Actually, Re-Writing History Is a Bit More Complicated


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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161 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    no one in 2000 had any strong reason to believe that allowing George W. Bush to win the election would lead to an occupation of Iraq.

    Actually, even though it’s going to ring hollow now, I distinctly remember when that when Bush 43 was elected, I was thinking that given the slimmest opening, he will invade Iraq because of what happenned with his father (Gulf war 1). On Sep 11 one of the things I remember thinking was that here looks like an opening, lets see how he links this to Iraq. Then he gives his Axis of Evil speech and I thought to myself: there you go. In fact, I was surprised he went ahead and attacked afghanistan first before he attacked iraq. I could see the Iraq war coming from a mile away.Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    The wrinkle here is that no one in 2000 had any strong reason to believe that allowing George W. Bush to win the election would lead to an occupation of Iraq. First, Bush was a “compassionate conservative” and self-proclaimed non-interventionist. Second, 9/11, which as you know changed everything, hadn’t occurred yet.

    I’m not sure that’s true. His foreign policy team was already talking about dealing with Iraq militarily while he was a candidate, and a lot of people knew that. One of my first thoughts, when the second plane hit on 9/11, was that this would mean war with Iraq, not because I thought Iraq was attacking us, but because it was pretty well known among the anti-war crowd that a military solution to the issues in Iraq was a priority for the Bush administration, and a terrorist attack would make us bloodthirsty, providing the right environment to do with the Bush team had wanted to do all along. It’s reasonable to suspect that Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in large part because there’s no reason to suspect that solving the Iraq “problem” was a central part of Gore’s advisers’ foreign policy plans.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      This. Important PNAC papers on the topic had been aggressively advocating for military intervention in Iraq to secure oil reserves since 1996, papers written and signed by people who comprised Bush’s foreign policy team. The day after 9/11, the headline was a quote from Rumsfeld saying that the US would “annihilate nations” ) plural.

      In fact, it was the very reasonable belief that the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq in conjunction with the phrase “a new Pearl Harbor” in Rebuilding America’s Defenses that fueled the speculation that 9/11 was an inside job.

      So, yes, I think there was a generally agreed upon belief in certain circles that Bush wanted to invade Iraq and was looking for a pretext to do so.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        I can’t imagine an alternate world where the AUMF goes through without 9/11 happening.

        I can’t imagine an alternate world where the lack of the AUMF going through still leads to a land war in Iraq, with Bush the President. A couple of tomahawks, maybe.

        So I think it’s pretty fair to say that anyone looking to pick GWB over Gore on non-foreign-policy points would have fairly regarded the saber-rattling as saber-rattling. Saying in hindsight that oh they totally were going to war sort of discounts the amount of difficulty there is, here in the U.S., to switch from “saber-rattling” to “actually drawing the thing and sticking somebody with it.”Report

        • Avatar Aaron says:

          The point isn’t, “Would a potential Bush voter in 2000 have foreseen the Iraq War?” Of course not. The point is that anyone looking at Gore’s foreign policy versus Bush’s could see that one was markedly more bellicose than the other. No one would have expected the new Bush Administration to gin up some sort of Gulf of Tonkin excuse to invade Iraq, but anyone should have seen that, if given the opportunity, they would jump into this nonsense with both feet.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            One might very well consider a lack of a fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate to be sufficient check to prevent even a naturally bellicose idiot from actually getting the military machine going full bore invading another country.Report

    • Avatar Bob2 says:


      My takeaway here is that Ethan is not that old when he posts a thread with a title “Actually Re-writing History is a Bit More Complicated” when he doesn’t really know the history involved in the subject matter. Guessing age in the mid-20’s at the maximum here to not remember the 2000 campaign.

      Pick apart their reasoning all you like Ethan, but keep in mind Wright and Drum did keep track of the details somewhat better than you in the run-up to the war before going off too much because their audience tends to be a crowd of people who did follow details as well.

      Cliched, but history tends to repeat itself when things don’t get taught to the next generation and then they think they’re re-inventing the wheel.Report

  3. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    So you’re both of the mind that, had 9/11 not occurred, we’d still have invaded Iraq?Report

    • I was going to make the same point as your first two posters, with a link to this article:

      The Bush administration began planning to use U.S. troops to invade Iraq within days after the former Texas governor entered the White House three years ago, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill told CBS News’ 60 Minutes. “From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” O’Neill told CBS, according to excerpts released Saturday by the network. “For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap.”

      Given the coalition who voted for then-Gov. Bush, and the foreign policy experts of prominence in his party, an Iraq invasion was quite evidently more likely under Bush than Gore.

      Would we have invaded Iraq but for 9/11? I dunno, there was a 32% chance we would have anyway under Bush, whereas under Gore, the chance was 4%. I’m obviously being more than a little absurd with that quantification, but you get the idea. It’s a fair reading of what we knew of GOP foreign policymakers circa 2000, and subsequent reporting about pre-9/11 Bush White House discussions, to say that invading Iraq was always much more likely under Bush than Gore.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I think there’s a pretty good chance, yes. With sufficient political capital, Bush would at least have ramped up our military presence there (recall there were no fly zones) and given Saddam an ultimatum that he couldn’t possibly meet. I mean, look, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and I’m either not cynical enough or too cynical to think that people within the Bush administration were stupid enough to think it did. 9/11 just provided a convenient excuse to do what they’d wanted to do all along.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      If an opportunity had presented itself. You’d have to assume no plausible pretexts for Bush’s entire term.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        “If they don’t let the inspectors back in, we’re going to war.”

        “Damn, they let them back in. OK, if they don’t full cooperate with the inspectors, we’re going to war.”

        “Wait, it looks like they’re cooperating? OK, if they don’t reveal all of the WMD that the inspectors can’t find, we’re going to war.”

        “What, the WMD don’t exist? Then they can’t reveal them. War!”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      One of the arguments we may remember about 2009-2011 is the whole “Obama inherited a mess!” thing.

      Well, we probably remember the arguments over 9/11 as to whether Bush and his team dropped the ball or whether he inherited a fumble from Clinton (9/11/01 was only 8 months after Bush got inaugurated, the argument goes). Had Gore been elected, the 9/11 attacks would have been the biggest political football for the Republicans *EVER*.

      Democrats can’t keep us safe.
      Democrats cut our military.
      Democrats spend more time chasing tail than doing their job.
      Why didn’t Gore? Why didn’t Clinton? What in the hell have they been doing since Clinton stole the election from Bush with the help of Perot???
      If Bush had his way back in 1991, we wouldn’t even be in the Middle East at all!!!!

      I see Iraq as something Gore would likely have attempted.Report

      • Avatar Aaron says:

        How does this follow? As I recall, people were pointing out at the time that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Afghanistan, sure — I think that would have satisfied (to the extent that would be possible) the demand for bellicose response to 9/11. But Iraq? Not hardly likely. As pointed out above, Bush — who came in with a slate of people in his administration with a pre-existing desire to invade Iraq — had to engage in an intense amount of goal post-shifting to get the thing off the ground. “Gore would have invaded Iraq, too” is nothing so much as rampant High Broderism brought to a fine art.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          As I recall, people were pointing out at the time that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

          Osama bin Laden wrote a letter explaining why he did what he did. The two main reasons were the Palestinians and the US occupation of Saudi Arabia. “Democrats and their nation building did this to us!” (The Palestinians would, of course, be ignored.)Report

          • Avatar Aaron says:

            Sure, but I don’t see how it follows that, because bin Laden was exercised about US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to impose Iraq blockades, Al Gore would then have invaded Iraq. How does that follow?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              The issue of why we were *STILL* stationed in Iraq would have come up.

              It would be brought up that it was time to, as they say, fish or cut bait.

              I don’t think that cutting bait would have been seen as the most attractive option.Report

              • Avatar Aaron says:

                And if we’d gotten bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001, the whole casus belli would have disappeared. This is the problem with counterfactuals more than one degree removed from reality. “Gore is president –> Continued belligerence from Iraq” is one step too far for anything other than funtimes alternative history.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Nader was asked about 9/11 happening if he were President.

                He answered something to the effect of “we have argued for the strengthening of cockpit doors for decades!”Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            Re-write this: bin Laden cites Clinton sanctions killing half a million innocent Iraqi kids.

            Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

            Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.

            –60 Minutes (May 1996)

            Bin Laden fatwa, August 1996:

            More than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression (sanction) imposed on Iraq and its nation. The children of Iraq are our children. You, the USA, together with the Saudi regime are responsible for the shedding of the blood of these innocent children. Due to all of that, what ever treaty you have with our country is now null and void.


            • Avatar b-psycho says:

              Good point. Sanctions just harm innocents, not the regime being targeted.

              So from here on out, no more sanctions. On anyone. I’m serious.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I wonder, on which side of the American political spectrum were most of the people who argued against the sanctions in Iraq (hint, see my comment below)?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Hey Chris, not sure about ‘most’ – I recall many of my leftier friends arguing *for* the sanctions, though this was either when war was on the table or had already begun, so they could have been arguing in favor of the sanctions strictly as less-bad alternative to war.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Glyph, I don’t mean most people on the left, I mean most of the people who argued against sanctions were on the left (and well before more war was on the table).

                And it wasn’t, for the most part, “Democrats” or liberals, it was actual leftists.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Ah, OK, gotcha, I see the distinction you are making.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Yes, you got the point a bit, Mr. Psycho. Few are aware of the actual dynamics beyond the usual WMD bleat, which reduces nicely to infantile partisan narrative.

                Did the Clinton sanctions actually kill 500,000+ Iraqi children [the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate]? Doubtful. However, Secretary of State Albright’s moronic confirmation of that lie spread through the Muslim world as a truism.

                Half a million dead innocents, and “we think it’s worth it?” One of the biggest diplomatic blunders in history and I bet not one in 100 Americans is even aware of it—another one tossed down the memory hole. Re-writing indeed, sir, re-writing indeed. As always, the truth hides in plain sight.


              • Avatar b-psycho says:

                Yeah, U.S. aggression has been bipartisan for the most part. Shit, Dems were fine with the WMD thing until they thought they could score some points, the whole outrage for being suckered was cynicism, plain and simple.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              Who knew Tom was a Chomskyan?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Even if that’s true (arguendo only), does Gore discount the civil war that’s obviously going to follow, make no plans for administering Iraq after Saddam is gone, invade with an insufficient force to handle it, and make no effort to involve the UN or other sources of peacekeepers? Not only was the invasion a bad idea, it was done with a level of stupid irresponsibility that was entirely predictable from looking at who was in charge.Report

      • Avatar Bob2 says:

        I find this unconvincing. There’s no way Iraq comes up as an occupation and invasion target under Gore. Airstrikes perhaps, but the case for war in Iraq under Bush required quite a lot of willful ignorance and pushing from his advisers that I can’t imagine a potential Gore administration doing even if Marty Peretz were around.

        Certainly, he’d have paid far more attention to post-invasion planning than Bush did (i.e. none), as this was a common criticism of the invasion that was slapped down as being unpatriotic. The post-Saddam era planning was “They’ll greet us with open arms! and then we get to leave and they’ll have oil to pay for things!”
        Practically everything that could have gone wrong with Iraq was known before we ever went in, including their overreliance on Chalabi, the unlikelihood that they had WMDs (Scott Ritter), Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, etc.Report

      • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

        Bush fumbled a sensible policy. See “Millennium Plot” for what 9/11 would have looked like under Gore. (Short answer — Clinton and other national agencies prevented a bunch of planes from being blown up in Jan 2000. He — and Gore — were keeping very close tabs on al Quida operatives to see what they were up to next. Reporting up and down the chain — like that a bunch of men were learning how to take off but not to land — was encouraged under Clinton and dropped under Bush.)Report

    • I think that post-1991, the US was on a collision course of some sort with Iraq. I don’t know, obviously, if Gore would have ordered an invasion, but I suspect there might have been some ramping up of the military conflict that was still existing with the no-fly zones.

      Those who say that candidate Bush’s foreign policy team were obviously Hawks to those who paid attention might very well be right. But I also think that many people (e..g, me) weren’t paying much attention. Shame on us, then, but Clinton had an interventionist record and it wasn’t clear to me that Gore would repudiate it.

      An ignorant, false equivalence of Bush/Gore? Maybe, but not an unreasoned one.

      Ethan, I really like this post and your preceding one. Thanks for writing them.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Precisely because of how the two parties reacted to 9/11: the Republicans lurched rightward and took the Democrats with them.

    Well, we were spectacularly attacked, after all. We’re more than a decade past it, but recall that it was horrible, terrifying. Recall how angry you were when it happened. I can assume that you felt those things with confidence, because that fear and anger and shock would transcend any ideology.

    Now, I doubt strongly that President Gore would have invaded Iraq. But I can’t know that because we never had President Gore — on an intellectual level, Mr. Drum goes a bridge too far to state this as a certainty rather than as a likelihood. That’s an article of faith, just as it’s an article of faith for Mr. Wright to assume that President Romney is more likely to involve us in war with Iran than is President Obama. In truth, I think the chances of boots-on-the-ground military action against Iran are minimal under either of them, and as I’ve described elsewhere, the pressures molding international policy are powerful, impersonal, and again, largely transcendent of what passes for ideological differences in this nation.

    I’m not saying that who is elected President and who advises and guides that President are irrelevant. A President can make a difference, whether for good or ill is not always immediately apparent — as Bush the Younger’s Presidency demonstrates. But the identity of Presidents and their superficial foreign policy preferences matter a lot less than a great many people aver.Report

    • Well, sure, and it’s an article of faith to say that we know that the sun will come up in the East tomorrow. After all, we’ve never seen Oct. 3, 2012, before.

      What we can do is talk about likelihoods, drawing on known facts.

      Obviously my percentages up in my reply to Ethan are facetious, but the idea is something that we can aim towards. Would the 2004 Red Sox have won the World Series with Bronson Arroyo starting Game 7 of the ALCS rather than Derek Lowe? How about with Time Wakefield, or Kevin Brown? We don’t know, but we can poke around and hazard a guess.

      It’s not “an article of faith” on Drum’s part, it’s a reasoned argument. It’s not an “article of faith” that “the pressures molding international policy are powerful, impersonal”, it’s a reasoned argument. (I am not familiar with your larger argument, so I can’t offer an opinion on it).Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        It is not an article of faith to say that we know the sun will come up in the East tomorrow. There’s a rather large pile of evidence that this will be the case, and zero evidence that another alternative thing might happen.

        This is where people who read Hume make me punchy.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Of course it’s an article of faith. One has faith in the empirical perspective on things.

          Some people do not hold these truths as self-evident, or as close as we can come.

          They prattle on about innate good and evil.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Of course it’s an article of faith. One has faith in the empirical perspective on things.

            That makes “empiricism” an article of faith. The sun coming up in the East is not an article of faith, it’s not an axiom. It follows from your article of faith.

            This is the thing that makes me ranty when people say, “Science is faith-based!”, because they mean something different than I do when they used the words “faith” and “based”.Report

  5. Avatar James Hanley says:

    The quality of a decision cannot be judged by the outcome, but only by the information available to the decision-maker at the decision point.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      I don’t think that’s true. I think that even with poor information, one can come up with better and worse gambits. Probably has something to do with Bayesian probability…Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      I really hope you lifted that from Bush’s book.

      Quality, certainly not. But whether or not it was the “right” decision, I think so. The decision would always be compared to what was being sought after.

      So I agree that a “good” or even the “best” decision can even be one that leads to the worst possible outcome, but that doesn’t mean it was, ultimately, the “right” decision.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Seriously, Ethan, you’re just going to go ideological on that?* It’s basic decision-theory; nothing to do with politics or ideology. “Right” in your framework here is essentially a meaningless concept, because you can’t go back in time to re-make your decision–all you can do is retrospectively analyze whether you went about making the decision in the right way.

        We see this in football all the time. Should the coach go for it on 4th down? If he makes it, it’s a brilliant decision, but if he doesn’t it was clearly the wrong move (there’s no-one like sports announcers for second-guessing). But the outcome doesn’t actually tell us whether it was a good decision or a bad one. For example, if a team makes 90% of their 2 point conversions, and the opponent stops only 10% of 2 point conversions, the expected value of going for it is 1.62 points, which is higher than the expected value of just kicking the extra point (which will be just under 1). So the team should go for 2. But in that situation they’ll fail to make it 19% of the time (90% success rate * opponent’s 90% failure rate). So by the standard second-guessing approach they’ll have made the “wrong” decision almost 1 in 5 times. But in fact it will have been the right decision each and every time.

        Of course the tough cases are the ones where it’s not so obvious, because then it can be hard to tell whether it was the right decision with a bad outcome or just a bad decision. But the fundamentals of decision-making are unchanged, and calling it the “wrong” decision based on a bad outcome is still logically flawed.
        *I hope to god that was just a weak attempt at a joke and you weren’t actually attributing my statement to an ideological position. With some folks here I wonder if they’re capable of considering anything outside of a strictly ideological framework.Report

        • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

          So I think we missed each other.

          I quote “right” just to differentiate it from “good.”

          So “right/wrong” decision, but “good/bad” decision making. I think we agree on that.

          So a 2 point conversion that doesn’t succeed might still have been a “good” decision (the proper one to make given available facts, etc.), even if hindsight informs us that it was the “wrong” one.

          Now that doesn’t include randomness, i.e. all things being equal, something might turn out different the second time, even with the same inputs, so I’m definitely not accounting for that.

          But I didn’t mean to offend.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            I quote “right” just to differentiate it from “good.”

            No, in fact we do not agree on that. I reject that distinction. A good decision is one that’s justified by the available evidence, and the decision justified by the available evidence is the right decision.

            Beyond that, the outcome is a matter of probability,* and deeming things either right or wrong based on probability seems meaningless to me.

            Imagine I hold a gun to your head and tell you my decision to shoot will be governed by the roll of a 6 sided die. I give you a choice, though: You can choose either 1-2 as the range that will result in my shooting you, or 3-6. You choose 3-6, I roll a 2, I shoot you. Was your decision “wrong?” No, no, no, eleventy million times no. Your decision was right, because if we reincarnated you and gave you the choice again you would make exactly the same decision. If we did it over and over and over you would make the same choice each and every time. It is the “right” decision, because it is a good decision.
            *Obviously execution, too, but since at the time of decision-making that is in the future, execution is actually part of probability at that point in time.Report

            • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

              So that’s why I noted the “randomness” factor that I ignore.

              Are there many real world choices that resemble pure chance?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                The outcome is a product of two factor, the decisionmaking and the probability. All we can control is the quality of the decisionmaking, so that’s the only factor that’s relevant to determining whether a decision is good/right or bad/wrong. There is no difference between good and right, or between bad and wrong. That’s what I’m asserting.

                “Pure” chance? As in 50/50 probability? Who knows, but I don’t think the question is relevant. If there’s a 51% to 49% probability, it’s a good decision, the right decision, to go with the 51%. (That’s assuming equal value to the outcomes, for simplicity. Of course in reality we need to go beyond just the probability to an expected value, which is the vale of an outcome–whether positive or negative–multiplied by it’s probability of occurring.)Report

          • Avatar kenB says:

            Another problem with judging the Iraq War decision by its outcome is that there’s no obvious moment where we can say all the results are in — it looked like the “right” decision after the invasion went smoothly, it looks like the “wrong” decision now, but if Iraq becomes a stable democracy in a few years, it could look like the “right” decision again. Though of course the farther out we get from the original decision, the harder it is to guess how the alternative would’ve played out.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Exactly. I was a committed opponent of the Iraq War. But even then I made a point of saying, “if 20 years from now there are multiple stable democracies in the Middle East, and we can trace that back to the invasion of Iraq, then I’ll have to eat my words.”

              Of course my estimate of the likelihood of that outcome was very low. (And now the probability of multiple relatively stable democracies in the Middle East has increased, but I don’t see that they are causally linked to our invasion of Iraq.)Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      This puts a lot of dumb-ass decisions into “quality decision” territory.

      Granted, you have to temper outcome in your analysis, because of improbabilities and whatnot, but I’m pretty sure that if you discard outcome – at least, potential outcome analysis – then you’re in looney land. I don’t think that’s what you were saying, though.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I read James’ comment to say that ‘you do the best you can with what you know at the time’. That the decision thus made, can turn out to be spectacularly wrong in retrospect (as new information or circumstances come into play) is a reflection on the decision (it can be turn out to be wrong), but *not necessarily* on the decision-maker (that is, unless it can be shown that he did not do his due diligence in information-gathering and probability-evaluation, he was not necessarily wrong to do what he did).

        None of the aforementioned is intended to exonerate any specific decision or decision-maker. Just a general statement.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          Well, there are some decisions where the unknowns are potentially really, really bad, and thus a decision that exposes you to those unknowns can be regarded as unnecessarily and stupidly risky even if all the quality information you possess encourages you to do it.

          I mean, if I have four kings in straight poker, I might risk quite a bit on it. I would not, however, bet my life on it (not willingly, anyway). “All signs point to war being a good idea” is still a bad decision if the “all signs” aren’t really a comprehensive coverage.

          It’s true, you can never know everything ahead of time. On the other hand, there’s usually a lot of low-hanging fruit that you can gather.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            I am not disagreeing with this, I just think you are basically expanding on the ‘due diligence in information-gathering and probability-evaluation’ portion of my comment – if ‘risk evaluation (probability + severity of said risks)’ is only implicit in what I said, let me make it explicit.Report

        • Avatar Plinko says:

          But can our knowledge of what a given decision-maker knew when making a given decision ever be truly complete?Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            I’m totally fine with saying that invading Iraq was a stupid idea. I’m less fine with saying that voting for the AUMF was a stupid idea. It *did* get the inspectors back in-country, with access. It was a raise, Saddam folded, all we had to do was pick up the pot.

            And then Bush turned over the table and shot him anyway.

            Which, okay, dude had it coming. But the totally predictable and avoidable bar fight afterwards got Johnny shot, and we all liked Johnny. Maybe Bush learned something, cradling Johnny’s head there in the aftermath, while the poignant last words scene faded out and the credits rolled.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            No, but asking ‘what did he know, and when did he know it?’ is always germane when evaluating.Report

            • Avatar Plinko says:

              I’m on board with the more explicit version of the risk-assessment/evaluation part.

              I remain, however, deeply skeptical of our practical ability to make said evaluations. In the end, actual outcomes will often be as good a tool as our rather incomplete analysis of what could or should have gone into a decision.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                No doubt outcomes are a tool, and no doubt these other evaluations are hard; but a successful outcome could always be a result of serendipity rather than good decision-making (just as a bad one could just be bad luck).

                So it seems to me more important to try to weigh the agents’ decision-making processes – otherwise, we are left to believe that (for example) the Gateses and the Soroses and the Buffets (Warren and Jimmy) could just be fantastically lucky in the choices they’ve made (and before anyone jumps on me, I am not saying ‘making huge piles of cash’ is the only metric for successful decision-making, these are just examples attempting to illustrate the point).Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:


            No, knowledge is always limited, unfortunately. But an inability to know what information a decision-maker had only means we may not be able to determine the quality of his decision; it doesn’t logically lead to a conclusion that we can determine the quality by focusing on the outcome.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              I’m fairly confident that barring other mental issues, smart people make better decisions than dumb people. If nothing else they get more options to play with.

              In politics, people don’t bother with “how good quality is his decision”, they bother with what intelligence, personality, flaws a person has, and use that to guide interactions.

              A white horse is not always merely a white horse, after all…Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Kim – that is not always true.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                And also, I realize the New Yorker piece was written by disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer, but the article’s summation of work by Kahneman is pretty sound AFAIK.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                that’s nto a study about making decisions.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Sure Kahneman’s work is.

                Every time you answer a question, you are making a decision (those answers are wrong, this one is right). If cognitive biases lead you to answer incorrectly, you have made a bad decision. Kahneman’s work suggests that the more introspective you are, the more likely you are to rationalize the bias (since the bias is unconscious and not accessible nor amenable to reason/intelligence).

                You’ve never met an otherwise smart person who doesn’t believe at least one thing, powerfully and deeply, that to you appears completely irrational/crazy?

                How’s Bobby Fischer doing these days?Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I wouldn’t construe his work to touch on valuation or appraisal. I don’t think he’d be pleased to hear you extending it FURTHER past there, to decisionmaking.

                Most people whose decisionmaking skills i question are sociopaths, cowards, narcissists, pathological liars…

                When you’re essentially excluding my point, and saying “but we’re all dumb!”, well, perhaps, but my point is — that’s not USEFUL.

                And when people are DUMB in decision making, it’s generally from greed.

                Or haven’t you ever known conmen?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Conmen (and politicians, but I repeat myself) and Magicians alike take advantage, in part, of our cognitive blindnesses/blindspots.

                Look, if we modify the statement to say something like, ‘on balance smart people make better decisions than dumb people’, then I will agree wholeheartedly.

                But I have known way too many otherwise-smart people who do spectacularly dumb things, and too many ‘dumb’ people who are possessed of a great quantity of what we call ‘common sense’ and I would trust with my life, to agree with the statement otherwise – unless you were including basic cognitive biases that we all possess in varying degrees when you said ‘other mental issues’.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                The smartest person I’ve ever met scores as an idiot on IQ Tests (I think about a 25 or so…). That doesn’t stop him from contributing to scientific and economic papers, starting quite a few small businesses, and being the world’s premier expert (in, naturally, a little tiny space in computer science). And being a Tolkien expert.

                I’m not sure how folks define common sense as different from intelligence. Care to take a stab at it?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Well, given the topic, this is probably an incendiary example; but W was often accused of being ‘dumb’.

                Now, the man flew F-102’s. If he only did that adequately (by which I mean, didn’t crash) he still has to have a fair amount of ‘processing power’, able to make complicated mathematical calculations on the fly and process different inputs, quickly.

                So I wouldn’t call him ‘dumb’.

                Yet as President, he made some decisions that many would call ‘questionable at best.’

                So what is W? Smart, or dumb?

                Me, I go with ‘probably smart, but probably not as curious or reflective as he ought to be’.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Curiosity and Reflectiveness mean a lot more to me than intuitive knowledge of physics, which is represented both in piloting an airplane and playing hockey.

                I mean, Mario Lemieux may be a smart man, but we don’t automatically call hockey players smart, do we?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                C’mon Kim, sports ability (instinctive/practiced understanding of physics and the speed/strength to manipulate your body and objects in a manner which takes that understanding into account) is not at all the same thing as, ‘I have A gallons of fuel and B miles to go at speed C or I will not be able to get back to base, and crash and die’ (and this is one of the simpler calcs he’s got to perform correctly, quickly and repeatedly with every shift in circumstances). There are a lot of maths that go into piloting a fighter jet (or a regular plane).

                Anyway, I’ve explained myself as best I can.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        Discard potential outcome? No, precisely the opposite. It is the proper calculation of potential outcomes that determines whether something was a good decision. And it’s precisely because of the indeterminate nature of probability that the actual outcome is not the proper standard.

        I.e., Glyph’s right.Report

    • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

      And the understanding of what a post-Saddam Iraq would be like, while available to Bush and Powell in 1991, had been lost by 2003.Report

  6. Avatar Aaron says:

    The Republican Party platform in 2000 called for the removal of Saddam Hussein. “Key Bush advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s Deputy Paul Wolfowitz, were longstanding advocates of invading Iraq, and contributed to a September 2000 report from the Project for the New American Century that argued for using an invasion of Iraq as a means for the U.S. to ‘play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security…’ After leaving the administration, former Bush treasury secretary Paul O’Neill said that “contingency planning” for an attack on Iraq was planned since the inauguration and that the first National Security Council meeting involved discussion of an invasion.”

    2000 just isn’t a good parallel to today. In fact, I think the case for voting third party in 2000 was much, MUCH stronger than it is today. Precisely because of how the two parties reacted to 9/11: the Republicans lurched rightward and took the Democrats with them.

    This is exactly what is so frustrating about this debate — other than the fact that you keep calling for people to engage in “the nitty-gritty case building that their positions require” when they’ve been doing exactly that for a week now. There is simply no way that you can spin the fact that Bush had unified government in the aftermath of 9/11 and was able to get longstanding pet projects (the PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq) pushed through because of it. There is simply no counterfactual that you can spin that says that President Gore would have authorized the invasion of Iraq, or that the rightward lurch — which I do grant would have happened regardless — would have been so severe, or so prolonged, in the wake of 9/11. If 9/11 had indeed even come about. A world with Pres. Gore is a world with a whole different security apparatus and a different hand at the wheel.

    If you want to justify your decision to vote against Obama, that’s fine — but you simply can’t use this kind of “both sides do it, and even if Obama is marginally better, it doesn’t really make any difference anyway.” Bouie, Nob and Drum have been pointing out since Friedersdorf’s essay that Obama is better on a whole raft of issues — including civil liberties issues — than Romney, or even Johnson. To say that Obama and Romney hold identical views, or that a world with President Romney would be in anyway better than one with a reelected Obama is simply nonsense.

    If you want to debate in the airless realms of philosophy without engaging in how the world of politics actual works, that’s fine, I suppose. But don’t act like the people you disagree with are simply stating their preferences without substantiating them with actual arguments. I’m unaware of any liberal or progressive who has been willing to come forward as an unapologetic supporter of Obama’s drone policies. What they’ve been saying is that we disagree with those policies, but you can’t run away from politics and bury your head in third party sands because you disagree with one aspect of Obama’s policies, even if you strongly disagree with them. There’s too much at stake.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      Where do you live, Aaron?Report

      • Avatar Aaron says:

        Currently, Jersey City, NJ. In 2001, Athens, Ohio.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          Nate has NJ at 99.4% chance of Obama.

          You can vote for whoever you like, standing on your conscience, with as-close-as-you-get-to-mathematical-certainty-in-a-probabilistic-universe that you’re not risking a Romney win.

          Donate to Obama if you want, that has an infinitesimal but nonzero effect on the national election. Volunteer to a phone bank that is going to bombard Florida, maybe.

          Nothing you do in NJ, including your actual individual vote, is going to matter outside of your local election.Report

          • Avatar Aaron says:

            Believe me, I’m from Ohio, I don’t need to have the relative importance of swing state votes explained to me. My point is not that my individual vote for Obama will, on the margins, have an impact on the election. It’s that Ethan is asking for people who disagree with him to do something that they’ve already done. There are significant differences between the two candidates that justify that vote, even if you accept that drones strikes are wrong.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

              > There are significant differences between
              > the two candidates that justify that vote,
              > even if you accept that drones strikes
              > are wrong.


              But if you’re casting your vote in part as a moral calculus, and you’ve accepted the basically-non-controvertible fact that your vote has no effect on the direct outcome, than I’m not sure why voting for Obama vs. Romney is your calculus.

              Maybe it’s not. Maybe you looked at Gary Johnson and Jill Stein and other candidates and decided that Obama is better than them, too.

              But if Jill Stein is a closer match to you than Obama from a moral calculus standpoint and there is no practical reason to vote for Obama vs. Romney, voting for Jill Stein should be your choice, if the moral calculus matters at all.Report

              • Avatar Aaron says:

                I have to disagree with you. I don’t believe you can look at each candidate in isolation. If you think that Jill Stein is closer to your personal beliefs, you have to decide if casting a vote for someone who more closely aligns with your views is worth the chance that someone who does not represent your views at all wins the election versus someone who shares merely a majority or plurality of your views. If we had instant-runoff voting (which would be my preferred system, BTW), absolutely, put your third-candidate choice up top. But you have to be aware of what your vote might actually cost as well.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                I restate the condition, “and there is no practical reason to vote for Obama vs. Romney”.

                In your particular case, there is no practical reason to vote for Obama vs. Romney.

                If you therefore pass on voting for Jill Stein even after deciding that your moral calculus is more closely aligned with Jill Stein, then what you are saying is that your moral calculus is worth less than a near-statistical certainty that your vote in NJ will affect the outcome absolutely not at all; i.e., it is for all intents and purposes entirely cosmetic.

                Which means you’ve effectively said that moral calculus is meaningless.

                Hey, that’s fine, that’s certainly your prerogative. But you can’t then claim that moral calculus enters into your decision, because it is manifestly, demonstrably, empirically, within epsilon of zero value. You just admitted it.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I don’t think that does follow. If the moral calculus argument justifies voting for Stein on the issues, then a moral calculus argument can justify voting for Obama on the issues – even if Stein’s platform aligns more closely with my own views than Obama’s does. Eg, I might support Obama because I think the parts of his platform which I do agree with have a higher likelihood of being enacted/sustained as policy with him elected than with Stein elected for purely pragmatic reasons.

                It seems to me you’re just repeating Jason’s argument: given that you’re vote is effectively meaningless, vote like no one was watching. So I think you’re argument suffers from the same objections as his does: if the vote is effectively meaningless, then it’s irrational to vote in any event. So the moral calculus part either drops as reason to vote for either candidate, or justifies voting for either candidate.Report

              • Avatar Aaron says:

                This. In addition, if my vote in New Jersey doesn’t matter (which I don’t grant in the first place, as the only way you get to 97% probability is by people voting), the point of arguing online in this forum is to persuade. I am from Ohio. I have friends in Ohio, and, until recently, I still maintained Ohio residency and voted there. Would you argue that if I moved back to Ohio my vote would still not matter?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Pragmatic reasoning is a red-herring, Stillwater. There is no pragmatism here.

                Again, I’m not talking about the once-in-a-lifetime chance that a swing state vote comes down to a couple of thousand ballots. I grant that this is ridiculously implausible but still within the realm of probable enough that it’s not insane to claim pragmatism as a motivating factor; I’m not going as far as Jason, here.

                (Hell, you can vote based upon with who you think you’d have a better time slamming back brews).

                But you can’t say, “I choose this guy because of pragmatic reasons and moral reasons” when you live in a state where the differential between who is going to win is several hundred thousand votes.

                There aren’t any pragmatic reasons, there, beyond messaging value.

                Now you can say that the messaging value matters, but then it matters only to signal your actual moral calculus, right? In which case, it’s more important for a political analyst to know that some people voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson than it is for them to know you voted for Obama.

                If 61% of the state is going for Mitt, or Obama, then the message that matters is not how many go for the opponent. It’s how many show up in the 1-5% that vote “other”.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                If 61% of the state is going for Mitt, or Obama, then the message that matters is not how many go for the opponent. It’s how many show up in the 1-5% that vote “other”.

                That’s the part I just don’t see. If the vote is justified as signaling for change in a certain direction (etc., whatever), then voting for Obama can be justified as signaling for change in a certain direction. If the vote is meaningless when given to Obama, then it’s just as meaningless if given to Stein (moreso, from one pov).

                I don’t see any wiggle room here to justify voting for a third party candidate which doesn’t apply to voting for a major party candidate.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Voting is a collective action problem… pretty much by definition.

                When examining your vote in the context of individualism, or finite repetitions of individual decision-making, you’re going to come to a different set of conclusions than if you look at voting as what it actually is.

                It’s not “one person, one vote”, and everyone who thinks that it is… is looking at it in the wrong way.

                There are two ways to change the outcome of an election: one is to be the deciding vote… which I think we can all agree is ridiculously improbable as an individual event… and the other is for the outcome of the election to cause the wonky political types to discuss, in those closed-door meetings where messaging is discussed and political capital is discussed, to look at the collective behavior in an election and decide that it is meaningful, and for the advice to those in power to reflect that.

                I would generally regard your duty in any election is to do your best to ensure that you are contributing to the collective action problem that is more accurately reflected in that second bit, there.

                I mean, if I’m looking at the margins, I want as much information about the margins as I can get. Knowing that the margins would actually prefer me to be more left or more right or more something is more useful than knowing that they just prefer me to that other guy.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Patrick, I don’t disagree with anything you wrote here except that the conclusions that you’re drawing from it. If voting has no relevance to determining the outcome of a current election, then voting third party is not rational (since all voting is irrational). If voting has relevance in determining the outcome of future elections (by shifting political discourse, say) then that general argument justifies voting for Obama or Romney (or straight Dem/Rep) in precisely the same way as it justifies third party voting. In specific, the arguments will differ of course, because the desired discourse shifts will be different for each person.

                that’s all I’m sayingReport

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                If the vote is justified as signaling for change in a certain direction (etc., whatever), then voting for Obama can be justified as signaling for change in a certain direction.

                Well, sure. But the premise was that you’ve done an underlying calculus and found that you agree with Obama less than somebody else.

                If you agree with Obama more than Jill Stein, or more than Gary Johnson, and you’d rather send the message “Go Team” than “Maybe you guys should consider tempering your message a bit in this direction”, then that’s fine.

                But saying, “I think Jill Stein’s message is closer to my own, and I’m still going to vote for Obama because of… uh… pragmatism!” just is baloney. You’re voting for the team.

                Hey, you can vote for the team. Go ahead. I’d be the first to say you can vote for the team all you want.

                But don’t try and dress it up as a moral decision… it’s not. You already conceded that there is a better moral choice that you’re not making. And don’t try to dress it up as a pragmatic choice, because it’s not that, either; the pragmatic choice is signaling, and you just signaled that you’d rather have your second-best choice, which is kind of incoherent.Report

              • Avatar Aaron says:

                Patrick Cahalan @ 3:02: Again, I’m not talking about the once-in-a-lifetime chance that a swing state vote comes down to a couple of thousand ballots.

                Bush won in Ohio in 2000 by a margin of 165,000 votes and in 2004 by a margin of less than 120,000 votes, for 20 electoral votes each. In 2000, Bush got 271 electoral college votes to Gore’s 266. In 2004, it was 286 to 251. In either election, if less than 200,000 people had voted the other way, it would have swung the election in a different direction.

                That’s hardly a once-in-a-life time chance for close elections, and for individual votes having more-than-infinitesimal consequences.

                The national turnout in 2000 was 54.2%, and in 2004 56.7%. It’s not hard to imagine scaring up an extra 120k voters.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                You already conceded that there is a better moral choice that you’re not making.

                Stein is a better choice in this election. But my vote is irrelevant with wrt determinine outcomes in this election.

                Insofar as my vote is justified as an effort to change discourse in future elections, my calculus is pragmatic: will voting for candidate X, Y, or Z change political discourse in my preferred direction? I can justify a vote for Obama on those grounds just as easily as I can justify a vote for Stein. One is that I might believe that a vote for Stein is not justified on these pragmatic grounds: it may not shift discourse enough to matter. Whereas a vote for Obama may be pragmatically justified because it I think it will shift discourse in preferred directions.

                Now, If the argument against this is that my vote for Obama isn’t justified on these pragmatic grounds because the contribution my vote makes is irrelevant to the resulting shift in discourse, then a vote for Stein can be criticized on those grounds either. Ie., my vote contributes to shifting political discourse only if Stein receives enough votes to actually shift discourse, but if Stein receives that many votes my single additional vote is meaningless.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                @ Still

                Oh, okay, yes, I see where you’re going. We’re talking past each other.

                One is that I might believe that a vote for Stein is not justified on these pragmatic grounds: it may not shift discourse enough to matter. Whereas a vote for Obama may be pragmatically justified because it I think it will shift discourse in preferred directions.

                Yes, to all of that.

                What I find, generally – not specifically, but generally in the “you can’t vote third party” crowd – is that this part of the reasoning is not explicit. It’s implied, and what’s worse, when called on it, this part involves a lot of waving of the hands.

                One can certainly do the work and come to this conclusion.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Voting is a collective action problem… pretty much by definition.

                Not quite, I don’t think. While it’s true that, like collective action problems, free riding is a problem in elections, unlike a true collective action problem it makes sense to act when nobody else does. In fact, unlike a CAP, it’s exactly when nobody else votes that it makes the most sense to do so.

                For years I’ve also said that voting is a CAP, and only recently have I realized that it’s not quite true. But I’m not quite sure exactly what type of problem or “thing” voting is.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Bush won in Ohio in 2000 by a margin of 165,000 votes

                Yes, and that’s exactly 165,000 more votes than I have. Even at that level of closeness, my vote has an insignificant effect on the outcome.

                Even in Florida, 2000, where the final certified vote difference between Bush and Gore was 537, that’s still 537 times the number of votes I have–had I voted for Gore instead of getting drunk in that Panama City saloon, Gore would still have lost by 536.

                The logic at the aggregate level just does not work out as the logic at the individual level.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Unlike a true collective action problem it makes sense to act when nobody else does. In fact, unlike a CAP, it’s exactly when nobody else votes that it makes the most sense to do so.

                That’s a fair point, James.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                While it’s true that, like collective action problems, free riding is a problem in elections, unlike a true collective action problem it makes sense to act when nobody else does. In fact, unlike a CAP, it’s exactly when nobody else votes that it makes the most sense to do so.

                Maybe that’s the answer. Voting can be justified as contributing to the likelihood that your candidate will win. That’s a reason to vote. It’s defeated, however, by the realization that my vote is statistically irrelevant, and given that I’m better off just free-riding on other people who share my policy preferences. But that view is defeated by realizing if everyone adopted it, my vote becomes increasingly relevant!

                So on either analysis, I’m justified in voting!Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Another way to say that is: If it’s rational for people to free-ride (even me!), then it’s rational for me to vote.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Maybe that’s the answer. Voting can be justified as contributing to the likelihood that your candidate will win.

                No, that doesn’t follow. The fact that if no one else votes my vote will determine the outcome does not mean that if lots of other people vote my vote will increase my candidate’s odds. There’s just no sequential logic that gets you there.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                No, dude, you’ve got it backwards.

                First, the probability of my vote contributing to the outcome of the election in advance of the outcome being determined is epistemic, that is, if my candidate gets N+1 votes rather than N votes, his chances of winning improve. (I don’t know why you don’t understant that simple point? It seems to me that you’re thinking of a situation in which votes are tabulated sequentially, and it turn out as a tie, and then I get to make a decision given that information as to whether to vote or not. But that’s not the way voting works, by definition.)

                The other part you got backwards too. If it’s rational in general for people to free-ride on other voters because the individual contribution of voting is negligible, then rational people will in fact free ride. If so, the probability that my vote determines the outcome of the election increases.

                {{i have to say that the way you look at this problem is really mystifying to me. I can’t quite figure out the frame of reference from which you argue for the conclusions you do.}}Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                you have to decide if casting a vote for someone who more closely aligns with your views is worth the chance that someone who does not represent your views at all wins the election versus someone who shares merely a majority or plurality of your views.

                That probability is effectively zero, even if you live in a swing state.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                We allow people their moment of Fantasy, when they buy a lottery ticket.

                Fantasies are what make us human, after all.

                Still. Moment.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Which is an argument against voting in any event.Report

    • “There is simply no counterfactual that you can spin that says that President Gore would have authorized the invasion of Iraq,….”

      I can think of a counterfactual. 9/11 happens. Iraq within a year does something provocative. Rightists criticize Gore for enabling “another threat to America.” Gore responds with air strikes or maybe an invasion.

      That counterfactual is worth what you paid to read it. But it might have happened.

      I do agree, though, with this: ” A world with Pres. Gore is a world with a whole different security apparatus and a different hand at the wheel.”Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        The NSA has been trying to get nationwide data dumping since the Internet went crazy in the early 90s. Thinking the right hand on the helm is the deciding factor ignores a lot of distributed agency and power plays.

        Probably. Not certainly, though.Report

    • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

      ” A world with Pres. Gore is a world with a whole different security apparatus and a different hand at the wheel.”


      BTW, if Conor, Ethan, et al want to move the needle on drones or other issues, they might want to watch this: How to Survive a Plague. Hint, it takes a hella lot more than writing articles — it takes determination and WORK. And even then, it might not succeed — consider the mass marches against the war in Iraq; all the media saw were puppets and ANSWER.Report

  7. Avatar MBunge says:

    The problem with Conor’s and other “I can’t vote for Obama” whines is that they always frame it NOT as a tough decision with which people can disagree but as some sort of revealed truth all must accept.


    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      So I wrote this

      “Because though it might not have been clear in previous posts, I do believe that a good case can be made for why principles and moral scruples that liberals hold dear actually compel them to vote for Obama, despite some of the evil behaviors he’s engaged in.”

      And Conor stated as well that he thinks people can reasonably disagree with him…he just thinks that more people than would admit it actully don’t think Obama is a “lesser evil,” but rather not an evil at all.Report

      • Avatar Aaron says:

        I think that Friedersdorf’s hair-on-fire tone in his essay and usage of the word “evil” belie his belief that “reasonable people” can disagree with his position.Report

        • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

          He was clearly being a dishonest arse when he wrote,

          “I can respect counterarguments, especially when advanced by utilitarians who have no deal-breakers of their own.”Report

          • Avatar Aaron says:

            I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or not, but it seems dishonest to me. If he actually believes that Obama’s drone programs are such an active, moral evil that he could not countance voting for him even if that meant that Mitt Romney, who is by every measure worse (“Double Gitmo,” “Reopen the torture issue) would win, I honestly don’t see how he could respect someone else’s arguments.

            I think that the drone strikes are most likely on balance bad. Killing civilians is definitely wrong, although that certainly hasn’t stopped us from engaging in carpet bombing at a grand scale. Does Conor watch Memphis Belle with hot, salty tears of shame running down his cheeks? As has been noted before, the drone strikes are reaching in to areas that would be prohibitively difficult for us to get to and largely lack any sort of legal framework to extract people who are, in fact, actively engaged in harming the US. I find drones problematic on a number of levels, but I don’t think they rise to the level of a moral evil. More innocent people die from drunk driving in the US every year than we’ve killed with drones, but I don’t see Conor advocating for the reestablishment of the 18th Amendment.Report

  8. Avatar scott a. says:

    Drum’s dismissal of “weird counterfactuals” amused me because everything he talked about was counterfactual, ie, none of it happened. What he was really saying is that his pull it out of his ass speculations are better than other people’s. It’s like kids arguing over whose comic-book superheroes would kick each other’s ass in a fight. Entertaining, but no reason to get self-righteous or very certain about scenarios with literally thousands of different variables, most of which we only dimly understand.Report

  9. Avatar Elias Isquith says:

    As people have noted, Bush’s decision to invade Iraq did not come out-of-the-blue. And some within the Administration have subsequently implied that POTUS was angling to invade Iraq even before 9/11. So I don’t think you’re right on that.

    As to whether Nader is the reason or whether all the other reasons are the reason Bush won, I think you’re drawing a kind of distinction without a difference. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it, but this is what I mean — something like Bush winning doesn’t happen because of only ONE thing; but by the same token, any ONE thing that contributed can’t be dismissed because of all the other things. If Nader had dropped out or told his supporters in Florida to vote for Gore during the final weeks, it’s likely/possible that Gore would have won the state. Similarly, if Karl Rove hadn’t gotten totally hubristic and wasted a bunch of money in NJ in the final weeks of the campaign, it’s likely/possible that Bush would’ve won Florida. It seems to me that Nader has more agency in this situation than does Rove — in the sense that the A to B from Nader dropping out to Gore winning is closer than the equivalent involving Rove — and that it’s fair to cast significant (not total but significant) blame on Nader for Bush’s victory.

    All this said, I’d say the chances of Gore invading Iraq after 9/11 are much higher than some Dems want to admit. He was quite hawkish as VP and counts Marty Peretz as a mentor.Report

  10. Avatar Conrad says:

    Regardless of what Gore would or wouldn’t have done post-9/11, it strikes me as lazy reasoning simply to assume that America (or Iraq, for that matter) would have been better off now had the invasion of Iraq not occurred. I don’t think it is quite as simple as “war=bad, therefore GWB=bad, therefore Nader=bad, therefore 3d party candidate=bad.”

    First, absent the U.S. invasion, we would still presumably have Saddam Hussein in power and killing tens of thousands of his own citizens every year while brutally suppressing the rest. He had two equally psychotic sons in line who could have kept the regime going for another 50 years or so.

    At some point, had there been no U.S. invasion, SH’s or his successors’ grip on Iraq would probably have been challenged by some form of internal uprising. Perhaps the regime would have been toppled by Islamists or “pro-Western” reformers, or both. However, I would argue that, if and when that occurred — whether it was in 2010, 2020 or 2030 — a factional war would have ensued and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Thus, while the U.S. invasion certainly hastened the turmoil that would have naturally followed the removal or attempted removal of the Hussein regime, I don’t think it necessarily unleashed any more violence than was bound to occur at some point in the future, regardless.

    While it seems likely Gore would not have invaded Iraq, there’s similarly no reason to think he had a magic wand that could make the problem of Saddam Hussein go away and usher in a a bright and peaceful future for Iraq. Simply keeping SH in the box (the lock-box?) would have only delayed an eventual resolution of the underlying conflicts that already existed independent of the U.S. invasion.

    I also think it’s a mistake to place too much emphasis on the avoidance of war as a general proposition. If Iran explodes a nuclear device over Tel Aviv in 2014, I’m not sure that avoiding war with Iran in 2012 is going to seem like it was such a great idea. By the same token, while most of post-WWI Europe was horrified by the prospects of another war with Germany, all of the diplomatic machinations designed to avoid that outcome only made the eventual conflagration much, much worse.

    War is hell, as Sherman rightly observed. But the desire to avoid overt military action doesn’t justify allowing conditions in the world to deteriorate indefinitely. The war in Iraq brought about a lot negative consequences, but I’m not at all convinced at this point that those bad consequences necessarily outweigh what would have happened in the absence of an invasion.Report

    • Avatar Aaron says:

      Just to clarify, you’re arguing that we can’t say if the Iraq War was a giant, pointless disaster because Saddam Hussein — or his sons — might have done bad things subsequently? How can you conclude that any course of action was mistaken if you use “something else bad might happen” as your counter argument? Of course something bad might happen. That doesn’t mean that we should have engaged in obviously foolish ideas.Report

      • Avatar Conrad says:

        You can say whatever you want. What I’m saying is that I’m not convinced the war brought about, or will eventually bring about, a worse future than would have resulted if Al Gore had won the WH and not taken the U.S. into that war at that time.

        As for your second question, there are plenty of situations where I could comfortably say, “It’s bad that ‘x’ happened.” When my cat urinates on a favorite piece of furniture, I take no solace in speculating that, if she HADN’T taken the opportunity to do that, she might have impaled herself on a kitchen knife. However, I think it’s a lot more likely that SH or his sons would have “done bad things subsequently” than it is that my cat would have impaled herself on a kitchen knife.Report

        • Avatar Aaron says:

          Bad things on the order of the results of the Iraq War? I have no argument with the statement, “Saddam Hussein would have gone on to do bad things, as would have his sons.” That would be a real problem for the people of Iraq. But do you really think that the results of not invading Iraq would have be worse than more than 100,000 dead civilians and all the results of Bush’s mismanagement, from blowing huge budget holes in our finances, forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans to serve overseas to no purpose, instituting torture and all the rest of it? I find that absurd.Report

          • Avatar Conrad says:

            First, I have no difficulty whatsoever imagining that SH and his sons could have killed more than 100,000 civilians over the next 30-50 years had he not been driven from power by the U.S. and its allies. I could see a much larger number of victims over that span of time.

            As for “instituting torture,” how is that a direct consequence of the war? Seems like a different policy choice from the decision to go to war, with different set of “what ifs” to consider.

            As for “Bush’s mismanagement” of the war, I guess I’d respond the same way. I think the decision to go to war is separable from the “decision” to mismanage it. Obviously, there are always examples of bad decisions in something as complicated as a military operation, and they are fair game for criticism of the commander. But the topic was the decision to go to war in Iraq, not whether everything done under Bush’s command during the war was wise and proper.Report

            • Avatar Bob2 says:

              This is waffling by shifting the goalposts to a longer timeframe.
              Going by what we did know, the decision to go to war was brutally awful by game theory and by math. I’m guessing we have enough poker players here or sports bettors to realize just how bad the process was, and just how inefficient any ground invasion was relative to the potential gains. Soft power or limited strikes would likely have been far more effective given the limitations of an occupation, which incidentally is a word the Bush admin was desperate to scrub from existence early on by claiming we’d be gone fast. The expected outcomes that the Bush administration gave the public were far rosier than anyone in their right mind would have believed. We knew a lot even back then about likely outcomes, and they were ignored in favor of unicorns and rainbows.

              The Bush decision making process was completely flawed from the start because it was lazy.Report

              • Avatar Conrad says:

                I’m not shifting goalposts. The subject of my original post related to whether the outcome of the Iraq war, at least insofar as we can assess it at this point, was necessarily bad in relation to what would have happened (e..g., to Iraqi civilians) if we did NOT go to war. You are now talking about flaws in Bush’s decisionmaking process, which is not something I have even addressed.Report

              • Avatar Aaron says:

                Wait, when do you date the outcome of the Iraq War?Report

            • Avatar Aaron says:

              So, your argument is that the Hussein family — if left unchecked — could have killed untold numbers of people over the course of the next century, and that this is demonstrably worse than Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as long as you only consider the invasion of Iraq itself and not the bad effects that followed that initial decision?

              You seriously want credit for the deaths that the Husseins might have accumulated up until 2053, but you don’t want to consider that torture and the war’s obvious mismanagement might be baked in to the initial decision to invade?Report

              • Avatar Conrad says:

                I’m not sure it’s “demonstrably” worse because we can’t ever really know for sure. I’d say it was at least “arguably” worse and it was “quite possibly” worse based on what we know about the regime and based on the high probability that existed that violence would have broken out throughout Iraq WHENEVER the Saddam Hussein regime came to an end, whether the U.S. brought about that end or it came about through some other means.

                Bush didn’t CREATE the underlying conditions that created sectarian violence in Iraq. No question he played a large role in unleashing that violence by removing the Sunni-dominated police state that was maintaining “order ” (through persecution and state-sanctioned violence) under SH. That undoubtedly resulted in getting a lot of people killed, but it also undoubtedly (to me) prevented a lot of other people from getting killed. Removing SH also created an opportunity for Iraqis to form a better government and society for themselves, again, with a lot of mixed consequences given that some wanted peace and a civil society and others wanted violence, repression, and vengeance for historical grievances.Report

    • Avatar Aaron says:

      This is like saying, “Well, it’s a shame we burned the house down and killed the neighbors, but the furnace was old, and it might have killed us in our sleep eventually. It’s impossible to say we didn’t make the right choice.”Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith says:

      I’m going to go out on a limb in two ways:

      1. War = bad. Yep. In vanishingly rare situations, war might be the least bad option — but it’s still bad.
      2. Iraq would be better off if it hadn’t undergone half-a-decade-plus of vicious civil war that resulted in potentially upwards of 100,000 civilians dying.

      I know, I know; I’m a rebel without a cause.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        If Genghis Khan taught us nothing else, he taught us that sons, plural, is a bigger problem than you’d like to have as a sitting Ultralord.Report

      • Avatar Conrad says:

        1. “Least bad” = “best,” right?
        2. How does death/suffering under SH’s regime figure into your accounting, if at all?Report

        • Avatar Aaron says:

          I can’t answer for Elias, but I’d say that suffering under Hussein falls under the same rubric as suffering under Kim or under any other large dictatorship: manifestly not our problem, and certainly not worth inducing a viscous civil war.

          I’m not even against humanitarian peace keeping missions under limited circumstances. But Iraq under Hussein wasn’t Rwanda or even Bosnia.Report

          • Avatar Conrad says:

            Not sure I follow. You seem to be saying (or implying) that while the suffering of Iraqis under SH wasn’t our problem, suffering of Iraqis in the ensuing civil war IS our problem. To me, it’s either one or the other. The “100,000” dead Iraqui civilians is being offered up as Exhibit A for why the Iraq war = bad (not that there weren’t other bad consequences, but that seems to be the main one cited). But if Iraqi lives count for purposes of assessing why the war was bad, they should also count for purposes of assessing the degree to which the war may have saved lives.

            “But Iraq under Hussein wasn’t Rwanda or even Bosnia.”

            I agree they are different places, but other than that, what is your point?Report

            • Avatar Bob2 says:

              His point is that not everything can be our problem because we necessarily may not be able to afford it militarily, monetarily or politically. The risk/reward for invading Iraq were not in line with the likely outcomes.

              Thinking that we could construct a democracy in Iraq as a shining beacon was insane, especially at that cost, which was intentionally kept off the accounting books monetarily.

              Now I think you can weigh the pros and cons, but I doubt you’d get very far.Report

            • Avatar Aaron says:

              First, I do find that the deaths that ensued from our initial invasion are on our ledger sheet. You don’t think we bear any culpability for deaths directly linked to our invasion?

              There are certainly other bad consequences from the Iraq War: loss of revenue and infrastructure spending that could have been used in the US, torture, loss of prestige. The list is long.

              And finally, my point is that Rwanda and Bosnia were broken societies with extremely weak or non-existent legal structures to prevent active human tragedies. Iraq was a stable if immoral state under tight international control. They aren’t at all comparable. I would say I’m against most international interventions, but there are definitely some that are worse than others.Report

              • Avatar Conrad says:

                “You don’t think we bear any culpability for deaths directly linked to our invasion?” Of course I do. I never said otherwise.

                I can’t defend the monetary cost per se. It’s always cheaper, at least short-term, not to go to war than to go to war. The U.S. Civil War was a pretty expensive undertaking as well, but I don’t think the financial cost really figures that prominently in a discussion of whether it was worthwhile.

                “Loss of prestige”: I’m not sure American prestige is any higher now that the Iraq war is over.

                I don’t agree that the “torture” policy/controversy was inherently a product or component of the Iraq War. Wasn’t KSM picked up in Pakistan?

                As for comparing Iraq to Bosnia, etc.: I don’t think Iraq was under any effective, meaningful international controls in regard to internal repression.Report

    • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

      “At some point, had there been no U.S. invasion, SH’s or his successors’ grip on Iraq would probably have been challenged by some form of internal uprising.”

      This would have already happened by 2000 if Bush 1 hadn’t promised various reform factions in Iraq that we would support them, then turning a blind eye when they started to revolt. See also “Northern Alliance” in Afghanistan where we did the same thing.

      You get no points for this argument.Report

  11. Avatar Kolohe says:

    “The truth of the matter is that the political center has grown more non-interventionist in the last decade precisely because of the how horrible the Iraq invasion went”

    The political center has grown a lot more “let’s not put large numbers of American ground troops in hostile corrupt resentful dirtholes around the world”

    The political center is fine with special forces in East Africa, a combined air campaign in North Africa, and drone strikes anywhere and everywhere. The political center has not been close to appreciably ‘non-interventionist’ anytime since the center of the debate was Desert Storm vs Desert Shield Give the Sanctions more time to work.

    I agree with those above that said Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq even with 9/11. What I do see Gore doing is a combined air campaign to take out perceived WMD locations – everywhere and anywhere.Report

  12. Avatar trizzlor says:

    I see the big debate here as an argument over tactics that gets draped in a lot of moralist language. The fundamental question is: If I want my country to look more like X do I vote for any presidential candidate most similar to X or a winnable candidate most similar to X. Drum and Wright are describing an example where choosing the former made the country look more like X for a really long time. You can argue over how much more, but I think it’s indisputable that – on issues Naderites cared about (environment, tax cuts, non-interventionism) – President Gore would have moved policy more towards X than President Bush.

    One counterargument would be that the Nader vote resulted in a short-term lurch away from X but a long-term drift back to X – one step backward two steps forward. I don’t think Ethan argued this and I personally don’t see that to have been the case yet. Another counterargument would be that, historically, third-party votes have shifted policy more towards X and Nader/Gore is in the minority of exceptions. I think it would be interesting to see the history on this but I’m not aware of such a case having been made either. A third counterargument is that the Nader vote wasn’t substantial enough to have a positive effect, but if even more people continue to vote third-party then the shift will happen. While it’s hard for me to imagine an election where the third-party matters more than it did in 2000, I’m open to this argument (though it may not be provable).

    All that said, the argument presented here – that Bush and Gore aren’t that different – doesn’t really seem to address the fundamental question of how to get national policy to where we want it.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor says:

      edit: “Drum and Wright are describing an example where choosing the former made the country look less like X for a really long time.”Report

  13. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    “Even if you assume that Al Gore would have passed the Patriot Act; and invaded Afghanistan; and given the NSA free rein to engage in wholesale amounts of warrantless surveillance; and approved the torture of enemy combatants — even if you assume all that, do you think we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been president? That didn’t just happen, after all.”

    I’ve watched Al Gore over the years. Always thought the man was too intelligent by half. If we must indulge in Armchair General-ing, Gore very well might have gone after Saddam.
    Let’s set the Wayback Machine to 2000. Since the first Gulf War, the USA had maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf. Both Bush the Wiser and Bill Clinton were obliged to give Saddam a beating every few weeks. In the north, the No Fly Zone was producing results: Operation Provide Comfort had methodically pushed the Iraqi Army out of Kurdish areas.

    OPC followed one of Sun Tzu’s maxims: never attack an enemy returning home. The OPC troops would always leave a way out for the Iraqi Army and they always took it. Both Bush the Wiser and Bill Clinton always gave their commanders simple objectives and left the details to them.

    Knowing what I do about Al Gore, I feel sure he would have done something about Saddam. It wouldn’t look like a full scale invasion. It would look more like Clinton’s war in the Balkans. Politicians understand politics. Warfighters understand war. Bush the Dumber never Got It. When Bush did overthrow the Saddam regime, he put in political flunkies where he needed warriors. Which isn’t to say Gore would have Gotten It. But it does seem congruent with how Democrats have always thought about war, going back a very long time.

    The great failing of the GOP and its fawning praise for the US military arises from the fact that so few of them actually served. They never really understood brushfire wars, going back to the era of Eisenhower, another guy who put in political flunkies where he needed warriors: cases in point, Iran and Guatemala and half a dozen other coups. Democrats, going back to LBJ and his mentor FDR, don’t necessarily view war as politics by other means, a-la Clausewitz, but there is a strong sense of political warfare in their approach to these conflicts, one lacking in the GOP.

    This is not to praise Al Gore or the Democrats. The Democrats have their own blind spots: the conflict in SE Asia was fundamentally a civil war and they never got it. The point is this: Al Gore might very well have driven Saddam from power: we’d tried to contain Saddam for a very long time and everyone was sick of it, even the Democrats. Something would have given after 9/11 and I’m pretty sure President Gore wouldn’t have tolerated the status-quo ante in Iraq as he went after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.Report

    • Avatar Aaron says:

      Do you have anything to justify this view other than “I don’t like Al Gore”? Because it took the Bush Administration — who came in packed to the rafters with people who had a stated policy preference for invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein a year of marketing, goal post-shifting, outting CIA agents and outright lying to get us into a war with Iraq. What on earth makes you think Al Gore would do the same, other than your pop psychologizing about “armchair generals”?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Would my involvement in Operation Provide Comfort have any relevance to my Pop Psychologising? Al Gore was part and parcel of Clinton’s decision to act in the Balkans and Kosovo. Clinton had his Shock and Awe moment lifting the siege of Sarajevo. He waited for well over a year before inserting the First Infantry Division as peacekeepers. Kosovo, same story. There was no bright line between Clinton’s politics and his warmaking. Nor is there such a bright line in Barack Obama’s warmaking.

        Bush the Dumber was motivated by revenge for the assassination attempt on his father. He listened to Stupid Persons. Saddam could and should have been removed by other means. The USA had been trying to contain Saddam for decades. The Congress had already passed a bipartisan resolution to the effect Saddam had to go, during the era of Clinton.

        As it happens, not that it’s germane to this discussion, I do like Al Gore. Bright guy. A visionary. I’ve watched him traverse the political spectrum over the many long years he served in government.

        As for what on earth leads me to believe Al Gore would have done the same thing, I specifically said Al Gore would not have done the same thing. Do us both a favour and read what I actually wrote.Report

        • Avatar Aaron says:

          Ah, sorry, I guess I didn’t read your post closely enough, such as your bits of fulsome praise for Gore, like “I’ve watched Al Gore over the years. Always thought the man was too intelligent by half,” and your statements about how Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, such as “If we must indulge in Armchair General-ing, Gore very well might have gone after Saddam” and “Knowing what I do about Al Gore, I feel sure he would have done something about Saddam” and “Al Gore might very well have driven Saddam from power: we’d tried to contain Saddam for a very long time and everyone was sick of it, even the Democrats. Something would have given after 9/11 and I’m pretty sure President Gore wouldn’t have tolerated the status-quo ante in Iraq as he went after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

          My mistake.

          Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Everyone knew that. Invading Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or Afghanistan, which is why the Bush Administration spent a year making shit up about Weapons of Mass Destruction, Hussein collaborating with Al Qaeda and all the rest of it. The argument we’re having is “Would Al Gore have invaded Iraq,” not “Would Al Gore have maintained the UN sanctioned no-fly-zones of Iraq?”Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            I have no idea how old you were in 1982, when Ronald Reagan removed Saddam’s Iraq from the list of terrorist supporting states and began to sell heavy weapons to his regime.

            I’m guessing you weren’t even born when Eisenhower overthrew Mossadegh and installed the Shah.

            Let’s just put it this way, eh? America’s got a bad case of anterograde amnesia and it afflicts Liberals quite as much as Conservatives. Every time we play Fuck-Fuck with these countries, and we do it all the time, it’s as if we have no recollection of how these interventions went down. Well, Aaron, let me be a clue to the clueless: there is a pattern. The GOP likes quick, brutal, military interventions with very little political thought put into their wars. The Democrats go the other way, Much Talk and a Few Good Whacks. You can sort ’em out like that going back a century.

            So when I say Gore would have intervened in Iraq, not because of 9/11, but because he’d been there for both terms of Bill Clinton’s presidency, with the No Fly Zone and Oil for Palaces and Saddam’s evil sons on the rise, I think I know what I’m talking about. That sort of thing always annoys Democrats. They just respond differently than Republicans.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              Do you think it would have been Wes Clark after Saddam’s ass?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                That’s hard to say. Here’s what guides my thinking: the last few years of Clinton’s presidency featured Operation Northern Watch and Operation Desert Fox, which was no joke when it went down in 1998. Clinton’s critics derided it as Wag the Dog, as they also did when Clinton went after OBL with cruise missiles. Clinton had signed the Iraq Liberation Act which had passed with near-unanimous consent.

                I don’t know who would have commanded Gore’s War. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been Wes Clark. The military’s bowels were in an uproar at that point, Clark had been shoved out of power, largely at the instigation of that petty jackass Hugh Shelton. I have no idea who Al Gore would have put in as SecDef but based on his stupid backing of the Clipper Chip, I have every reason to believe he would have imposed something like the PATRIOT Act.Report

            • Avatar Aaron says:

              You mean Gore would have maintained policy continuity with the previous administration of his party — in fact, an administration he himself had been a part of? Truly, your advance years do indeed give you unrivaled powers of prognostication!

              I guess I was confused by the fact that you headed your initial comment with a quote stating that Gore would not, in fact, have invaded Iraq by saying that Gore would have intervened in Iraq — just not invaded (although he would have driven Hussein from power in some unspecified fashion. Possibly with a cruise missile ride?). I apologize. What that has to do with the argument at hand, though, feel free to enlighten me.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I’ll say what I mean. You can infer what you wish. Yes, I believe Gore would have continued many of the Clinton era policies. But with a twist: Gore was a technocrat where Clinton was not. Gore’s War would have been a deeply weird thing to behold and I don’t think the military would have been in charge. He would probably have turned the CIA and the Kurds loose on Saddam, Gore was one imaginative bastard in his heyday.

                My long years have shown me a pattern or two, yes they have. Churchill once said Jaw-Jaw is always better than War-War. The Democrats are mostly Jaw-Jaw and the Republicans are mostly War-War. Downsides to both approaches: war is proof the politicians aren’t doing their jobs, so I guess I take the Jaw-Jaw approach.Report

  14. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    What everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, fails to ask in this discussion is the following:

    What if Al Gore was a looper?Report