanitarianism. As to your preference for living in Iraq, more power to you, but I’m not sure I would agree with you hypothetically, since I would prefer being alive and oppressed to being put through a shredder or having my husband and sons kidnapped and murdered.

    By Bush’s own protect-the-homeland argument, invading Afghanistan made more sense than Iraq, because Afghanistan was actually harboring terrorists who attacked us, whereas Iraq didn’t.

    I agree with your priority list, but your last statement in false. Iraq was haboring, supplying, arming, and cheering a number of international terrorists, including al Qaeda affiliates such as Ansar al Islam. The friend of my enemy is my enemy in this situation, I would argue, particularly if the goal is (and it should be) to deter states in the future from giving aid, support, or comfort to our terrorist enemies.

  27. John Hood,
    “…since I would prefer being alive and oppressed to being put through a shredder…”

    A cut-n-paste from a post of mine on 2-2-04, I’m asking you since you often support posts with more than just supposition.

    “Got some proof about this “plastic shredding machine” story? I’d love to see it. Until then, I regard that story as propaganda, like the Kuwaiti baby incubator story of ’91. Shouldn’t have to say it, but for the logic impaired, questioning this particular story does not make me a Hussein fan. “

  28. ‘Victor Hanson missed the point that Bush’s opponents, for the most part, did not object to the Afghanistan war after 9-11; it’s Iraq that pisses us off.”

    Wow, that’s an amazing bit of revisionism. There were HUGE protests against the Afghanistan campaign. Over 100,000 people marched in London – the biggest anti-war protest in decades. There were routine protests in the U.S. A lot of the same people who argue against the war in Iraq on the Internet were arguing against a war in Afghanistan – they just don’t like to admit it now. There were protests against the war from numerous Muslim nations. All that good will that Bush supposedly ‘squandered’ after 9/11 lasted exactly three weeks, until the first bombs started falling in Afghanistan. Then when America was no longer the poor victim but standing up and fighting back, world opinion shifted again against the U.S.

    The Democrats now say that Bush should get no credit for Afghanistan because A) going there was obvious, and B) everyone supported it. But it wasn’t, and they didn’t. It’s easy to imagine other Presidents engaging in endless negotiations with the Taliban, or maybe firing a few more cruise missiles, or caving to pressure from the Middle East and entering a ‘dialogue’ about change or some such rot. But even had other presidents made the same call to remove the Taliban, how many would have launched a war within three weeks? Remember all the cries for ‘more time’? Even proponents of the war were complaining that America was rushing into it, and that diplomacy needed ‘time to work’. Well, Bush didn’t wait. And we now hear from people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that the speed with which the U.S. counterattacked was a decisive factor in stopping another round of attacks on the west coast. He caught Bin Laden off guard. Bin Laden never expected a swift, massive response like that.

    All credit to the Bush administration.

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