Since Kennedy invaded Cuba, and failed, we ask why he didn't call it off. Yet, had he called off the invasion -- he was tempted to -- it would have then been seen as a lost chance: If only we had acted....
Invading Afghanistan might have wrecked al-Qaida's plans. Or it might not have. And even if it had -- even had the FBI arrested all 19 hijackers, box cutters in hand -- we have no idea what new forces would have been put into play. We assume it would have been better. But we don't know.
Strong, pre-9/11 U.S. action would certainly have been viewed by the world as a sign of Yankee imperialism. I'm certain about this because a lot of the world viewed it that way after 9/11. For all we know, the Afghan invasion would have prompted more terror than it prevented. Some believe that is true for our actions now.
There are many valid reasons to criticize Bush, but to blame him for not avoiding the 9/11 attacks in the nine months his administration had to work with means blaming it for not pursuing every perceived threat with all possible force -- a lesson we certainly don't endorse today. We only want that done in the past, to avoid disasters that we know happened. But we don't want it in the present. In the present, we worry about profiling.
If only Kennedy had lived
Part of the agony that greeted Kennedy's assassination was the belief that all the bad stuff that came in later years -- Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate -- would have been avoided had he lived. We don't know that. For all we know, had Oswald missed, Kennedy would have survived and, distracted by some sex scandal, touched off a nuclear war with the Soviets that would have killed us all. That is as plausible as any other scenario.
Anachronism is a peril when confronting the past -- we take today's knowledge and damn those for not acting in the ways we now believe might have been better.
Castro turned out to be a bigger threat to his own people than to the United States. There was no urgent need, for our sake, to topple him -- we know now -- since he has been there for 45 years. But the Bay of Pigs reminds us that decisive action is not always a good thing. Action also must succeed. Given that, given the myriad unintended consequences in history, to postulate hypothetical courses of action and wring our hands because they weren't taken is a distraction from the far more difficult, far more pressing question: What are we going to do now?
Friday, April 09, 2004
Neil Steinberg has a good column looking at the fallacies of judgying what might have happened in the past and using that to criticize the present Steinberg revisits the Bay of Pigs fiasco for that lesson.
Posted by Betsy Newmark at 7:35 AM