Tuesday, May 24, 2005

174 to 1

Those are the odds, according to Niall Ferguson, of the US campaign in Iraq succeeding. This might be the grimmest (and coincidentally the most plausible) assessment of the war I've read. Other highlights:
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that American forces should aim to work to a "10-30-30" timetable: 10 days should suffice to topple a rogue regime, 30 days to establish order in its wake, and 30 more days to prepare for the next military undertaking. I am all in favor of a 10-30-30 timetable - provided the measurement is years, not days. For it may well take around 10 years to establish order in Iraq, 30 more to establish the rule of law, and quite possibly another 30 to create a stable democracy.
The United States also faces two other problems that the United Kingdom did not 85 years ago. The British were able to be ruthless: they used air raids and punitive expeditions to inflict harsh collective punishments on villages that supported the insurgents. The United States has not been above brutal methods on occasion in Iraq, yet humiliation and torture of prisoners have not yielded any significant benefits compared with what it has cost the country's reputation. [N.B. I don't think Ferguson is calling for collective reprisals--ed.]


At 12:05 PM, Blogger Evan said...

Have you read Empire or Colossus? I've only read The Pity of War, which is an excellent, excellent, and important piece of history, and it's really difficult for me to square that Niall Ferguson against the Niall Ferguson I read in his op-eds. What exactly is it that he thinks? He seems to be some sort of neo-imperialist fellow-traveller but the PoW voice of gloom and doom never seems to entirely go away. His policy prescriptions are ludicrous and ahistorical in the extreme (citizenship to alien soldiers? hello, Roman empire?), yet his historical interpretation qua historical interpretation is usually impeccable. I think he must just be hopelessly out of his depth wading in the muck outside the Ivory Tower; he should go back there.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

I've read the Pity of War, which I agree with you is a masterpiece, also the history of the Rothschilds and the Cash Nexus---I've only seen the c-span booknotes on Empire or Colossus (can't remember which).

I think Ferguson's views are extremely idiosyncratic and tend to get ventriloquized by certain kinds of conservatives who aren't very sophisticated as interpreters. With the books on empire, this op-ed, etc., I think he's saying, in a kind of Scottish deadpan, look, here are the conditions for empire-building, and here are the consequences. On the latter score, he's saying that we need to revise our perceptions of what the British empire did, and I think he's partly right. On the former, he's essentially warning Americans not to assume that empire can be had on the cheap, that you can have a cafeteria-imperialism where you only pick the things you like (excluding, obviously, the word "empire,"), because the consequences for the world would be disastrous.

Essentially, I think he's trying to outline a historical problem that doesn't get enough attention, and such solutions as people think he offers are either just forces or (more commonly) assumed by interpreters who read their own biases into his work. The problem is: the British empire did a number of things, some right, some wrong, that only America is in a position to do today. But America isn't very good at them; on the other hand if America just chooses not to engage, then the consequences might be even worse than a botched imperialism. I don't entirely agree, but it's a much more nuanced position than "Take up the white man's burden."


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