Ezra Klein and the multiverse of madness

Ezra Klein’s latest piece for the NY Times is another sustained argument for the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan. If you’ve been reading defenses of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal then you’ve probably seen this particular argument before. Talking Points Memo‘s Josh Marshall was suggesting failure was inevitable last week. By the weekend the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin was saying something similar. Now it’s Klein’s turn to push the same idea.

All of these arguments have one thing in common. They are all necessarily counterfactual in nature. By that I mean they all make a guess about what might have happened if things had been done differently.

I’ve always liked counterfactuals. I think the first time I really understood the idea was when I read Marvel’s “What If?” comics back in the 70s. Most people had never heard of those comics until recently when Marvel announced they were creating an animated show for Disney+ called “What If?” The stories in the show are basically alternate histories about things we’ve already seen happen one way in the MCU movies. But in the What If? versions we get to see a variation of those stories play out.

So, for instance, episode one of the show imagines what might have happened if Agent Carter had received the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. And (spoilers ahead) it turns out Captain Carter would have helped the Allies win WWII instead of Captain America but Peggy Carter and skinny Steve Rogers would still have fallen in love. In a sense you could say our victory and their love story were both inevitable.

This idea of counterfactual histories seems to be the new direction for the MCU. The next Doctor Strange movie is titled In the Multiverse of Madness. And maybe you’ve seen the trailer for the new Spider-Man movie which also is based on the idea of a multiverse where alternate histories collide.

Of course there aren’t any real histories in the MCU since it’s all a made up fantasy universe. Therefore these alternate stories aren’t technically counterfactuals so much as counter-fictional but you get the idea. Counterfactuals are basically asking the question: What if?

What does any of this have to do with Ezra Klein and Afghanistan? Well, I would suggest to you that his arguments (and other similar ones making the rounds) are all the same sort of What If? game designed to convince readers that the chaotic failure of the Afghanistan withdrawal was as inevitable as Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter falling in love.

It is worth considering some counterfactuals for how our occupation could have ended. Imagine that the Biden administration, believing the Afghan government hollow, ignored President Ashraf Ghani’s pleas and begins rapidly withdrawing personnel and power months ago. The vote of no-confidence ripples throughout Afghan politics, demoralizing the existing government and emboldening the Taliban. Those who didn’t know which side to choose, who were waiting for a signal of who held power, quickly cut deals with the Taliban. As the last U.S. troops leave, the Taliban overwhelms the country, and the Biden administration is blamed, reasonably, for speeding their victory.

Another possible scenario was suggested to me by Grant Gordon, a political scientist who works on conflict and refugee crises (and is, I should say, an old friend): If the Biden administration had pulled our allies and personnel out more efficiently, that might have unleashed the Taliban to massacre their opposition, as America and the world would have been insulated and perhaps uninterested in the aftermath. There have been revenge killings, but it has not devolved, at least as of yet, into all-out slaughter, and that may be because the American withdrawal has been messy and partial and the Taliban fears re-engagement. “What is clearly a debacle from one angle may actually have generated restraint. Having spent time in places like this, I think people lack a real imagination for how bad these conflicts can get,” he told me.

Let me offer one more: Even though few believed Ghani’s government would prevail in our absence, and the Trump administration cut them out of its deal with the Taliban, there’s widespread disappointment that the government we supported collapsed so quickly. Biden has been particularly unsparing in his descriptions of the Afghan Army’s abdication, and I agree with those who say he’s been unfair, underestimating the courage and sacrifice shown by Afghan troops throughout the war. But put that aside: Americans might have felt better seeing our allies in Afghanistan put up a longer fight, even if the Taliban emerged victorious. But would a multiyear civil war have been better for the Afghans caught in the crossfire?

That last counterfactual Klein offers isn’t new. It’s the same thing Josh Marshal was saying last week: “If anything, given the outcome, quicker is better – since a protracted fall is necessarily a bloodier fall.”

So, two points about this. First, counterfactuals need not be fixated on failure. Klein mentions in passing that “A better withdrawal was possible…but so was a worse one.” He’s acknowledging that, in theory, the Biden administration could have done better. But when it comes to actually laying out the alternatives what he gives us is alternate failures. But it is possible to imagine scenarios where things went better. In fact, I think you can just look at some of what our allies did over the past couple weeks and argue they did better. France, Germany and the UK all sent special forces soldiers out to collect citizens and bring them to the airport. There was even a report that the US had asked them to stop doing this because it was embarrassing to us.

But you can imagine all sorts of things. What if Biden had re-negotiated the deadline months ago? What if he’d waited to pull people out this winter? What if he’d sent 5,000 or 10,000 more troops in to secure two airports instead of abandoning Bagram? What if he’d issued an ultimatum to the Taliban on Twitter? Could one or some combination of these alternate approaches have resulted in a better outcome?

Yes. There probably was a way to do better, even if it isn’t being discussed by people who don’t want to discuss it now.

To get back to Doctor Strange, there were millions of possible outcomes here and maybe we only really succeeded in one. If so, then that’s the one we should have tried for. Instead what we’re being told repeatedly is that failure was inevitable so why bother complaining about it. Don’t settle for that. There are many ways this might have gone, a multiverse full of them, but not all of them were the same or worse. Biden made the choices that resulted in this actual outcome and he’s responsible for it.

And that brings me to the second point. It’s not coincidental that all of the progressives playing this counterfactual game in the media are envisioning alternate histories with the same or worse outcomes. There’s an obvious, partisan reason for that.

Imagine if Klein (yes this is a counterfactual) had published three alternate takes on the withdrawal all of which suggested things could have gone much better than they have so far. That would necessarily make it appear as if the Biden administration had really failed to think this through. But by only imagining approaches that end in failure, the sense is that Biden did as well as could be expected. After all, if the only choice was how badly to fail then who is to say he’s not doing a solid job right now?

It’s not a coincidence that the people in the media (Ezra Klein, Jen Rubin, Josh Marshal, etc.) who have supported Biden are now all arguing this is the best any human could have done leaving Afghanistan. That message serves a clear partisan purpose.

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