January 9, 2014
Soon after George W. Bush was elected president and before his inauguration in January 2001, there was a quiet assumption among some in Washington that Bush would appoint then-former senator from Indiana, Dan Coats, as his defense secretary. A second quiet assumption followed that Coats would appoint the bipartisan realist Richard Armitage as deputy defense secretary. Coats and Armitage would no doubt have run the Defense Department from the philosophical vantage point of tough caution in world affairs -- never flinching from a challenge, but also never overreacting.
Coats apparently failed his interview with President-elect Bush; or Bush simply had a change of heart. There was reportedly a need to balance Colin Powell at the State Department with an equally towering figure at Defense, and Coats apparently wasn't the one to do that. It was Bush's vice president-elect, Dick Cheney, who reportedly had an idea to solve the dilemma: bring back Donald Rumsfeld, who had already been defense secretary in the Ford Administration in the mid-1970s, and who therefore could both handle the job and stand up to Powell. Rumsfeld became defense secretary and appointed Paul Wolfowitz as his deputy. Armitage, meanwhile, went to work at the State Department as Powell's deputy. Thus, largely because of a series of events involving personnel that few could have predicted, you had the aggressive team of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz reacting to 9/11 rather than the more cautious team of Coats and Armitage. Moreover, you now had a bureaucratic war between the restrained team of Powell and Armitage at the State Department and the newly aggressive team at the Defense Department.
Such factors, again, all having to do with personnel, and all exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to predict in advance, would have a profound effect on geopolitics in the ensuing decade. Indeed, the Iraq War, which defined the last decade for American foreign policy, might well not have happened, or, at a minimum, would not have played out at as it did, had Coats become defense secretary.
In other words, to say that individuals do not matter amid larger forces is rubbish. Think of World War II without Hitler, of the Balkans without Slobodan Milosevic or Richard Holbrooke, or of Russia in the 1990s without the indiscipline of Boris Yeltsin.
Moreover, very odd, utterly unpredictable events matter greatly to world history. Imagine the decade after 9/11 if only a few votes in Florida had shifted -- or if just one Supreme Court vote had shifted -- giving Al Gore the presidency. Would we have gone to war in Afghanistan the way we did? Or gone to war in Iraq at all?
And yet events can be forecast. Or rather, trends can be discerned that the daily media regularly miss. They can be forecast because, as I have detailed, while half of reality is utterly unpredictable events involving individuals, the other half is composed of large geographical, demographic, economic and technological forces whose basic trend lines can be foreseen, however vaguely at times. If one concentrates on those larger forces, it still won't be possible to predict, say, the philosophical makeup of a particular president's foreign policy team, but it can be forecast to some impressive degree the kind of world that team will face. 9/11 itself may have been unpredictable, but the trend of an emboldened al Qaeda mixed with further radicalization of the Middle East clearly was predictable.