Monday, March 20, 2006

The Iraq War and "What if...?"

Michael Barone points to a couple excercises in counterfactual history by the American Enterprise Institute and by Gerard Baker. The not-surprising conclusions drawn by each support the argument that Iraq is better off because of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Barone also points out that recent polling has indicated that the American people continue to look at the Iraq War as a positive for both the Iraqi people and for U.S. national (and world) security. The use of counterfactuals as a historical analytic tool is and has been up for debate. They may be no more accurate than Gateway Pundit's list of incorrect Iraq War predictions .

These two types of speculation--predictions about the outcome of a particular decision or event and predictions of the possible outcome of viable alternative(s)--are similar but also different in a key aspect. Predictions made about the outcome of the "road taken" can eventually be confirmed or proven incorrect. Predictions about the "road not taken" will always remain speculative. Simply put, counterfactuals never have to face the facts. Nonetheless, I think that conterfactuals can help the historian analyze the "why" of why a person or group made a particular decision at a particular time. The key to the plausibility of the counterfactual argument is the degree to which the speculator is familiar with both the decision maker(s) and the context in which the decision was made. Thus, just like in other historical (or political) writing, the "believability factor" gets back to the veracity and bias of the counterfactualist.

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