"Choices made — or not

Everyone at some time or another has wondered “what might have been” had they made a decision that took them down a different path. Political scientists sometimes do this in a more systematic way, and we call it a “counterfactual.”

What might have happened had Theodore Roosevelt won the 1912 election instead of Woodrow Wilson? All other factors being equal, the First World War would still have erupted in August 1914. But would TR have responded differently than Wilson? 

Judging by his immediate and vociferous calls for American entrance into the Great War, it is certainly plausible that Roosevelt would not have waited until April 1917 to join the fight. Instead, the counterfactual argument might go, under the leadership of President Roosevelt, the US would probably have entered the war in Europe in 1914 or 1915.  

If the US had chosen to go to war earlier, how might this have altered the path of history? Would American forces have turned the tide on the battlefield, leading to an earlier surrender by Germany? This is certainly plausible, although of course we could never know for sure. But with the war ending in, say, 1917, would there still have been a Russian Revolution?  And if not, how might world history have unfolded without the Bolsheviks coming to power as they did?

Now we’ve entered the realm of interesting parlor games. The farther the counterfactual extends beyond the known course of history, the more problematic it becomes.

But this counterfactual, beginning with a highly plausible Roosevelt victory in 1912, underscores an important point. Leaders matter. At key moments in time, the choices that leaders make have the potential to take the world in a different direction.

As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and take stock of the past half-decade, I cannot help but pose similar counterfactuals. What might have been different had Al Gore been inaugurated president on Jan. 20, 2001, instead of George W. Bush? Or John McCain, had he defeated Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000?

Contrary to what many Bush detractors have suggested, I believe we still would have been blindsided by Al-Qaeda and the events of Sept. 11, 2001 would have unfolded largely as they did. Of course, we can never know for sure.

But the counterfactual approach is most useful for examining the choices that were made by President Bush after the attacks. 

I believe that anyone sitting in the White House on Sept. 12, 2001 would have chosen to invade Afghanistan. But would a President McCain or Gore, within a matter of weeks, have decided to alter America’s focus from Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Was the Iraq war inevitable in the wake of 9/11, or was it the result of unique choices made by President Bush? 

But even if a different president would have chosen to invade Iraq next, would he have had the same defense secretary, who rejected expert advice about the numbers of troops needed to secure the peace after Hussein fell? Would a President Gore or McCain have surrounded himself with advisors made myopic by ideological blinders?

Would a different president have become so obsessed with Iraq that his administration would sit on the sidelines for years as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiraled out of control? Or allow the genuine threat of North Korea to fall through the cracks?

Would a different president have emasculated the reform movement in Iran by treating that country as part of a simplistic “axis of evil”?  Or would he, instead, have seized the unique opportunity presented by 9/11 to rehabilitate the US-Iranian relationship — especially as Iran’s leaders had long opposed the Taliban and despised Osama bin Laden?

In the wake of 9/11, would a different president have sought to rally mainstream Muslims worldwide — and also here at home — in a concerted effort to marginalize radical Islam and address some of the longstanding grievances in the Muslim world?

Now we have moved beyond the reach of plausible counterfactuals, and into the realm of parlor games. 

But this intellectual exercise does demonstrate one thing.  Leaders matter. At key moments in history, the choices they make can take the world in a different direction.

Pierre Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.