Hot town, summer in the mailbag
What if Bush hadn't invaded Iraq? And the trouble with primaries
My fundamental climate change conviction is that I hate D.C. summers, and I really hate 90+ degree weather persisting into September. Make it stop!
Some better news is that living standards have gone up by more than official data indicates when you account for improved food quality. Congratulations to Philip Jefferson on his confirmation as Fed Vice Chair. Analysts now think China’s GDP may not overtake America’s after all, good news for the world, albeit slightly bad news for “One Billion Americans” book sales. Trump is liable for defamation. Microchip factory construction is underway in Kansas. Fresh Covid boosters are coming.
Before we get to the questions, I want to flag that in recent weeks, a small number of people have been posting in threads with questions that read as kind of hostile — a sort of “debate me, bro!” tone — and that’s not a great strategy for getting your question answered. I don’t mean to be too negative; we had tons of great questions this week and I honestly just didn’t get to all of them because I went so long on this first one. Be nice is all I’m saying :)
Jeff: What is your alternative history of what would have happened if the Iraq war had not occurred? Is Sadam still in power now? Has a US fighter plane been shot down? Did the Arab Spring occur? What do you believe is the likely state of Iraq, the wider region, the world, and the US?
You guys know I love alternate history, but this is a tough one because it depends on exactly what counterfactual we’re describing. There are a lot of possible American policies toward Iraq that amount to “not invading Iraq” and they have different upshots. We could be asking “what if Al Gore had been president?” for example, in which case I think he loses in 2004 to John McCain and we get an alternate version of the Iraq War from the McCain administration.
But let’s imagine instead a narrowly different counterfactual. Things play out very similarly, including the congressional vote to authorize the use of force, Saddam backing down and letting more inspectors in, and the inspectors not finding anything.
But in this alternate reality, instead of Bush concluding that this shows the inspections aren’t working, the skeptical intelligence agencies at DOE and State manage to get through to the White House with the message “you should consider the possibility that they’re not finding the nuclear weapons program because there isn’t a nuclear weapons program.” Bush has a moment of doubt. He gut-checks with Tony Blair and other members of the coalition of the willing. President Kwaśniewski of Poland assures Bush that Poland will stand by the United States if they want to go to war, but clarifies that in his mind, this is about the Poland-U.S. relationship and not a strong judgment about the underlying merits of the policy. His personal preference is that the U.S. remains focused on great power competition, but if the U.S. does want to invade, then Poland will stand with us.
Bush realizes that he may have somewhat misunderstood the situation and calls his father for advice.
Dad says he doesn’t want to tell him how to run his administration but that, yes, he should understand that countries are supporting him based on strategic considerations that have nothing to do with the particulars of Iraq and he can’t take that diplomatic context too seriously. Colin Powell tells him that, as a former top general, he can tell Cheney and Rumsfeld are trying to box him in with assertions about the operational necessity of starting the invasion that aren’t strictly true. There’s nothing wrong with delaying for a week or two. So they do, and the inspectors keep not turning anything up. Blair comes to D.C. and says — look, I’m good to go if you are, but isn’t there a way that we can spin this as a huge political triumph for both of us where our toughness and resolution got the inspectors back in with no bloodshed? And we’re the great heroes of the day? After another week, Saddam is really getting nervous and puts it out there — look, guys, there is seriously no nuclear weapons program here. The reason I’ve been squirrelly about it is that Iraq is in kind of a tough neighborhood, and maintaining some ambiguity about your military capabilities is a strong deterrent. Ariel Sharon tells Bush that he’s worried invading Iraq under these circumstances would accelerate rather than deter an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Blair reiterates that this is arguably a huge success story for their agenda. And so Bush decides to take the win.
In this world, I think Saddam is not still with us in 2023 — he died of old age, succeeded by one of his sons.
When Iran’s secret nuclear activities are revealed, U.S. coercive diplomacy is more successful because with no troops bogged down in Iraq, the threat of force is more credible. But the Iranian regime is also less paranoid about the need for a nuclear program. Bush is more comfortable and confident with himself as a diplomat and forges an interim deal with Iran in 2004 that sets talks into motion. With no war actually occurring, there’s no groundswell of support for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. John Kerry doesn’t come across as a flip-flopper; he’s just a guy whose equivocal view of the situation was vindicated by events. Kerry wins the nomination more easily, but Bush is more popular and beats him more easily — Social Security privatization still flops, though.
With no war issue to wield against Hillary Clinton, Obama doesn’t challenge her. John Edwards does surprisingly well in Iowa and New Hampshire as a left-insurgent, but Clinton’s rock-solid African American support crushes him. The Clinton-Obama ticket wins in 2008, but she’s not as popular as our Obama and this version of Bush isn’t as discredited by the end of his term. As a result, Democrats don’t do nearly as well down-ballot in 2008 and there’s no Affordable Care Act. Instead, they do a stimulus bill that includes a permanent program to automatically enroll all kids in Medicaid and then proceed to a torturous negotiation with Republicans about financial regulation.
Finally — the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring still happens since, I think, that was driven largely by commodity prices, media dynamics, and longstanding discontents that would have been in place anyway. But the whole context is different.
But in this version of the Arab Spring, the Clinton administration does not intervene militarily in Libya because the successful diplomacy with Iraq and Iran underscores the importance of upholding the spirit of the Libyan disarmament agreement. Without the precedent of armed rebellion leading to NATO intervention, anti-regime forces in Syria are much more cautious about shifting to armed struggle against Assad and he brutally and relatively quickly puts down the uprising. The conventional wisdom in this reality is that Clinton’s decision to let the Libyan rebels get crushed was a huge mistake, that she choked off a promising efflorescence of democracy. Only cranks like me are saying that overthrowing Gaddafi and encouraging a civil war in Syria might not have turned out nearly as well as the optimists think.
The upshot of all of this is that America just gets less and less engaged in the Middle East over time. The diplomatic alignment there is more chaotic, featuring a Saudi-Iran-Iraq triad of mutual suspicion and a Syria that’s not perfectly aligned with any of them. With Iran less powerful, the Saudis and Gulf states are less eager to mend fences with Israel (though still more eager than they’d like to admit) so Israel is under a bit more practical pressure to care about Palestinians (though still not enough pressure to make them actually care). American oil and gas production keeps ramping up, and by the time Obama is in the White House, American policy is to just not care that much about this part of the world. The main priority is to try to play different players off each other to prevent OPEC from coordinating with Russia on global energy prices.
Harry W: I'm not sure if you've been asked this before but more than once you've suggested it as an underrated what if so, how do you think Reconstruction (and beyond...) would have gone had Hannibal Hamlin been Lincoln's running mate in 1864 and then Lincoln's assassination happened?
Having just done a really long counterfactual about Iraq, I’m not going to try to fully write out a Hamlin one. I’m sincerely not sure what I think and I’d love to read more about it from historians and people who are knowledgeable about the issue. That being said, here’s a few thoughts: