Imagining the Counterfactual

Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias remarked at “the arrogance of the hawks” and expressed his frustration that

In response to 9/11, the hawks launched a war that’s killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden ever could, at the cost of over 1 trillion dollars; they’ve done nothing to impede nuclear proliferation, nothing to build democracies in the Middle East, failed to kill or capture al-Qaeda’s top leadership, made Hamas and Iran more powerful than ever before, and brought American prestige and influence to a new low ebb.

Now obviously a lot of the folks who adhere to the ideas that have brought all this about somehow think they’re right anyway. And fair enough; there’s just no accounting for some people. But the attitude of thoughtless, unreflective scorn that you see from the [Noah] Pollacks and [James] Kirchicks and [Michael] Goldfarbs of the world is like it comes from some weird alternative reality where their ideas have generally been deemed vindicated, rather than one where 178% of the public says we’re on the wrong track.

Today, Andrew Sullivan links to this video chronicling Douglas Feith’s contorted non-apologies and notes “one wonders whether anyone in the Bush establishment actually believes they ever made an error.”

In this vein, it’s worth wondering what things would look like if things had turned out basically the mirror image of what’s happened today…

On landing in Iraq, U.S. forces walked through Saddam’s army swiftly, taking 21 days to defeat them. (This part is real.) But they were stunned when they found an isolated airstrip housing three Tupolev 95s armed with nuclear weapons. They were even more stunned when they discovered detailed coordinates on the bombers for key targets in Manhattan, Washington, and Miami. On interviewing the pilots, the CIA was floored to learn that Saddam had not only acquired several nuclear weapons, but had ordered an attack, in concert with al Qaeda, against American cities with them. Had the invasion not happened, the CIA judged, at a minimum tens of thousands of Americans would have died as a result of the attacks.

All of this concern about “what might have been” was quickly washed away by “what had emerged”: the unanimous gratitude of Iraqis at having been liberated from Saddam’s rule. After mostly incidental collateral damage from the invasion (a few hundred Iraqi casualties, U.S. forces estimated), Iraqi exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi, quickly assembled a liberal government that recognized the State of Israel just a few weeks later. What no one could have known was what would come next.

The coherence of the Iraqi government allowed U.S. forces to exit swiftly, leaving only a small, residual force behind by the end of 2003. The example that the liberal government had throughout the region was a greater victory than anyone could have imagined, however. A veritable “democratic domino effect” took place, including velvet revolutions in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia within 5 years of the invasion. (Like Iraq’s, these changes of government took place amid minimal violence and quickly led to coherent, effective governance in all three countries. Only 10 years later, a “League of Muslim Democracies” led the rest of the Islamic world in brokering an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.)

On the homefront, however, the political scene did not seem to reflect the strategic masterstroke that the president and his advisers had engineered. John Kerry swept to power in 2004, making the case that President Bush had “committed war crimes” by masterminding the invasion. Opponents of the war in the punditocracy also prospered. Bill Niskanen, Chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute and an early critic of the war, was given a foreign affairs column at the New York Times.

Meanwhile, proponents of the war such as Peter Beinart, Bill Kristol, and Fred Hiatt all lost their prominence in the debate, despite having largely predicted the strategic victory the war would represent. Beinart lost his position at the New Republic, only to take a job as one half of “The Goldberg-Beinart Report,” a right-left talk program which debuted on a Fairfax County public access station. Kristol’s Weekly Standard magazine folded outright, with Kristol reassuming his position as chief-of-staff to Dan Quayle, except this time out of office. Hiatt, meanwhile, was ousted from his position as chief of the Washington Post’s editorial page after Post management issued a scathing denunciation of the “disgraceful, unmitigated disaster of a war that our editorial page somehow endorsed.”

You could go on and on like this, but I’d really like to think that if this had been the way it went down, I’d have the integrity to say “I called this wrong. I apologize, and I pledge to reevaluate how and why I made this mistake, and to attempt to make better judgments in the future.”