Reply to Author’s Response to Essay 11 on Explaining the Iraq War

Let me start by reiterating my enthusiasm from Prof. Harvey’s book and the skillful way in which he uses counterfactuals to expose and challenge the political assumptions that guide most liberal studies of the Iraq War. He does an effective job of demolishing the “neocon” thesis by demonstrating that there was wider opposition to Saddam Hussein and concern about his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. His responses to my concerns are well put. In this rejoinder I do not want to critique his critique of my critique, but rather to step back from the exchange and say a few words about different counterfactual research strategies.

H-Diplo | ISSF Review Essay No. 11

Reply to Frank P. Harvey’s Response to Richard Ned Lebow’s Review Essay on Frank P. Harvey. Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence. Cambridge University Press, 2011, published by H-Diplo/ISSF on 7 September 2012. http://h-diplo.org/ISSF/PDF/RE11.pdf

Response by Frank P. Harvey, Dalhousie University
http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/RE11-Response.pdf

Reply by Richard Ned Lebow, King’s College London and the University of Cambridge

Let me start by reiterating my enthusiasm from Prof. Harvey’s book and the skillful way in which he uses counterfactuals to expose and challenge the political assumptions that guide most liberal studies of the Iraq War. He does an effective job of demolishing the “neocon” thesis by demonstrating that there was wider opposition to Saddam Hussein and concern about his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. His responses to my concerns are well put. In this rejoinder I do not want to critique his critique of my critique, but rather to step back from the exchange and say a few words about different counterfactual research strategies.

Harvey uses counterfactuals to critique the existing literature by revealing its hidden biases and often selective use of information. He is also interested in assessing the contingency of the Iraq War. In Forbidden Fruit I make the case that World War I was highly contingent in both its underlying and immediate causes. My objective is to pull the rug out from underneath theories that are based on this conflict, or draw support from it, on the assumption that it was all but inevitable. Harvey’s goal is to do the reverse: to show that the Iraq invasion was overdetermined and that neocons in positions of authority were not a necessary condition for intervention.

Counterfactuals are critical to both projects, but are used somewhat differently. To make the case for contingency, we want to demonstrate that the chain or causation, or confluence of causal chains, responsible for an outcome could easily be severed. The greater the number of “minimal rewrite” counterfactuals that can do this, the more contingent the outcome. We must then consider other possible chains of causation that might produce the same outcome or a very similar one, and “second order” counterfactuals that might do this at a later date. Our case is more persuasive when we can show that there were few, if any, alternate, or subsequent, pathways to the outcome, or that they too could easily have been prevented by minimal rewrites of history.

To demonstrate that an outcome is overdetermined we want to do the reverse, to show that there are no minimal rewrites that would prevent it, as they are not credible or would be ineffective by virtue of second order counterfactuals. Alternatively, we can argue that the outcome is, or is close to being, equifinal. Death can come by many different routes, and forestalling some of them only increases the chances of dying of something else. Harvey adopts a third strategy: that of a branching point whose pathways lead to the same outcome. The branching point is the 2000 US presidential election. We know that a Bush victory resulted in an invasion of Iraq and Harvey considers the only plausible alternative: a Democratic victory. He then shows us why, in the aftermath of 9.11, President Gore would in all likelihood also have invaded Iraq.

What Harvey does not do is investigate in any detail other possible branching points relevant to his case. What would the Bush and Gore administrations have done in the absence of 9/11? I think a good argument could be made that Bush, but not Gore, would still have invaded Iraq. There is evidence that the Bush administration was just waiting for a pretext and would have been likely to exploit some other provocation – as the Johnson administration did in Vietnam – to mobilize public support for intervention. To make his argument about Gore more convincing, Harvey should discuss what minimal rewrites might have discouraged Gore’s administration for attacking Iraq. Would any of these counterfactuals have had a similar effect on Bush? This exercise could tell us something about the differences, as well as the similarities, between the two administrations and more about the degree to which the Iraq invasion was overdetermined.

In effect, counterfactual strategies need to be tailored to the analytical tasks at hand and those tasks almost invariably reflect the political agendas of researchers. We need to be as explicit as possible about both, but only the first need justification.

 

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