One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

A scientific counterfactual

goreA professor at a Canadian research university has published a new “report” that concludes, supposedly “overwhelmingly,” that, had Al Gore been elected President in 2000 the Supreme Court not selected George W. Bush as the winner of the 2000 presidential campaign, then he too would have invaded Iraq.  Besides the (very salient) silliness of purporting to conduct a “study” on a clearly fictitious counterfactual, this conclusion is — like any “solution” of a counterfactual — based on a reading of the context that skews toward what the speculator is seeking to “prove.”  This graf, for example:

Given the prevailing mood in the aftermath of 9/11, the institutional structures that surround the president, the political and social pressures of the time, the accepted wisdom regarding Saddam Hussein and the international factors at work, says Harvey, Gore “[would have been] compelled … to make many of the same interim (generally praised) decisions for many of the same reasons. Momentum would have done the rest.”

Sure, this was the context in which Bush et al. misled the country into war; but what Professor Frank Harvey is neglecting to account for is the extent to which the Bush administration’s own manipulations shaped this context.  The contrived notion that Saddam Hussein was in in any way connected to the 9/11 hijackers only flourished as “accepted wisdom” because the administration unceasingly beat these drums of fabrication.  Would a President Gore have manufactured evidence of uranium from Niger?  Unlikely, but I’m not pretending to be scientific here.

(image from flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license)

December 24, 2008 - Posted by | History, Iraq

1 Comment »

  1. Critics often point to the prominent role Bush and his advisers played in “constructing” and shaping the context within which threats were sold to the American public. This is an important observation, but it raises other relevant questions about why political officials shape context — what motivates or inspires political leaders to select one or another narrative? How exactly would Gore’s administration have shaped the post-9/11 or Iraq context, and why? Would the context shaped by Gore have been sufficiently different to change the course of history? Would Gore have been less inclined, for example, to appreciate heightened public fears of WMD proliferation and terrorism after 9/11, or less likely to pursue a policy that conveyed to the American public his clear commitment to address those threats? Finally, what historical evidence would we require to establish the point that Gore’s team would have been more inclined to shape a different context – especially in competition with his Republican opponents who would almost certainly have been exploiting public fears of terrorism and Iraq’s WMD program to reinforce their security credentials? Context is certainly shaped by political leaders, but it is shaped for reasons that are common in American politics regardless of political affiliation. Obviously Al Gore and George Bush are different people, but their similarities as American politicians confronting enormous foreign policy challenges are relevant when thinking about how context would have been shaped. Once again, there is nothing in Gore’s past that would indicate a strong preference for shaping a ‘context’ significantly different from the one chosen by Bush.

    Now, consider the political ‘context’ within which Gore would have found himself in 2002. He and other former Clinton administration officials (some of whom would have been selected for Gore’s national security team) would almost certainly have been held responsible for the 9/11 failure and for seriously underestimating the Al-Qaeda threat. For Gore to follow this failure with any indication that he was underestimating the Iraqi threat as well (a threat he himself helped to foment) would have been viewed by everyone as dangerously irresponsible. The political costs of such a strategy would have been very high — Republicans would have jumped at the opportunity to exploit Gore’s foreign policy failure(s) at the height of the midterm election campaign. Gore would also have been assigned direct responsibility for the four year absence of inspectors in Iraq who left in 1998 prior to operation Desert Fox. The thought of constructing an alternative narrative in which the Iraqi threat is downplayed or ignored was simply not a credible option for Gore, and there is no evidence that any of his advisers were inclined to encourage him to do so.

    Comment by John G. | April 6, 2009 | Reply

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