September 17, 2007

What Would Have Been?

Hatched by Dafydd

One of the most difficult kinds of science fiction to write well is the alternative history... which, by a genre convention I'll follow, will henceforth be called "alternate history," or simply alt-hist.

It's not acceptable simply to fantasize wildly about what could have happened had the Spartan 300 been given Star-Trek phasers or had George Washington been born a girl ("She would have led a Womyn's revolution and become the first female president of the United Feminist States of America!") The proper name for that activity is not alternate history but day dreaming.

Rather, one must begin from at least a reasonably good grasp of history (without knowing so much that one simply cannot imagine it going any differently) and proceed by logical extrapolation from a strict and appropriate ruleset of inference. Thus, had President William McKinley survived his assassination attempt (a very plausible scenario, as he lingered for eight days before sucumbing to gangrene), that might have had significant ramifications, as Theodore Roosevelt might never have become president. But if Andrew Johnson had been impeached, it likely wouldn't have changed anything significant: He was nearly powerless to stop the abuses of Reconstruction anyway; it would have made little difference whether he was president or not.

However, the cardinal sin is to consider only the bad or good effects of your alt-hist -- and not the other side of the ledger. Alas, that is precisely the solecism committed by Bob Herbert in his New York Times column Saturday, "the Nightmare Is Here"... and he wasn't even aware he was writing alt-hist! (The column is hidden behind the "TimeSelect" iron curtain; the link is to TruthOut's reposting.)

Herbert can only see the bad things that have arisen from the invasion of Iraq and deposing of Saddam Hussein; he cannot, for the life of him, imagine what would have been, had we not intervened. In this, he replicates the failing of the vast majority of anti-war agit-prop churned out, not only by the drive-by media (in particular, the New York Times), but also by activists, Democratic elected officials, and even limp-wristed RINOs looking for way to ingratiate themselves to their liberal constituents while not infuriating their conservative ones. Herbert cannot seem to visualize the horrific things that might have, probably would have happened, had Powell won out over Cheney in 2003:

When the U.S. launched its "shock and awe" invasion in March 2003, the population of Iraq was about 26 million. The flaming horror unleashed by the invasion has since forced 2.2 million of those Iraqis, nearly a tenth of the population, to flee the country. Many of those who left were professionals marked for death - doctors, lawyers, academics, the very people with the skills necessary to build a viable society....

While more than two million Iraqis have fled to other countries, another two million have been displaced internally.

All right; let's suppose that's true. But how many had to flee under Hussein? How many were arrested, tortured, maimed, or sent into internal exile, such as the Marsh Arabs who used to live around the Great Salt Marsh until Hussein drained the wetlands and expelled them to make room for his Palestinian imports?

And those "professionals marked for death"... were any, by chance, Baathist oppressors and war-crimes collaborators? Must we weep for the forced flight of those who, were it within their power, would still be living as lords among slaves?

The worst aspect of the nightmare, of course, is the rain of death that has descended on Iraq since the U.S. invasion. Controversy has surrounded virtually all attempts to estimate the number of civilian casualties, but no one disputes that the toll is staggering.

The U.S. government has behaved as though these dead Iraqis were not even worth counting. In December 2005, President Bush casually mentioned "30,000, more or less" as the number of Iraqis killed in the war. The White House later said there were no official estimates of Iraqi deaths.

Herbert believes the correct number is somewhere north of 100,000. But how many were murdered by Saddam Hussein during his tenure? Most estimate at least one million over ten years, or 100,000 per year -- or an Iraq "nightmare" every year for a decade. How many would have been killed if Hussein's thirst for blood had not been stifled? By now, about 450,000, more than four times even the expansive, unsourced guesstimate Herbert offers for the number who have been killed by terrorist attack or sectarian strife since March 2003.

But this is only a naive, first cut at the alt-hist of us not invading Iraq, thus allowing Saddam Hussein to continue wielding the iron fist inside the iron glove. Herbert must suppose, in his own alternative, that Hussein's close shave will cause him to turn over a new leaf, to reform, to become a democrat (it would be snarky to suggest he was already a Democrat). To count every killing against President Bush in the cosmic ledger book while not counting any saved lives to his credit can only mean that Herbert believes that there would have been no more massacres, no more war crimes, no more crimes against Humanity committed by Hussein, his venomous offspring, or the Baath Party he led -- if only we hadn't invaded.

Let's look instead at another alternate history, one with, I think, the greater plausibility that results from assuming no 180-degree character evolution. Assuming the principals more or less act as they have in the past, what is the most likely sequence of events if, in the end, Bush could not pull the trigger? Consider the following and ask which sounds more plausible... the implied "good ship Lollipop" plot of Herbert's alternate history, or this:

  1. Saddam Hussein continues his murderous ways, committing several more massacres on the scale of those he carried out against Kurds and Shia before; thus, more hundreds of thousands, or even millions, are slaughtered;
  2. The Europeans continue their cheating on the Oil for Food program, continue accepting bribes from Hussein, and ultimately (as was the trajectory in 2003) eliminate the sanctions entirely -- either de jure, by forcing America to accept the "new way," or at least de facto, by refusing to abide by them; so Hussein gets billions upon billions of petrodollars poured into his pockets, to use as pleases him;
  3. Contacts between Hussein and al-Qaeda continue, accelerate, and eventually ripen into fully funded, well-planned and trained, and heavily armed attacks upon their joint enemies: the United States and Israel;
  4. At last, unwilling to wait longer for his patrimony, either Uday or Qusay Hussein (or both) assassinate the over-long-lived father. The brothers fall short of brotherly love and fall out with each other, throwing Iraq into a real civil war -- not the ersatz variety of gangland slayings that we saw with some regularity in 2005 and 2006. As in a real civil war, both sides field armies. The slaughter is extreme -- even for Arabs.
  5. Growing restive at the loss (a scant thousand years ago) of the Persian empire, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sees his opportunity: Iran invades southern Iraq.
  6. Growing tired of being brutalized, the Kurds see their opportunity and declare independence; immediately, the Kurds in Iran and Turkey follow suit, declaring the independent nation of Kurdistan.
  7. Reacting to the foregoing -- both the Iranian invasion and the Kurish separatism -- Turkey invades northern Iraq.
  8. We now have a five-way gang bang in the heart of the Middle East: Uday vs. Qusay vs. Iran vs. the Kurds vs. Turkey, with al-Qaeda circling above like vultures, waiting to build a perch of blood to hatch their nefarious schemes.
  9. Can Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, France, the United States, the UAE, Qatar, Libya, and Sudan be far behind?

I say that my "mega-mare" is at least as plausible as the "lark's on the wing, snail's on the thorn" alternate history of Bob Herbert. And mine would be so catastrophic that it dwarfs the paltry problems we've had in Iraq.

I don't know about you guys, but the more I think about what would (likely) have been, the gladder I am that we took the plunge. And all because of a scant 537 votes in Florida. Say... now there's nightmarish alternate history for you!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 17, 2007, at the time of 12:58 AM

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The following hissed in response by: Terrye


I agree. For the life of me I do not understand why people think that Saddam would have stopped being Saddam if only we had let him alone. He was enough of a threat throughout the 90's that the previous administration felt the need to bird dog him, if he was such an innocent lamb...why not turn him loose?

The answer is obvious, Saddam was a menace.

The above hissed in response by: Terrye [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2007 3:08 AM

The following hissed in response by: David M

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/17/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

The above hissed in response by: David M [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2007 8:22 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

You forgot one thing.

Once the sanctions fell, Saddam would begin again pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps the bomb might be out of reach, but he already and chemical weapons and biological agents.

Imagine the same scenarios as you've painted with WMD in the mix. Perhaps a WMD supply line to Al Queda.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2007 8:53 AM

The following hissed in response by: F. N. Owl

One of the major objectives of the terror attacks on the US and US interests, was to provoke the US to fight on the terrorist's home turf, in the expectation that this would drive people, organizations and even countries into the terrorists' arms. When previous attacks failed to provoke the US enough, bigger attacks were attempted. Had the US not responded after September 11, would the terrorists have given up?

This was the key question on September 12. If the answer was "No, they will attempt even bigger attacks," you have one set of followup questions and options. If the answer is "Yes, this is as far as they can or will go," you have another set. The Administration's policies are based on the first answer. The critics implicitly assume the second. Hence the two groups talk past each other, because they are talking about different alternative histories.

The above hissed in response by: F. N. Owl [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2007 1:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: phil g

Per F. N. Owl's post: in the reality of imperfect information and understandably low level of confidence in our intelligence data, it seems that the most prudent course of action for those sworn to the protection of the citizens of the United States is to mount a pro-active, forward action. Hoping that 9/11 was all they had and it would all blow over was/is not an option for those sworn to duty. No action is always the preferred choice for all those 'men without chests' that permiate that chattering class.

The above hissed in response by: phil g [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 18, 2007 7:56 AM

The following hissed in response by: eliXelx

Here is my own version of a scene in alt/hist.

After Saddam dies peacefully in his bed at the ripe old age of 90 having made 6 more attempts on the lives of American Presidents, Scudded Kuwait and Israel twice more, and given billions of dollars and suitcase nukes to at least a dozen blonde blue-eyed suicide bombers--fortunately only the one sent to the linguistics department at MIT made it through! as The UN stood by wringing its collective blood-soaked hands a la Darfur!--the hapless Iraqis come to Uday and Kusay and beg them to ease off on the slaughter and slavery practiced by their old man.
To which plea Uday replies:
"My father beat you with with whips; I will whip you with scorpions."(apologies to the book of KINGS)
Never ever forget, gentle people, that George Bush didn't take out one big devil--he took out three!
And someday there will be a statue of GWB in the main square in a democratic Iraq!
Now that's alt/hist!

The above hissed in response by: eliXelx [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 19, 2007 3:02 PM

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