The Art of the Possible

Jonah G., on the question of whether we should have taken down the Soviets circa 1947, instead of wimping out, Kennan-style, and reconciling ourselves to two generations of enervating containment:

Before one engages the question of what was possible, it makes sense — and is very clarifying — to address the question of what was most desirable. And on this score, it seems to me any realistic examination of costs and benefits would find that it would have been far more preferable to take care of the Soviets at the time. It would have saved lives, reduced misery, unleashed prosperity, diminished fear and improved the lives of millions if not billions of people for two or more generations in innumerable ways. Contrafactuals are often childish because we never know what resides behind curtain number 2 when we retroactively decide we shouldn't have opted for curtain number 1. But, it doesn't seem unreasonable to say that if we'd forced regime change on the Soviet Union in, say, 1946, that there would have been no Vietnam and, perhaps, no Korean War and no permanently Red China (which alone would have reduced the pile of 20th century corpses considerably). Eastern Europe would not have been immiserated and enslaved. While the space program would have suffered without the Space Race, it seems a sure bet that the net gain of liberated human genius would more than have compensated for that.

The reason this is important is that there seem to be lots of people who think the Cold War was not merely the best we could get, but the ideal policy option period. It wasn't. The Cold War consensus agreed to kick the can down the road for half a century, leaving open all sorts of terrible possibilities regime change would have foreclosed. It maintained a balance of terror, and wrote-off millions of decent freedom-loving people to economic misery and political tyranny and warped our own politics and economy in not entirely healthy ways.

I certainly don't disagree that the Cold War was very, very bad for America in myriad ways, but I’m skeptical about Jonah’s formulation that we should always address the question of what’s “most desirable” before engaging the question of what’s actually possible. Yes, considering the ideal outcome can be clarifying in some cases, but it’s just as likely to degenerate into an exercise in fantasy politics. Of course it would have been desirable for the U.S. to find some relatively low-cost way to “take out” Russia’s Communist Party in the late 1940s and install a more democratic, pro-American government in Moscow; of course managing this trick would have spared our country, and the world, countless miseries over the next five decades. (Though the law of unintended consequences is a harsh mistress, and a different set of miseries might have come rushing in to fill the breach.) But low-cost regime change in late-1940s Russia was so far outside the realm of possibility (even before Stalin acquired atomic weapons) that I don’t see what’s gained by insisting that we give the ideal outcome its due; I don’t think it’s all that meaningful, frankly, to talk about “ideal policy options” that weren’t really options at all. Particularly since history is littered with policymakers who spent so much time meditating on the awesomeness of the the “desirable” option that they persuaded themselves to ignore all the reasons that it wasn't actually possible and go for it anyway.

I’m thinking of outrageous figures like Napoleon and Hitler, of course, both of whom actually attempted regime change in Russia; I’m also thinking of less extreme cases, in recent American history, where people who marched into folly because their gaze was fixed rather too firmly on their ideal ends. I’m thinking of the conservatives whose (entirely understandable) desire to roll back the horrors of Communism led them to rally around Douglas MacArthur’s half-cocked attempt to start World War III with China; I’m thinking of the liberals who staffed the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and drove our country into a ditch at home and abroad; and yes, I’m thinking of the supporters of the Iraq War, myself included, who spent way too much time thinking about the ideal outcome in the Middle East, and not nearly enough time counting the cost of getting there.

On that last matter, here’s Jonah, in a later post:

Here's where I am coming from. I think the best possible policy toward Red China is regime change. Ditto North Korea. Ditto Iran. But, right now, the costs are just way too high to even consider forcibly removing those regimes. So we settle for some mixture of detente, containment and the Reagan and Truman Doctrines. These are all compromises. We did — and do — what we can, where we can. The problem with the Cold War approach to Iraq in the 1990s wasn't merely that it was terrible policy, but that it was unnecessary. We could have toppled Saddam in 1991. We could have supported the Shiites and Kurds. But for some people, the containment approach seemed the best approach in and of itself rather than a fallback, least worst, option. That is what I meant.

Insofar as Jonah means that the ideal outcome in Iraq would be for someone to take a time machine back to 1991 and tell George H.W. Bush to think twice about hanging the Shi’ite rebels out to dry, I basically agree. Insofar as he means that the cost of removing Saddam ourselves in the early ‘00s was low enough to make the ideal outcome of regime change worth pursuing in the manner that we did – well, I’d say the jury’s still out on that one. And I think there’s a very good chance that even if we stagger to some sort of less-than-horrible endgame in Iraq, our invasion and the carnage that followed in its wake will be remembered as a case study in why meditating on ideal outcomes can confuse as often as it clarifies.