One of my favorite books is Virtual History, a somewhat dry but entertaining book containing a series of essays by noted British historians who flesh out counterfactual scenarios for several historical events. I love these “what if” books because, as the editor of Virtual History, Niall Ferguson, points out in introducing the essays, counterfactualism attempts to destroy the notion that history is a deterministic enterprise, that changing a few events or the absence of some giant personality could very well alter the way a specific historical event turned out, thus affecting the unfolding of a future timeline.
I guess serious historians are less enthusiastic about counterfactuals, but for me it is comforting to think that humans have some control over their own destiny after all.
For generations, novelists — especially science fiction writers — have had a field day with these kinds of alternate history scenarios. The most prolific writer of this genre by far has been Harry Turtledove, whose inventive mind has conjured up alternate histories involving the south winning the civil war, the American revolution never happening, and the Nazis winning World War II.
Now Senator Barack Obama has his own entry in the alternate history universe. Apparently, the Democratic nominee for president isn’t satisfied with promulgating linear history to explain his position on Iraq. Instead, he has hit upon the novel notion that by substituting “what if” questions and extrapolating a new timeline, he can have his cake and eat it too with the voter.
For instance, Obama asks, “What if instead of saying this in January, 2007 …”:
We cannot impose a military solution on what has effectively become a civil war. And until we acknowledge that reality, uh, we can send 15,000 more troops; 20,000 more troops; 30,000 more troops. Uh, I don’t know any, uh, expert on the region or any military officer that I’ve spoken to, uh, privately that believes that that is gonna make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground.
“I had said this?”: (January 5, 2008, at a Democratic debate)
I had no doubt, and I said when I opposed the surge, that given how wonderfully our troops perform, if we place 30,000 more troops in there, then we would see an improvement in the security situation and we would see a reduction in the violence.
Obviously, Obama’s “what if” question in this instance would have saved him from charges of either flip-flopping or not knowing what he’s talking about.
Similarly, what if instead of saying this on November 11, 2007:
Finally, in 2006-2007, we started to see that, even after an election, George Bush continued to want to pursue a course that didn’t withdraw troops from Iraq but actually doubled them and initiated a surge and at that stage I said very clearly, not only have we not seen improvements, but we’re actually worsening, potentially, a situation there.
He actually said what he wrote in the New York Times on Monday, July 16:
In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected al-Qaeda — greatly weakening its effectiveness.
By positing a counterfactual explanation of history for his flip-flops, Obama can be held blameless. This is especially true if you not only seek to alter what you said, but scrub the historical record by eliminating all vestiges of the offending statements which would give rise to the charges in the first place.
This is a favorite literary device of science fiction writers who employ the well-known time travel paradox that begs the question if you went back in time and murdered your father, how could you be born? Obama’s answer to the paradox is to kill the father and then be miraculously reborn as if dad had never existed:
Barack Obama’s campaign scrubbed his presidential Web site over the weekend to remove criticism of the U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq, the Daily News has learned.
The presumed Democratic nominee replaced his Iraq issue Web page, which had described the surge as a “problem” that had barely reduced violence.
“The surge is not working,” Obama’s old plan stated, citing a lack of Iraqi political cooperation but crediting Sunni sheiks — not U.S. military muscle — for quelling violence in Anbar Province.
The News reported Sunday that insurgent attacks have fallen to the fewest since March 2004.
Obama’s campaign posted a new Iraq plan Sunday night, which cites an “improved security situation” paid for with the blood of U.S. troops since the surge began in February 2007.
It praises G.I.s’ “hard work, improved counterinsurgency tactics, and enormous sacrifice.”
Campaign aide Wendy Morigi said Obama is “not softening his criticism of the surge. We regularly update the Web site to reflect changes in current events.”
It would appear that Ms. Morigi is not only including “changes in current events” as criteria for wiping away history but also “changes of mind” by the candidate as a reason to scrub the website.
We all know that politicians are slippery critters and pinning them down on any issue is likely to make one wish they were wrestling with an electric eel than a candidate for president. But Obama’s extraordinary gumption is what separates him from ordinary politicians and elevates him to flip-flop superstardom. For the last fortnight, the candidate has issued a dizzying series of statements on his Iraq policy that have served to confuse the press, his supporters, his opponents, and hopefully our enemies in Iraq.
In his speech on national security delivered today in Washington, Obama finally tried to stop the merry-go-round and clarify a few things:
At some point, a judgment must be made. Iraq is not going to be a perfect place, and we don’t have unlimited resources to try to make it one. We are not going to kill every al-Qaeda sympathizer, eliminate every trace of Iranian influence, or stand up a flawless democracy before we leave — General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker acknowledged this to me when they testified last April. That is why the accusation of surrender is false rhetoric used to justify a failed policy.
In fact, true success in Iraq — victory in Iraq — will not take place in a surrender ceremony where an enemy lays down their arms. True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future — a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al-Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge. That is an achievable goal if we pursue a comprehensive plan to press the Iraqis to stand up.
I would like to point out a few uncomfortable facts for Mr. Obama. As he speaks of “success” and even “victory” in Iraq, his own party has already given in to defeat as both the speaker of the House and Senate majority leader pronounced the war “lost” months ago. The overwhelming majority of Democrats see this war as lost and a failure. Obama himself saw the war as “a complete failure” last summer at the exact same time he was calling the surge a “failure” and agitating for an “immediate withdrawal” from Iraq. He made no mention of consulting with our generals, or the Iraqi government, or anyone else:
“Let me be clear: There is no military solution in Iraq and there never was,” Obama said in excerpts of the speech provided to the Associated Press.
“The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year — now,” the Illinois senator says.
Sounds pretty clear to me. But then, I guess I don’t quite have the knack of this counterfactual stuff because this is what he said on Tuesday:
To achieve that success, I will give our military a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war. Let me be clear: we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 — one year after Iraqi Security Forces will be prepared to stand up; two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, we’ll keep a residual force to perform specific missions in Iraq: targeting any remnants of Al-Qaeda; protecting our service members and diplomats; and training and supporting Iraq’s Security Forces, so long as the Iraqis make political progress.
We will make tactical adjustments as we implement this strategy — that is what any responsible commander-in-chief must do. As I have consistently said, I will consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government. We will redeploy from secure areas first and volatile areas later. We will commit $2 billion to a meaningful international effort to support the more than 4 million displaced Iraqis. We will forge a new coalition to support Iraq’s future — one that includes all of Iraq’s neighbors, and also the United Nations, the World Bank, and the European Union — because we all have a stake in stability. And we will make it clear that the United States seeks no permanent bases in Iraq.
What if Obama had talked of “victory” and “tactical adjustments” and “consulting generals” during the primary campaign? Sure is a far cry from “immediate withdrawal,” although perhaps he meant he would withdraw the troops immediately after we felt we had achieved victory? I daresay if he had breathed the word “victory” during his contest with Hillary Clinton, he would have been hooted off the stage.
As for the rest, in his plan there is precious little daylight between his policy and that of John McCain or the administration’s current policy. They too will follow the recommendations of the military for drawing down troops in Iraq and do it in consultation with the Iraqi government. They also would allow for tactical adjustments to any plan and keep a residual force in Iraq for training purposes. The issue of a “permanent base” will rest on where are you going to keep this “residual force” of Americans? Would Obama stick them out in the middle of the desert and have them roam around like Bedouins? Obviously, some kind of base or bases will be established where our troops will be for several years, if not longer.
Then what’s the difference between the two plans? Ben Smith of Politico notices that the debate is not really about Iraq at all:
There’s a strikingly backward-looking element to the politics of this: Obama is attacking McCain for his judgment in supporting the war, McCain is attacking Obama for his judgment in opposing the surge.
But while [they] differ on how fast, and how many, American troops will depart, the heart of their argument seems to be retrospective, turning Iraq into a debate over character and judgment as much as policy.
“Character and judgment?” Both candidates have demonstrated a singular inability to stay constant on many of their policy positions. But for Obama, coming from as far left as any candidate for president since George McGovern in 1972 and now lurching toward the center, it is perhaps just a bit more obvious that his stated positions during the primary, when he felt it necessary to pander to his far-left base, have undergone a radical change.
McGovern did not move much toward the center in his bid for the presidency and was slaughtered. It is evident from the evolving nature of Obama’s Iraq policy, and his embrace of alternate history to obscure his original position, that the candidate is bound and determined to avoid a similar fate.