When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

July 02, 2004

Hindsight Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Bravo Romeo Delta

On both sides of the fence, there’s more than a small smidgen of historical revisionism. Generally, this revisionism is not willful, so much as a case of post facto projection. For example, in all the recent talk about whether or not Reagan was responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union, we end up with two (among many) flavors of discourse on the subject. On one side, there is a group of folks who, to this day, will maintain that had Carter been re-elected, Soviet tank commanders would be drinking beer in occupied Bonn, while Mexican insurgents were conducting guerilla raids across the Rio Grande into El Paso. Conversely, there are those who will argue that the Soviet Union was in such dire straights that the only thing that kept them afloat through the 80s was the specter of American imperialism: had Carter been re-elected and had we been conciliatory, the wall would have fallen in 1982 as a crumbling Soviet economy came to its inevitable end.

Obviously both arguments are exaggerations, but their less histrionic cousins highlight one of the fundamental problems of analyzing public policy. As fond as people are of the saying that hindsight is 20/20, we are still forced to view the past through the same lenses that color our perception today.

So, faced with the notion that we cannot absolutely rely on our understanding of past and present events to be a flawless guide to the world at large, what can we do?

Well, to look at a smaller subset of events, if we compare intentions to actions carried out, one notes that the folks who say that they will not rest until, let’s say, Group X is completely annihilated sometimes really do mean that. More specifically, if a group says that they’ll do something (which to your mind is utterly irrational) sometimes they really do mean it. In the effort to avoid being banal, let me give you an example. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was more than a little bit of an inkling that nuclear war was quite likely. The American view was informed, in great part, by intelligence they had received indicating that the missiles were unarmed, but that the Soviets were shipping some 20 warheads to Cuba. The American thinking was that this would represent a sufficient existential threat that all measures in response should be kept open.

Many decades later, when Robert McNamara met with Fidel Castro to look into the deeper historical lessons of the crisis, he asked him three questions: 1) Did you know if the Russians had nuclear warheads in Cuba? 2) If so, would you have counseled Khrushchev to use nuclear weapons in response to an American attack? 3) Would you have still done so even if you knew it would result in the total destruction of Cuba?

Castro evidently was a bit irate at this line of questioning. He responded that at the time of the crisis, he knew there were 167 nuclear weapons in Cuba (90 of them were tactical weapons). Moreover, he had adamantly recommended the use of nuclear weapons to Khrushchev. Above and beyond that, he would have still fought for their use even in the face of the certain destruction of Cuba. (His response to McNamara’s shock was along the lines that ‘You would have done the same thing too.’) [ed: And before you answer that too early, think about whether or not you’d rather see the US under Sharia]

On the other hand, we look at a counter example of secession in the United States. During the 70s, a group of folks declared that a big block of the heavily African-American Deep South should withdraw from the Union. The area, if I remember correctly, included states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. These folks even went so far as to issue a formal declaration of secession. Now before one reflexively dismisses this claim, look at the example of the Civil War and the nearly automatic reaction we have to such claims now. These people were ignored and their claims dismissed. Now, to avoid overstretching the analogy, I do not suggest that such a movement was feasible or viable, regardless of the intent of the activists.

The parallel that I draw between these two sets of events is that sometimes when another entity makes a threat, it occasionally is a much more serious threat than you could possibly imagine, while at other times, it is simply whistling in the dark.

You may wonder why it is that I am devoting this much verbiage to what is, at the end of the day, an essentially pedestrian point.

The underlying thing is this: absent information about whether or not a threat is valid, or even useful historical perspective about whether or not such a threat is real, how do you respond to this array of vague and baffling threats to you?

Now, one might note that the general tendency of the Left™ is to assume that the threats are simply hot air, and that the people issuing the threats can be reasoned with, ignored, or can otherwise be dealt with without using organized violence. On some level, these folks view the world as being full of people who are, on some level, just like you and me - people who are amenable to conflict resolution and susceptible to negotiation.

The opposite tendency on the Right™ is to look at the world from a much more Hobbesian perspective, that the world is predatory, venal, and mercenary. While not all verbalized threats are to be taken seriously, it’s better to admit that “There’s no way to be sure, we’ll just have to nuke the site from orbit.” This killer take all perspective is, at the least, a very harsh approach.

Without getting into a lot of the implications, tangents, and various and sundry mechanics of these differing worldviews, let’s flash forward to the present. As has been said many, many times before, this election will be fundamentally between those who understand the noises made by Islamofascists as being serious and viable threats, while other folks will tend to hear those same noises as the rants of those who are fairly similar to folks like you and me, but just disenfranchised. The yammerings of the Islamic extremists are simply the screams of the truly excluded which can be hushed by inclusion into a kinder, softer world.

Absent a hard and fast way to prove the issue, we are compelled to guess. And I have no go mechanism for divining these choices. The only reliable way I can figure to parse such dilemmas is to note that if you disregard the threats, which of them will become lethal? If we had continued to disregard Al Qaeda, the potential cost is enormous. If we, on the other hand, had started carpet bombing every vocally violent opposition group, then the nightmare at Waco would have been a mere appetizer to the relentless carnage that would result in trying to quell all threats. But which ugly choice would you rather live with decades down the road? A failure to disregard an existential threat, or something that made it difficult to look at yourself in the mirror each day?

For my part, I don’t note a lot of people losing sleep over the firebombing of major Japanese cities during World War II (which resulted in the death of 50-90% of civilians in the largest 67 Japanese cities), but I do imagine that there are a lot of folks in Washington who lose a fair amount of sleep over not being nearly aggressive enough in their assault on Islamofascism prior to 9/11.

There are no easy answers to this war folks, only an array of less bad choices.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at July 2, 2004 07:13 PM

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