On Paul Berman's "The Ambiguous Revolt"

I'd like to highlight another way in which current events can prompt (and also reveal the utility of) counterfactual observations.

In his New Republic article, "The Ambiguous Revolt" (February 17, 2011), Paul Berman offered several observations about the overthrow of the dictatorship of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.   Writing from Paris, Berman commented on the French media's criticism of the French government for initially supporting Ben Ali, noting that it contrasted starkly with the media's  admiration of the tougher line taken by the Obama administration.

Berman was unconvinced by this admiring assessment, however, and sought to challenge it by pointing out that American policy in the Middle East has long contributed to the region's many problems.

Interestingly, however, Berman did not merely recount the many misguided decisions that American presidents have made in the region, but instead adopted a counterfactual line of reasoning and highlighted how things could have been better had the U. S. pursued a different set of policies.

As he put it:

"What might have happened if, over the course of these 70 years, the United States had followed a slightly different, more nuanced policy? What if, during World War II, the U.S. effort to secure Arab support against the European fascists had also included a campaign to promote liberal and democratic ideas among our Arab allies? What if, in supporting the dismantling of the French and British empires, the United States had made a sustained point, not just a desultory one, of continuing to promote a liberal outlook on world events? What if, in supporting the Tunisian government’s campaign against the Islamists these last 20 years, the United States had found a way, not just sotto voce, to advocate liberal ideas as well? To imagine sophisticated policies of this sort—to think in terms of long-term possibilities, and not just short-term goals—ought not to be so difficult."

Why did Berman make his point in counterfactual fashion?  The "what if" questions he asked were meant to be substantive, but they were also meant to be provocative.  They were marked by a certain rhetorical power that is typical of counterfactual thinking.  By hypothetically showing how the Middle East's unhappy postwar history could have been averted -- by showing, in other words, how history might have turned out better -- Berman appealed to certain emotions -- regret, guilt, shame -- that many western observers have no doubt felt over the course of the postwar period.  By showing how certain opportunities had been missed in the past, he implicitly urged that they not be missed in the future.  

As he concluded:

"Can anyone seriously dispute that, if the United States had spent the last 70 years earnestly promoting North African movements for liberal democracy, the odds would now be greater of seeing a Velvet-influenced revolution in Tunisia rather than something worse and all too easily imaginable?"

Thinking counterfactually about the past, in short, often has a forward-looking dimension to it.