Monthly Archives: February 2011

In response to Niall Ferguson

The latest Newsweek cover article has managed to goad me into blogging again. In the article, which is best characterized as a rant against the Obama Administration, Niall Ferguson tries to demonstrate his mastery of international affairs. Unfortunately for him, and with sometimes amusing arguments, he falls far short of the mark.

We can work through the article from the beginning. Ferguson starts with a quote from the famed German statesman Bismarck, but his comparison of the situation in which Bismarck found himself in the 19th century and that which confronts Obama today in the Middle East is utterly without merit. Bismarck was chiefly able to direct the “wave of mid-19th-century German nationalism” because he operated within the political system in which that wave rose up. Obama, however, does not operate within the political systems that are currently being challenged by the waves of unrest within each of the countries facing popular unrest in the Middle East. The United States, influential as it is, cannot really be expected to be able to capture and direct popular movements within other countries.i One may as well argue that the United Kingdom or France or Russia should have been able to counteract Bismarck and direct the wave of German nationalism in a way that would be more to their liking.

Ferguson then moves to the real issue—how to understand the actions taken by the Administration relating to Egypt. He presents two possible courses of action: Obama could try to ride the wave and direct it towards ends favorable to the United States; or Obama could do nothing and let “the forces of reaction” rule the day. As he chides him for taking the latter step in Iran in 2009, Ferguson seems to believe that the United States should have forcefully entered on the side of the protesters and called on Mubarak to leave post-haste. He states, as others have also argued, that the Obama Administration was remarkably unclear and muddled in its response, some days saying one thing and some days the other.

Of course, there was indeed an element of confusion in the responses offered by the Administration—Biden suggesting that Mubarak wasn’t a dictator, Clinton saying that the regime was stable, Wisner offering his own opinions in Berlin after meeting Mubarak, and Obama never quite being publicly clear what he meant by “transition.” Two things, though, were extremely consistent (aside from the boilerplate calls for nonviolence and restraint on both sides): the Administration never explicitly called for Mubarak to step down (at least publicly); and the Administration called for the Egyptian government to respond, at least in some way, to the protesters’ demands. The United States never “exhorted Mubarak to leave” one day and “recommended orderly transition” the next. An orderly transition was always desired.

Thus, the call for transition to begin “now,” while arguably a veiled instruction for Mubarak to leave, was never in the context of supporting a chaotic transition. Had Mubarak more clearly transferred real authority to a respected third party, or lifted the emergency laws, or freed political prisoners and disbanded some of the internal security forces, we probably would have seen the Administration hail these initial steps of transition and call for more action. However, we never saw that, so we can never know. To argue that “transition” meant simply “Mubarak leaves” is disingenuous at best. Although the crowds seemed that they would ultimately be satisfied with nothing less than his departure, Mubarak leaving is not the only aspect of a transition.

Ferguson argues that, by taking the path it did, America has alienated everyone, and now no one will care to work with the United States. This almost requires a double-take—the same man who holds up Bismarck as an example of fine international statesmanship throughout his article is apparently unfamiliar with realpolitik. Israelii and Saudi Arabia will both suddenly reject the most powerful country in the world because it didn’t do what they wanted it to do? The current military leadership in Egypt, largely on good terms with the United States, will ignore it now? All of these parties will find it in their interest to continue to listen to the United States whether they are confused by our recent actions or not, because the United States remains, in crude terms, the world’s 800-pound gorilla. Our consistent, yet veiled, support for the masses who gathered in the streets may cause some feelings of alienation amongst the Egyptian people, but any new government, short of a hard-line Islamist one, will still find it advantageous to work with the United States.

The next paragraph seems innocent enough, aside from the subtext of condescension towards “other correspondents.” However, Ferguson suggests that, at Herzliya, he found a consensus of opinion “among the assembled experts on the Middle East” that we were witnessing a “colossal failure of American foreign policy.” This broad conclusion invited investigation. Apparently, about 250 people attended the Herzliya Conference as speakers alone, including Ferguson. The fact that he was able to derive a consensus from among 250 people in only 3 days is really quite remarkable. Of course, in all likelihood, he didn’t gather the opinion of all the experts there, but rather talked to a subgroup amongst them. One must wonder, of course, whether a certain selection bias affected this “consensus.”

The discussion then turns to Obama and his advisors. It is largely unremarkable stuff, except for the last bit. Ferguson leads us to believe that James Jones, Obama’s former National Security Advisor, was ignorant of the former Ottoman Empire: “A big, bluff Marine, [Jones] once astonished me by recommending that Turkish troops might lend the United States support in Iraq. He seemed mildly surprised when I suggested the Iraqis might resent such a reminder of centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule.” What is more likely—Jones being surprised because he didn’t know of the Ottoman Empire having once included now-Iraqi territoryiii, or Jones being surprised because Ferguson basically suggested that the mindset of the Iraqi people today is dominated by political realities that ended about 85 years prior?iv It is also interesting that Ferguson seems never to have opposed British troops supporting the American presence, despite the potential for lingering bad memories from the time of the British Mandate that followed Ottoman rule. As a historian, he should know that there was a significant revolt against British control and, following that, general dissatisfaction with British influence in the country.

The paragraphs on American policy under Nixon and Kissinger can be dealt with easily. In the cited examples, Americans were working at the elite political level, and it is an easier task to influence a small number of people to get things done than to deal with a headless mass movement. One can have a more coherent strategy when you have smaller number of factors to work with. Comparing working with the Soviets to achieve a goal to trying to capture a popular movement in another country is ludicrous, but Ferguson does it anyway. Perhaps a strategy that recognizes that America cannot control popular movements in other countries is what is needed.

Ferguson then indicts the Administration for apparently never spending time strategizing on an Egypt where Mubarak falls from power after a revolution. If this is true, it is indeed unfortunate, but it wouldn’t be wholly surprising. Although the U.S. government was certainly aware of the factors of instability within Egypt—it could hardly not know of the poverty, repression, and other such issues—there was apparently no credible indication that there could be a true challenge mounted to the government (at least judging by the administration official quoted). Ferguson commits an unfortunate fallacy at this point, suggesting that because the government didn’t conduct strategy sessions including this scenario of revolution, they must never have considered the chance of it happening. He completely ignores the possibility that the assessment was that Egypt was very unlikely to face such a scenario in the foreseeable future, so it was not worth including it in the day-to-day strategic planning. While the assessment turned out to be wrong, trying to suggest that they completely ignored the possibility of revolution in Egypt because it wasn’t included in the strategic planning sessions is foolish. It is entirely possible to consider and dismiss a potential event, rightly or wrongly, and to then create your plans without it.

Finally, we return to the potential of an Islamist government taking control of Egypt. Ferguson, rather surprisingly, suggests that the result of Obama’s “bungling” might be that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over Egypt. Note how Ferguson effectively makes Obama’s actions the key to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, even though he acknowledges that the Brotherhood is the largest and most well-organized movement in Egypt today. Somehow, Ferguson is able to conceive of Obama as the prime actor in this drama, suggesting that if he had just been more clear, then there’d be no chance of the Brotherhood coming to power. It is supremely misguided to believe that American actions over an 18-day span are the lynchpin of Egypt’s future—in my eyes, Egypt’s future is more likely to be the result of the actions of the Egyptian people.

In any case, what would he have had the Administration do? Prop up Mubarak to prevent the Brotherhood from taking over? Immediately call for Mubarak to leave, thereby siding with the protesters but without really knowing what direction the movement would end up taking? Calling for concrete steps of orderly change, as the Administration did many times, was really the best option available.

Ferguson closes by condemning the apparent lack of a grand strategy. This is surprising, coming from a man chiefly concerned with economics. Perhaps Obama’s grand strategy focused on international economic issues, rating them of greater importance than the “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. Judging by the problems most salient at the beginning of his term, Obama could quite reasonably have made this determination, and actions early in his Administration confirm the priority given to economic issues, both international and domestic. Ferguson acknowledges the multiplicity of issues to confront and the need to prioritize, but then wants to condemn Obama for actually having chosen issues to prioritize that didn’t include the latest crises in the Middle East.

As in so many areas, it seems that the President would be in for criticism from someone no matter what he did. Ferguson’s criticisms, though, are as thoroughly lacking in merit as his writing style is unnecessarily pugnacious.v Perhaps he should stick to writing about economics and economic history.vi

i Even those who would—foolishly—argue the existence of an imperial America that completely controls foreign elite politics cannot argue that the U.S. could direct a popular-nationalist wave in another county.

ii Ferguson also leaves out, willfully or through ignorance, that Netanyahu seems to have been against Mubarak leaving, and, at the least, wanted the United States to curb criticism of him. To suggest, as Ferguson does, that simply having a clearer position would make Israel happier with the United States is likely wrong.

iii Remember, Iraq didn’t exist as a country at the time.

iv No year is provided for this exchange between the two men, so I’m taking a rough guess.

v I use a similar style in this piece, though, so I guess that is mildly hypocritical of me.

vi Given some of his unusual economic beliefs, perhaps he should stay away from that, too.

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