Blogs > Cliopatria > Alternate History as Propaganda

Apr 12, 2004 8:41 pm

Alternate History as Propaganda

Greg Easterbrook is arguing, via alternate history, that the 2001 September 11th attacks could not have been prevented without violating US and international law. Basically, his scenario is: what if the US took all the action that followed the attacks (attacking Afghanistan, massive arrests and deportations, etc.) and did them preventively? His answer is that it would result in the impeachment of President Bush and war crimes trials for prominent administration officials.

His assumption that the responses to 9/11 would also have been appropriate preventative measures is blatantly wrong, a binary fallacy. His assumption that our actions, particularly the invasion of Iraq on empty promises, do not include violations of international law and impeachable offenses is also wrong, but we lack an independent legislature at the moment to examine the question. And his assumption that the president would not do something impeachable in order to prevent thousands (and counting) of American deaths and regional disorder is telling, as well. Disturbing, really.

Anne Zook, who brought it to my attention, calls Easterbrook's speculations "Very funny reading, but I'm sure that's unintentional." I don't think it's funny at all, actually. It's a deliberate attempt to sabotage the 9/11 Commission and insulate the President from accusations of ineptitude or inattention, and I'm sure we'll see more of it shortly. He is trying to argue that there was"no choice," no viable alternatives to the history the way it happened. That we live in the best of all possible worlds (c.f. Leibniz, and, of course, Voltaire's Pangloss), impossible to improve without actually making things worse and for which we are not ultimately responsible. I'm sorry, but that's not my definition of leadership.

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Jonathan Dresner - 4/14/2004

A rare scan (for me) of Volokh Conspiracy led me to this Jeff Jacoby article:

I like Jacoby, or at least I used to when I lived in Boston: he's a smart conservative and good writer. He had a little trouble with sources a few years ago, and it seems now that whenever I see his articles I disagree with them much more than I find them interesting.

But anyway, the question at issue is the counterfactual, and Jacoby ends his column with the question "how would the public have reacted if we had done before what we did after" and comes to the conclusion that it would have failed, publicly, and that it therefore excuses our lack of action.

Derek Charles Catsam - 4/13/2004

Fair enough. And sure, it may be a bit of reductio ad absurdum (rather than satire, I'd argue) but I think his larger point is that we can never know precisely what is going to happen with "prevention" -- in other words, the most interesting part of his little thought excercise was Easterbrook's having McCain as the GOP frontrunner for 2004 even as he stood at the foot of the WTC, because Americans had no idea what they had avoided. In that sense, Bush's impeachment would have been a tragedy.
I would have supported acts of war against the Taliban long ago -- indeed I did advocate use of force, albeit in limited fashion, when US missionaries were imprisond by that regime in 2000. The Talban was categorically evil and destructive and they harbored those who would kill us. Even then, a plan to do so would have involved allies and a bit more grace than Bush has thus far mustered -- mazing to me how the goodwill post 9-11 dissipated. However, the one problem is that in August 2001 the suicide bombers from 9-11 were already preparing their nefarious deeds, so in that sense I do think you have a very strong point -- attacking Afghanistan then, even if justifiale, may well not have prevented 9-11 unless you think that we also would have been more aware in terms of intelligence and prevention. Hard to know.
In any case -- once you go beyong a thimbleful of depth, you can reveal counterfactual history for what it is. Paradoxically it lacks contingency precisely because it is nothing but contingency.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004


I think we're disagreeing with different things. Yes, Bush's diehard opponents would have objected to almost anything he did. Yes, a full-scale assault on Afghanistan would have brought out the usual anti-imperialist, pacifist and anti-US statements (doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong). Part of my argument is that a full-scale assault would probably not have been the appropriate response to the intelligence available; it's unlikely that he would have risked the political fallout of an actual war without a real, rather than potential, causus belli (ok, maybe *he* would, but he's still using 9/11 as part of the justification for Iraq, so I think it still counts); more probably he would have used cruise missiles and special forces to target a few al Qaeda camps, put a crimp in the stateside and international banking operations, and put off the "final confrontation" for a few more years. But Easterbrook's fantasy posits "unanimous" impeachment, Dick Cheney turning Condaleeza Rice over to the Hague, and Israel condemning the US for overkill. Maybe it's satire, but it's hard to tell exactly what he's satirizing.

Derek Charles Catsam - 4/13/2004

Jonathan --
With all due respect, I see a lot more than a grain of truth to the fact that Bush would have been pilloried had he attacked Afghanistan. Look at the antiwar response to the war with Iraq that had the support of 48 other states; that had the potential to remove Saddam Hussein from power; that was aimed against a state that, whatever overstated claims of wmds, was in actionable disobedience to UN and international inspections demands. If you are saying there was merely a grain of truth to the idea that the anti-Bush crowd would have gone doublebarrels after Bush, you may not have been paying all that close attention to what Bush's sleptics have said and done after he waged a war with the full assent of Congress. I cannot believe you will not acknowledge that Bush's critics are so willfully opposed to him that Easterbrook's counterfactual does not at least to some degree resonate. And I do not even like the President. But this is almost exactly akin to someone on the right denying that they would have gone after Clinton if he had attacked Afghanistan in the summer of 2000. Both denials seem disingenuous at best.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004

OK, a grain of truth, sure. But he's baking a whole wedding cake with that grain. There are lots of grains of truth out there, but you need to accumulate a lot of them.... ok, enough with the metaphor.

As someone who doesn't know anything else about Easterbrook's work, I'm certainly not inclined to take him all that seriously in the future. At least not his attempts at satire, or whatever this was.

Derek Charles Catsam - 4/13/2004

I was speaking more to Zook's comment, yes, but also to a general fear I had that others would, by dismissing Easterbrook as a fringe righty, not take him seriously either here or elsewhere. And as I said, I too think the counterfactual argument has some flaws. But I do think that there is a grain of truth in what he says -- that had Bush acted on, say, the August 6 PDB, he'd have faced the wrath of those who instinctively associate anything he does with being wrong.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/13/2004

Right, Jonathan. I take it that Derek was speaking more to Anne Zook's comment (and I know that I was) than he was to what you had said.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/13/2004

Yes. I hadn't meant to suggest that counterfactual history was necessarily a handmaid of rightest propaganda.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/13/2004

I think the article fails to distinguish sufficiently the political agenda of the particular book from the potentialities of counterfactual history in general. What else would you call it but counterfactual history (wishful thinking?) when Stephen Cohen posits that the totalitarian impulse was not there for all to see in Lenin, but came into being with the power grab of Stalin -- if only Bukharin had triumphed!! The same page of GT has a link to Sontag's piece on Victor Serge, who certainly saw the continuity between Lenin and Stalin. In fact, he wrote a history of the czarist secret police for the Spviet authorities, little realizing that he was handing them a blueprint. Wishful thinking and politics by way of counterfactuals seems more human than merely party-centered.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/13/2004

I think you're on to something there. I think having Clinton testify, even if only in private (perhaps especially only in private) has the effect (perhaps the intended effect) of politically forcing Bush to testify, if only in private. I would add that Roosevelt didn't testify (to the best of my knowledge) before the Pearl Harbor Commission. I think it is best to get it all on the record, including the opposition of the Airline Pilot's union to closed, reinforced cockpits -- and Gore's acceding to that request in his own commission's report. I must say I'm disappointed with the failure of both administrations not to take proactive steps to insure cockpit integrity, given the suicide bombings in Africa and against the Cole. A major screwup. I'm also disappointed that Bush didn't ask for my details once he received his PDB in August. That PDB suggested all kinds of questions to me, but with his corporate world delegation mindset, it was beyond his capacity, I'm afraid.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/13/2004

Speaking of counterfactuals and the Right, see Gnostical Turpitude's reference to a current article in the Guardian.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004

I meant a courtesy to the President. But Bush has to testify, particularly since Clinton will: he can't afford to look like he's less forthcoming. He doesn't have to say anything, but if he doesn't, Clinton is the only one who gets to say anything.

Partisans will discount anything coming from the other side, sure. I take everything everyone says with a grain of salt and a big dose of context, no matter whether I agree with them or not.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004

You're right: I know nothing about Easterbrook or his work, but I never said he was fringe or loony, because I could plainly see the New Republic host for his blog. I am willing to concede that Easterbrook is probably not part of the Heritage "talking points circle" which dominates our news cycles, but I stand by my reaction: the counterfactual argument he is making is implausible and legitimizes inaction and incompetence. If the Heritage fund hasn't picked up on it, it should.

Part of the problem with his counterfactual is that what we did after 9/11 is not necessarily what we would have done if we had prevented 9/11: broad investigative interviews, sure, but not mass arrests and deportations; attacking al Qaeda, sure, but not directly attacking the Taliban. Increasing airport security, absolutely, but not subpoenaing library records and putting people on "terror watch lists" they can't get off of. Let's face it: most of the PATRIOT act was stuff that the law enforcement agencies couldn't convince Congress was necessary, and which hasn't borne any noteworthy fruit to date.

Sure, if Clinton had attempted any sort of action against terrorists, conservatives would have trumpeted "too little, too late" (in fact wasn't that the response to his cruise missile actions in Sudan, etc.?) all the way to the election. Unless it was a truly massive operation, then they would have pointed out his lack of service and accused him of wasting American lives in a political gesture.

What I'm trying to figure out is why it matters that it's Bush doing it instead of Clinton. (I know, it matters politically, but I'm trying to be a little non-political here: is there a sound basis for reacting differently to similar policies from different presidents?) I know, 9/11.

I heard a snippet on the news yesterday in which Bush expressed his hope that the 9/11 commission would be able to figure out where things had gone wrong, if they indeed had. And I had to stop and think: he's president, all these people report to him, and he's got clearance; why didn't he ask the question himself, instead of putting it off onto this partisan (carefully balanced partisans, to be sure, but nonetheless) exercise in snipehunting?

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/13/2004

Presidential courtesy? And I thought Bush was President. Separation of powers protects Bush from having to testify -- they're lucky they get anything. Clinton enjoys no such protection. And I doubt that Clinton testifying in private protects Bush, inasmuch as nobody actually believes anything Clinton says. But perhaps we disagree on that too.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/12/2004

Derek makes a very good point here. Whatever you think of the cogency of his argument in this case, and I agree that it is flawed, Gregg Easterbrook simply cannot be dismissed as a winger loon. He may be wrong. Frankly, at this point, it's hard to imagine any talking head who pontificates on the situation from Egypt to Pakistan not being wrong. Being correct on some particular is the more to be prized.

Derek Charles Catsam - 4/12/2004

I'm getting a sense here that many folks are not familiar with Gregg Easterbrook's ouvre. He is far from a conservative apologist -- he would call himself a liberal, most of his writing would bear that out, as would his Brookings Institute fellowship, his status as a senior editor at the New Republic, and most of his blogg and his writings (I believe it is easterbrook who first used the term "Saudi Utility Vehicle" to describe SUVs, and if not, he certainly was the one who has been most adamant that such vehicles themselves are a scourge -- hardly a GOP-friendly argument). I get the sense among many of the ideologues left and right who write at HNN, whether in ther form of articles, blogs, or comment boards, that one must be more Catholic than the Pope in order to have any ideological legitimacy. Easterbrook is critical of bad arguments. He sometimes makes some of his own, but whatever you think of Easterbrook's argument, it is not the rantings of some fringe loon; nor is it the action of a pro-Bush, 9-11 commission saboteur. Further, given the response to the war against Iraq, is it really out of the realm of probability that a preemptive action against Afghanistan in August 2001 would have met with vitriol? Put it in other terms -- had Clinton attempted to do so in August 2000, what would have been the response from many Conservatives? He'd have been pilloried. Forgive me if I say that had Bush taken strong action against al Quaida prior to September 11, 2002, he would have faced an onslaught of opposition, especially if he was unable to state a coherent case, which is not exactly his strong suit. Would it have reached the level of Easterbrook's fantasy? Maybe not. But is it really absurd on its face to say that such an action would have galvanized an anti-Bush movement waiting for a cause and that the idea of impeachment would not have come up?

Anne Zook - 4/12/2004

This is anything but "good" alternative history, though.

Had Easterbrook done an honest job, taken the world as it was pre-9/11, and shown a plausible response from the Bush Administration...well, come to think of it, we'd probably still be in Iraq today.

From what we've learned, Bush was determined to put us in Iraq, no matter what

Michael C Tinkler - 4/12/2004

"deliberate attempt to sabotage"? "Attempt to insulate"?

Do these perhaps overstate the influence of bloggers, even those who are paid for this?

I agree that it's a silly binarism (though not at all an implausible one -- good alternative history is always plausible), but I think this post exaggerates Easterblogg's influence. Propaganda, yes. Sabotage, no.

Anne Zook - 4/12/2004

Easterbrook is no one. A blip on the wingnut radar, right?

Jonathan Dresner - 4/12/2004

Well, Bush is getting the same treatment, so I'd call it a Presidential courtesy.

But I guess that depends on what you think he'll say. If he's expected to defend his administration's record and put the responsibility on Bush, then it's protecting Bush. If you think he'll own up to some kind of error or fault, which would make Bush look bad by comparison, then it's protecting Bush. If you think it gives them cover to allow Bush to testify out of sight, then it's protecting Bush. I guess....

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/12/2004

Maybe Eaterbrook is trying to insulate Bush. What do you call it when the Commission only takes testimony from Clinton behind closed doors?

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