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Niall Ferguson has an interesting article written up in the Telegraph. Interesting, but largely wrong. The opinion piece, titled “The origins of the Great War of 2007 - and how it could have been prevented” appears on the surface to be in support of the Bush Doctrine of pre-empting catastrophic threat. But the author makes so many mistakes, in historical fact as well as in his conclusions, that the piece must be redressed on something better than Ferguson’s rhetorical swagger.
Historians, as a rule, like to feel important. This is a common characteristic which shows up in their narration of events, as though they understood things better than the average fellow, a condition which is seldom true of academics. Also, it is my experience that a proper student of History should always consult more than one point of view, to avoid the errors which bias, however unintended, always displays on a version which accepts only one perspective. To that end, I will address the gist of Ferguson’s contentions, with emphasis on his errors and the proper correction to them, as I see it.
The first error by Ferguson is this statement: “The first underlying cause of the war was the increase in the region's relative importance as a source of petroleum. On the one hand, the rest of the world's oil reserves were being rapidly exhausted. On the other, the breakneck growth of the Asian economies had caused a huge surge in global demand for energy. It is hard to believe today, but for most of the 1990s the price of oil had averaged less than $20 a barrel.”
To begin with, anyone who knows the history of the late 1960s through the 1970s understands that the heyday of oil’s strategic value was before the Reagan era. Ferguson mistakes the prevalent use of oil by emerging industrial nations, and the continued consumer reliance on oil, as indicators of potential global crisis. However, the far more serious OPEC embargoes, especially during the Carter Administration, impacted the world economy in ways which are not possible today, not only because of improvement in alternative sources for petroleum, but also because governments and industries were forced to accept the need for far greater efficiency and diversified processes. Ferguson’s note about oil prices during the 1990s ironically misses two salient points – first, low oil prices have been the exception rather than the rule for the past half-century, and second, prices were so low in the 1990s because the improvements in diverse sources, efficiency, and alternative processes created a relatively low demand for OPEC oil in specific. OPEC addressed this by expanding its membership, paying close attention to market conditions, and by understanding that the most efficient alternatives would be shelved by high availability and low prices. In other words, sound business practices were more effective and beneficial for OPEC than political brinksmanship. It is not, to be blunt, in OPEC’s interest to allow any one nation or player disrupt the flow of oil, because to do so would damage OPEC to a far greater extent than it might gain. Accordingly, Iran will lose friends in OPEC if it tries to use Oil as a political weapon, to such a point that it is possible for OPEC to do an end-run to keep supplies moving. This removes the 'crisis'value of Oil in terms of sparking a global conflagration. Ferguson is reliving old history and has failed to observe policy and industry changes which have set a different course under such a scenario.
Ferguson’s next error was demographics, comparing Muslim fertility to European fertility. Ferguson notes that the population explosion in Iran led to “a quite extraordinary surplus of young men. More than two fifths of the population of Iran in 1995 had been aged 14 or younger. This was the generation that was ready to fight in 2007.”
Again, this is a serious mistake by Ferguson. He even manages to mention the devastating casualties suffered in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, without once considering the social effects of such a war on the support for a war of conquest. Ferguson also fails to note the rise of youth protests against Iran’s repressive government and policies. Ferguson does not seem to have considered that arming large groups of Iranian men and training them to fight, could result in a massive revolt against the Mullahs. In an age where rebels can communicate through cell phones, faxes, websites, e-mail, and many other hard-to-block, hard-to-track technologies, dismissing the potential of insurrection is foolish. Especially against a regime which advocates extreme policies for the perceived benefit only to themselves.
Ferguson makes a telling error in his next statement, claiming “people in the West struggled to grasp the implications of this shift. Subliminally, they still thought of the Middle East as a region they could lord it over, as they had in the mid-20th century.”
More than anywhere else in the article, Ferguson here identifies himself as a Liberal, and demonstrates a filtered perspective of the region. This statement not only locks Ferguson into the obsolete political thinking of the Stalin v. Eisenhower era, but also defines him firmly as a 'September 10th' historian. Ferguson is blissfully unaware that the 2002-present military actions were not meant to impose a Western will on the Arab world, but to remove a global threat – international terrorists created, trained, supported and sponsored by Arab factions and governments. The Coalition did not invade Afghanistan in hopes of creating a regime submissive to their policies, but to take out Al Qaeda. The Coalition did not invade Iraq in order to turn the place into a docile colony, but to remove a despot who was known to have used WMD on another country, and on minorities in his own nation. For Ferguson to have missed this essential point is appalling, and demonstrates a basic flaw in his logic.
Ferguson then lays out his third “precondition for war: cultural. Since 1979, not just Iran but the greater part of the Muslim world had been swept by a wave of religious fervour, the very opposite of the process of secularisation that was emptying Europe's churches.
Although few countries followed Iran down the road to full-blown theocracy, there was a transformation in politics everywhere. From Morocco to Pakistan, the feudal dynasties or military strongmen who had dominated Islamic politics since the 1950s came under intense pressure from religious radicals.”
This is another stupendous blunder, to be frank. In the first place, Ferguson glosses over the fact that most Arabs and Muslims wanted no part of the radical Jihadism pushed by the likes of Khomeini. Even an overview of the Arab Culture reveals sharp divisions between the way Turks, Iranians, Iraqis, Egyptians, and other Middle Eastern nationalities see their region and responsibilities. Ferguson even fails to observe the waves of repression versus reform demands in Iran, as the country struggles to decide whether the majority of people will be able to take back their nation. Ferguson forgets that Khomeini’s power came not from genuine support by the Iranian people, but through manipulation of events to establish his minority sect in the seat of power, one dictator simply replacing another. There are quite literally millions of Iranians who would like see a government which represents the Iranian heart and mind as it is, not in the image cast by a Shah or an Ayatollah, especially given recent history.
As to Europe, let us never forget Fabrizio Quattrocchi, who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 2004, yet shouted defiantly on camera “This is how an Italian dies!” Such is hardly the act of a man void of ideals or courage.
When terrorist bastards blew up buses and trains in London, the result only hardened resolve and diligence, bringing support even from countries like China. It can therefore hardly be said that terrorism is dissolving alliances and commitment to international security. It’s especially worth noting that the main reaction by British Muslims was to denounce terrorism and offer to help catch the men who did it. Ferguson would do well to observe that many more Muslims are appalled and revolted by the tactics of terrorists, than ever would applaud such actions.
When Jihadist terrorists murdered hundreds of children held hostage in a school at Beslan, the response was not submission or a massive repression. Even though the Russian occupation of Chechnya is controversial, the Russian response to this atrocity was measured and restrained in context. This demonstrates a level of strategy and resolve beyond Ferguson’s understanding.
These points and others demonstrate the reason why the Coalition remains a viable alliance, despite the misleading publicity given to the few who have cut and run. In plain fact, Europe has not lost its ideals and nerve, and the Jihadists have not gained influence and support to anything like the degree Ferguson pretends. Whether by accident or connivance, Ferguson ignores the overwhelming majority of Middle East people and nations to pretend ascendancy for a militant few. Such a fundamental misunderstanding of the region invalidates all assumptions and calculations drawn upon it.
Ferguson casts Iran’s sociopathic President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the role of an Islamic Hitler, and I admit the caricature is appealing to the emotion. Ferguson properly observes the incendiary quality of Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust was a “myth”. It is correct to voice concern when a national leader describes a neighboring sovereign country as a “disgraceful blot”, to be wiped “off the map”. Yet Ferguson fails to observe the basic question of capability, and of reaction to such an attempt. Ahmadinejad speaks in much the same way as Castro did, and Castro could never make good on his threats. Ferguson seems to just want to inflate the madman's credibility. Ferguson here follows with a series of statements which are dubious or even outright false in their claims. Said Ferguson, about the possibility of removing the Iranian reactor through air strikes;
“The Israelis had shown themselves capable of pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981.”
This presumes that the United States would wish to use Israel as a proxy, and also that Israel would be inclined to take on such a role. There is no evidence to support either contention.
“Similar strikes against Iran's were urged on President Bush by neo-conservative commentators throughout 2006.”
Many conservative commentators, including myself, have better imagination and comprehension of the region than that. Ferguson presumes that force would be the most effective response, but in actual fact there is much reason to doubt that opinion. Not only has Iran prepared for an anticipated attack, but also there are strategic choke points which would damage the Iranian programs effectively, without providing an incident that Iran could effectively use as propaganda against the United States. These options include economic sanctions, blockade, and subversive actions against Iran, such as contaminating the uranium stocks used by Iran. Further, the development of nuclear weapons, as Iran doubtless intends to build, depend on a number of crucial requirements, which the U.S. is well-positioned to deny. While such actions are more complex and difficult than simply dropping bombs where we think the plants and materials are kept, in the long run thy could well yield better results. Consider how the average American considered 3 Mile Island, which was never anything but a civilian power plant, and imagine the Iranian response to an accident at a plant designed to make nuclear weapons, which themselves could not be used in anything but a war likely to kill millions of Iranians. Ferguson, like Ahmadinejahd, has not thought this matter through to any great degree.
“The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been discredited by the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had supposedly possessed and by the failure of the US-led coalition to quell a bloody insurgency.”
Ferguson is quite wrong on both counts. It needs saying, yet again, that the inspectors did find weapons in Iraq, though not in the numbers anticipated, but more to the point, they discovered that the WMD programs were still a high priority to Saddam Hussein, and if the invasion had not happened, the development of strategic weapons would indeed have begun again and very quickly. The consensus of those who have seen the evidence is that the invasion was indeed justified and necessary. As to the insurgency, the fact that the men committing the majority of violence are foreign to Iraq disproves the “insurgency” claim. And the fact that the terrorists in Iraq have been more and more turning their guns on Iraqi Army and police instead of U.S. troops since the last two elections in Iraq, demonstrates that this “insurgency” is in fact nothing more than a foreign-supported attempt to prevent genuine self-rule by Iraq; and the results of the past two elections, both with greater-than-predicted levels of participation, shows that Iraq is well on the road to taking care of itself. The U.S. still needs to assist in Iraq, but Ferguson is either lying or has made a colossal blunder in overlooking the general success of the American mission in Iraq.
“As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking.” Ferguson demonstrates that he has no operation knowledge of groups like the SAS or people like the American Director of National Intelligence.
“The optimists argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis would replay itself in the Middle East. Both sides would threaten war - and then both sides would blink. That was Secretary Rice's hope - indeed, her prayer - as she shuttled between the capitals. But it was not to be.”
Ferguson demonstrates a complete lack of perception regarding American post-9/11 diplomacy. Rice does not make that mistake. The Bush State Doctrine, as many well know, is not one to allow a threat to grow beyond redress.
Ferguson proceeds down his imaginative fallacy: “The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.”
Failing to understand the U.S. military, Ferguson presumes a nuclear event would be allowed to proceed. Failing to understand the Iraqi identity in the aftermath of free elections, Ferguson assumes that Iraqis would act in the image of a nation almost completely unlike themselves. Failing to perceive the new identity of women and youth in the Middle East, in places like Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, Ferguson fails to understand the present actions behind the scenes in the Middle East, and the importance of true Sovereignty and Self-Determination to the Arab states, Ferguson presumes that the majority would act in imitation of the worst among them. And failing to understand the Chinese Grand Strategy in Southwest Asia, Ferguson does not understand why Beijing will work to rein in Iran, albeit quietly, rather than encourage Jihadist movements which would threaten their own frontiers in short order.
Niall Ferguson does do one service to the matter – he demonstrates how so many people, understanding only one perspective and proceeding from a series of rash assumptions, can oppose the very actions which remove the dangers they fear, and will ridicule the people whose words and plans are better suited to the moment and its challenge. That is, we can be very glad that God has provided us with the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair to address such a crisis, instead of the likes of Niall Ferguson. It is a small matter then, that years from now when the events in Iran are seen in retrospect, academics like Ferguson will forget their dire predictions and claim there was never a threat at all, or else that we were providentially spared from the approaching disaster, rather than crediting the plans and foresight of the men and women who faced the crisis. Bloggers like myself will be there to set the record straight, and the people will decide.