My liberal uncle from San Luis Obispo - oh wait, that's redundant - asked if I thought we would be in Iraq now if Al Gore had been elected in 2000.
Yes, there is something sly about the question, but it fits nicely with my current topic of complex systems, so I decided to answer it, reprinted here:
Fun question. The human being’s love of narrative causes us to assume as a default position that things were going to happen pretty much as they did happen, except for our imagined change. It’s not quite so lockstep in our imaginations as if it were a scripted movie, wondering whether it would have been different if Laurence Olivier were cast in the lead instead of Alec Guinness. But it’s darn close. Such is the power of narrative that we just naturally think that everything would have stably happened much the same way.
It’s a great literary device, assuming some counterfactual such as What if the weather in Germany had been just a little different, and the plane carrying Hitler didn’t have to fly higher, which froze the bomb so it didn’t go off? The writer gets to speculate what changes in the war result from that, and how American elections were different because of it, resulting in a recognizable but different world now.
I think actual events are far more fluid than that, and changing one such major event like that makes the world unrecognizable. Everyone born after 1945 – all bets are off that we individually existed. Someone would exist, but not always us. We don’t like those thoughts, especially about ourselves and our families, because we see our own existence as fairly inevitable. But all of our lives are products of such enormous coincidences that it would be pretty easy to upset the applecart. Any individual one-in-a-million chance can’t be counted on to happen. But most of what does actually happen to us in the course of a lifetime is an unending series of one-in-a-million chances.
So the temptation is to imagine a Gore election would result in things much as they are now, except maybe we wouldn’t be in Iraq. Most people these days would consider that a big improvement (I think it would be a catastrophe), but whether better or worse, the scenario just like today except no Iraq is what we powerfully assume. We actually have to put in considerable mental energy to imagine anything else. Which is intriguing.
I believe Al Gore does not come to the same forks in the road as George Bush does, but the ones he does come to are just as nasty. I think a President Gore does things at least slightly differently all the way back to Afghanistan. Perhaps even very differently, so all bets are off. The scenario of January 2003, with Al gore wondering Iraq/Not Iraq doesn’t ever occur except with a very different background.
All of the following is not a prediction of what would probably have happened, but just a look at what things would have increased likelihood to happen. When we try to imagine do-overs, it pays to look at the areas of greatest volatility and greatest stability first. That gives us some framework for what the crystal ball might show. Among the most unstable elements would be the behavior or Moslem extremists worldwide. Among the most stable elements would be that the US would have 95% the same State Dept, CIA, Congress, etc. The response of the American people after 9-11 would be about the same at first: strong support for any positive action, military or diplomatic, President Gore wanted to take.
That “support” is double-edged, however. The overwhelming support of the citizens of a democracy is also in some sense a demand. Do something. Show us you mean business. Do what you have to to keep our children safe. President Gore would have a wide latitude for action, but would have to do something that looked forceful and dramatic. Invading Afghanistan would be the most likely action, and he would also have considerable party support for such an action. John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, both Clintons – just about everyone, in fact, would cheerlead for Afghanistan.
Because of the fluidity of events, as I expressed at length above, I believe that if we had gone into Afghanistan (or any war in history) with exactly the same plan one month earlier or later that some major portion of the outcome is different. Earlier would in this case be physically impossible. One month later would be winter, and all the airbags puffing about the “cruel Afghan winter” might succeed in putting the whole enterprise off until spring. Gore would have to saber-rattle and special-ops his way through four or five months. The pressure to “do something, dammit” would drop from 90% of the populace to 75% over that time, but that’s still a lot, and they would be growing angrier.
As Tom Friedman has said “we had to hit somebody.” Unless we had pulled off some special-ops wonder or invaded somewhere, the invitation to Muslim terrorists would be unmistakable: hit us again. And they would. There would still be a huge infidel military presence in Saudi Arabia, American women would still be showing their midriffs, the cursed Jews would still be in Israel, and those infuriating westerners would still be refusing to bow down and acknowledge their rightful masters. Not to mention the fact that those heretic Sunnis/Shia/Sufi/Bahai/moderate Bosnian dogs were still at large. Though the behavior of jihadists might be volatile, their anger has been remarkably stable in its narcissism.
I don’t think the conservative rhetoric “on American soil” necessarily holds up. Further terrorists attacks might happen here, might be elsewhere. But this is something we actually do have data for. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, and even more, since the invasion of Iraq, terrorist attacks worldwide have gone way down. You might think it’s more than a fair trade to have no war but have more terrorist attacks, but there is no reason to think there is a drop in attacks. If some credible source thinks that the decrease is due to something other than terrorists migrating to where we are fighting, I haven’t seen him make the case. So increased bombings is a likely cost.
To invade Afghanistan and go after bin Laden, Gore would have to get the UN and the “international community” on board. He would probably do better on that than Bush, and he would have the help of a lot of folks the Europeans like, such as Bill Clinton. But Gore has also got to secure some cooperation from Pakistan and India. (and all the ‘Stans). Democrats, especially Clintonites, have nowhere near the rapport and credibility with those countries that the Republicans, especially Bush and Cheney, have. Not only is there a danger that Pakistan secretly gives enormous aid to the Taliban while telling us how much they are on our side, there is a dramatically increased danger of open conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. That increase might only be from a 15% chance to a 30% chance, but it’s not nothing. China, Russia, England, Japan – those are pretty much a wash diplomatically Bush v. Gore. Also, the chances of success in Afghanistan have gone down because Pakistani intelligence is working against us.
This is exactly where the true believers start protesting, refusing to believe that any bad thing that hasn’t happened would happen under the Gore scenario. In the imagination, it is easy to dismiss such possibilities as ridiculously small. But there is always a chance of armed conflict between India and Pakistan, even today. I don’t see any likely scenario in which that risk goes down under Gore. Every volatile Islamic spot worldwide is now likely to change – perhaps for better, perhaps for worse, but change is in the air. Lebanon, Indonesia, Egypt - there's a new roll of the dice for all those places.
So. Four possibilities. 1). Invade Afghanistan in just about the same way that Bush did in the fall of 2001. 2.) Special ops magic. Nice if you can get it. 3.) The extended diplomatic pressures so loved by the chattering classes and the EU. 4.) Kick someone else.
I wrote you in 2000 that whoever inherited the economy was inheriting a recession, which he would be blamed for, even though it would be Clinton’s doing. In Gore’s case, that would be at least partly fair. His likely responses would seriously delay any recovery. But he would get cut considerable slack by 9-11, which people would regard as more important, so he might not take any political damage yet.
And this is just Afghanistan. We’re not anywhere near the Iraq question yet.
But just to play it out for fun, let’s try the run-up to Iraq on some plausible parallel track. Al Gore, January 2003:
The economy is slowly recovering, but no one is giving you credit for that yet.
There are more terrorist attacks worldwide than we’re seeing now, but not so much more as to be unrecognizable to current eyes. Pray that one of them isn’t a major disaster.
The UN, which doesn’t want to do anything itself but wants you to do something, is passing threatening resolutions against Saddam. Not as intensely as under the GWB pressure, but something.
Except they are still in the middle of making $64,000,000,000 off the oil-for-food program, so they want the status quo but won’t say it.
Bin Laden or no, Afghanistan is still unstable. That may not be as big a PR problem for Gore as it is for Bush, but it’s there.
George Tenet insists Saddam has WMD and the CIA leaks that to the media often.
Politically, you have Bill Clinton covering his own ass and pushing his wife’s political future, so his needs and yours will not always coincide. He will be some PR help, but he will also knife you when he needs to.
Jimmy Carter wants to “help” like he did in Korea, so he will be stumping for dialogues with Muslims about screwing Israel as a way to solve this whole thing. The narcissistic bastard may even decide to go and negotiate without permission, like he did in Korea.
Here’s the sucker punch. Your vice-president is Joe Lieberman. Lieberman was willing to abandon school vouchers to be a good soldier on the ticket, but on Israel and the war on terror, he’s going to be hard to rein in unless you are doing something that looks like a pretty strong response. Blathering about reducing our dependence on foreign oil and economic sanctions and roadmaps for peace just aren’t going to cut it. If you go in the Carter direction, Lieberman might even resign. So either Carter or Lieberman is killing you, and the Clinton’s are unreliable.
Right about then, it really sucks to be Al Gore.
Does he invade Iraq? Maybe not. But he’s got to do something. If he doesn’t have bacon on the table on the war on terror, the 2004 election is in serious jeopardy. No bacon? The most likely followup is President McCain in 2004.