The Abuse of Counterfactual History (10 Years After, Cont’d)

ten-years-after-saddamAustin Knuppe, guest-posting at The American Conservative, asks “What If There Had Been Weapons Programs in Iraq?”  Under this rather imprecise heading – “weapons programs” being a different topic than “actually dangerous WMDs” – Knuppe invites us to presume specifically “that US and international intelligence estimates [had been] largely correct in identifying Saddam’s treasure trove of illegal weapons,” and that the weapons had been secured, but that “the historical record…  played out largely the same as it has the last ten years.” Accepting these conditions, would we be able to say that “the benefit of securing WMDs from a ‘rogue regime’ outweigh[ed] the human, material, and strategic costs of the past ten years?”

In other words, how would things be different, if they were “largely the same”? If finding WMDs had not mattered, how much would finding them have mattered? Assuming WMDs are meaningless, what do they mean? ((Knuppe even asks us to remove from consideration one of the key supposed dangers of WMDs, their falling into “the hand [sic] of insurgents or terrorists (unlikely, I know).”)) What would have been the concrete effect of eliminating this nearly non-existent, concretely un-concrete and effectively non-effectual existent? What would it have meant to “history” if “the WMDs” existed, but only as pure abstraction, useful for no one, threatening no one, endangering no one, implicating no one, revealing nothing useful or important, they or their having been found serving no meaningful purpose at all, in no way affecting “history”?

It all would have meant nothing, of course. Everything would have been “largely the same.” There would not have been any concrete effects to consider, under Knuppe’s presumptions, because, under Knuppe’s presumptions, we are not allowed to consider concrete effects. Knuppe seems to want to say that eliminating WMDs in the possession of rogue regimes in general, as typified by the Iraqi regime as we now know it to have been, would not be worth the death and destruction of another Iraq War. It is an argument well worth considering in some form, but not under a scenario that prejudices any possible discussion. Knuppe insists on presuming that neither the WMDs themselves nor success at finding them would have had an effect on the course and politics of the war as we know it, or any further implications at all, but the entire argument for the larger significance of WMDs depends on their ability to affect the course of war and politics, on their further implications. His approach is, in short, an example of the common, in politics seemingly obligatory form of pseudo-reasoning or etiolated scientism that pretends to analyze, typically to deny, the higher significance of a phenomenon only after setting aside all elements of its potential higher significance. ((This mode of reasoning resembles the familiar calculations according to which the 9/11 events cannot be considered intrinsically very significant, considering how many more people die in auto accidents every year, not to mention how many Americans and how many American planes and buildings there are. It is also the same mode of reasoning, or pseudo-reasoning, that compares the numbers of people who appear at a given mass political demonstration to the much larger numbers who stay home. Similarly, Pearl Harbor, or Stalingrad, or Hiroshima were all just relatively small spots on the surface of the Earth, and, after all, one thing for sure is that there are lots of those, not to mention the likely trillions of planets in this particular spatio-temporal universe among theoretically infinite others. ))

Consider a different, less constrained counterfactual, also clearly unbelievable, but with the possibly useful difference that it or a form of it was in fact widely believed. In this other, profoundly counterfactual world, the U.S. government under the Bush Administration was at all relevant levels more competent, honest, and lucky than not. Secretary Powell’s “infamous presentation” was Powell’s simply famous presentation, maybe eventual President Colin Powell’s very famous presentation. Powell’s credibility, the credibility of “U.S. and international intelligence” agencies, and most of all the credibility of the Bush Administration and its strategy, in this very decidedly alternative world, were confirmed and amplified. The credibility of their critics, especially of their most stubbornly WMD-denialist critics, was destroyed: In WMDs-found-world, everyone who is now deemed “right” in WMDs-not-found-world was long ago humiliated, revealed to have been to a great, possibly irrecoverable extent wrong. Meanwhile, the American public and the international community spent months reading new descriptions of just exactly what alternative-Saddam or whatever allies or tools might have done with all of those “underground stockpiles of chemical and biological agents” (any not actually used during the fighting). Prayers of gratitude were offered week by week that alt-Saddam never was allowed to re-accelerate his nuclear program after the sanctions regime was finally lifted, and those prayers were renewed in the 10-year-celebrations of the difficult, painful, but righteous decision to remove his undeniable and undeniably dangerous evil from alternative Earth.

Under such circumstances, it seems likely that the public, the political class in general, and the international community overall would have offered the Bush Administration much wider latitude and stronger support in prosecuting its ideal War on Terror strategy – which in alt-world may have made a very great deal of sense – with liberated Iraq the fulcrum of pressure against any remnant Syrian and Iranian resistance to the imposition of a secure, prosperous, expanded and elaborated democratic-capitalist New World Order. Speculation and scenario building begin to break down at this point under mounting complexities: Just how fearsome are we to imagine alt-Saddam to have been? Just how alternatively competent, honest, and lucky are alternative-Bush and his alternative-advisers? How far does the accuracy of their worldview extend on alternative Earth? Is “Islamo-fascism” a “thing,” but does democracy sweep the Middle East and beyond anyway? Do tax cuts produce revenue? Is climate change unimportant? Does Brownie do a heckuva job? Whatever happened to Barack Obama?

Or what if we reverse the terms of Knuppe’s counterfactual? What if there were no WMDs, but the Iraq strategy in all dimensions had been executed to the highest levels imaginable of military, political, and moral competence?

I suspect that the last question would, like all of the others, sooner or later also collapse amidst absurdity, and leave us, by way of the fundamental convergence principle, in our world as we know it, the same world in which we must always finally depend on our disasters to save us from our plans.

5 comments on “The Abuse of Counterfactual History (10 Years After, Cont’d)

Commenting at CK MacLeod's

We are determined to encourage thoughtful discussion, so please be respectful to others. We also provide a set of Commenting Options - comment/commenter highlighting and ignoring, and commenter archives that you can access by clicking the commenter options button (). Go to our Commenting Guidelines page for more details, including how to report offensive and spam commenting.

  1. Well said.

    If things were different, they’d be different.

    Or, once somebody finds their ass with both hands and a map, it’s pretty hard to think they won’t do it again (maybe not every time, but enough to make a difference.)

  2. Well they made a big fuss about Al Qua Qua, which was a missile base, for exactly the type of WMD’s under consideration, the ones now being employed by the likes of the Nusra Front, had there not been that one dreadful night at Abu Ghraib, would the Time found another issue to demagogue for 45 days,

  3. The last line is particularly good, even for CK. I also like the Alt-world run-down. That’s the way I used to sound in Sliders meetings. The other writers would always think I was “over-thinking” things, but if you are going to think about Alt-worlds at all, you might as well really think about it.

  4. ”alternities’ I think that was mcdowell-kube (sic) are often much more complicated and often more dystopian, like that New Twilight Zone episode where Kennedy is saved, but Kruschev is assasinated,
    also King’s 11/22/63, which shows a less then salutory conclusion,

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "The Abuse of Counterfactual History (10 Years After, Cont’d)"
  1. […] ought to be obviously absurd, though the paradox, or bait-and-switch, is in fact common in ethical (and political) scenario-building of this general type: The unpersuasiveness of Foster’s own argument as […]

Commenter Ignore Button by CK's Plug-Ins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *