May 22, 2003

Are We Safer? Stephen Cohen Hasn't a Clue

Well, to contradict myself, here's another passing item to comment upon. In defense, I need to quote Walt Whitman "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

In this case, The Nation made me do it. You see, I get this email letter from them every so often, and the one about Stephen Cohen's Are We Safer? mentioned how "thoughtful" people opposed the war. Katrina van den Heuvel may be many things, but thoughtful ain't one of them. "Attack dog" and "peevish" spring to mind. And the implication that "thoughtful" people couldn't support the war just rubbed me the wrong way.

Anyway, Cohen presents an eminently debunkable thesis. He recites some questions post-Iraq that he calls "measurable" criteria. Apparently Cohen has already set up an "alternate" Earth in which the Iraq war didn't take place and that we can use as a control so we can "measure" the consequences.

Would that the world worked that way. In fact, what would have happened if we had or hadn't done some course of action is more unknowable than even predictions of what "will" happen given our chosen course of action, since history eventually gives us some perspective on what "did" happen. "If I had driven to work this morning instead of taking the subway, I would have paid $20 for parking." Sure. But "... I would have met Bill Clinton and joined his staff." Possible? Yes. Likely? Not remotely.

I'm surprised that a historian doesn't grasp this fundamental reality of the world when he talks about "measurable" criteria.

Just a couple of glosses:

(3) Will the war, and the long US occupation that is likely to ensue, reduce the recruitment of young Arabs by terrorist movements or will it inspire many new recruits? The subsequent suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco suggest that the latter result will be the case.

How so? Anyone? You mean the crazies in the Arab world had all settled down to productive careers and have now dropped them to go on jihad? The problems in that part of the world seem to be fairly intractable and out of control of any world events.

(4) With or without more recruits, will the war decrease or increase the number of terrorist plots against the United States, whether at home or abroad?

Whaddaya mean "without"? I thought you just inferred that "with" was the case? I suppose that the previously "unknown" (and unknowable) number of plots against the US has now increased exponentially. Hence, x has now been raised to x^y, with y the "unknown" exponent. OK, so if x was 1, then any number of y is still 1. (Since Cohen holds out the possibility of a decrease in the number of plots, y may be negative.) Again, this is something that is far from a "measurable" outcome.

(7) Finally, considering the rampant anti-Americanism it has provoked, will the war result in more or fewer governments willing to cooperate with — individually or in multinational organizations like the United Nations — George W. Bush's stated top priority, the war against global terrorism? During the weeks since the military campaign ended, anti-American sentiments have continued to grow, from the Middle East to Western Europe, and the United Nations remains profoundly divided by the US war and its ugly aftermath in Iraq.

Anti-americanism was big before Iraq (and Bush), it will be big after Iraq (and Bush). Saying that the US has some responsibility to ignore its security needs to kowtow to world sentiment may verge on delusion. The United Nations, formed in the wake of the totalitarian ventures of the early 20th century seems singularly unadapted to dealing with the totalitarian ventures of the 21st.

You see, Steven, that's how institutions are supposed to evolve — by adapting to new situations on the ground. Maybe you spent so much time trying to shore up the old Marxists of Moscow and were so very surprised when their inflexible structure snapped and collapsed. You still haven't learned from that lesson.

Posted by campbell at May 22, 2003 12:47 AM | TrackBack