Ph.D. Octopus

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Imperial Realism

with 3 comments

by apini

To begin, an admission: I am a liberal historian/academic who likes Niall Ferguson.  His most recent article, though, really disappointed me.  He deals with the reasons why Americans should be less than enthusiastic about spreading revolutions in the Islamic world.  He also criticizes Obama’s administration for a lack of strategy in dealing with these revolutions.  I agree with the general premise that revolutions are not always good, even if they are sometimes necessary, because frequently they become dominated by orthodox radicals.  I agree that violent, destructive, and protracted wars are not good for anyone (though I would count amongst those wars the ‘wars of liberation’ in Iraq and Afghanistan…). I like that he points out, fairly eloquently, a lot of the strange contradictions about America’s own bourgeois revolutionary spirit.

But for someone who has looked at both the British and American Empires, Ferguson seems to miss one of the key features of how empires work (and their limited ability to promote a consistent ideological message).  This is not too surprising given the lack of focus on collaboration and the practicalities of empire in these books, in favour of a focus on the ‘civilising mission’, democracy, the rule of law, and the gift of ‘modernity’ and capitalism bestowed on empire’s grateful populations.

Ferguson states that

The correct strategy—which, incidentally, John McCain would have actively pursued had he been elected in 2008—was twofold. First, we should have tried to repeat the successes of the pre-1989 period, when we practiced what we preached in Central and Eastern Europe by actively supporting those individuals and movements who aspired to replace the communist puppet regimes with democracies.

Professor Ferguson claims that Obama’s policy in the Middle East/North Africa/The Islamic World is bad because it’s hypocritical.  American policy wasn’t in the good old days of the Cold War when, apparently, we “practiced what we preached” when it came to promoting good, solid, democratic values.  It is valuable to support nascent democratic movements (if one supports democracy).  This was clear in the West’s handling of Central and Eastern Europe before 1989, as he says.  And it did lead to a stronger, more democratic Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Sort of (ignoring Belarus, the former Yugoslavia, Russia…).  And his wider point is that American leaders should be actively supporting all attempts to form democratic governments – through support of leaders in countries oppressed by “puppet regimes”.

But during the Cold War we did no such thing.  Focusing on Central/Eastern Europe ignores several major theatres of Soviet and American interest during the Cold War: The CIA murdered the democratically elected president of the Congo because he might have been sympathetic to communist ideas, putting in his place the “puppet regime” of Mobutu Sese Seko.  The US propped up undemocratic “puppet regimes” in Southeast Asia (see Vietnam) and Latin America (see Chile).  Most relevantly to his current argument, the US government supported non-democratic leaders in Egypt and Pakistan, and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.  The reason that “No such effort [at cultivating democratic leaders] has been made in the Arab world” is because of this Cold War-type policy; when the Cold War ended and a new monolithic enemy emerged, anti-communism was replaced with anti-terrorism and anti-terrorism’s friends became our friends, regardless of their democratic credentials.  Empires can’t always afford to press for all their ideologies at once, especially when relying on indirect rule.

He says that, after years of hypocrisy in dealing with the Middle East’s oppressive leaders,

The Bush administration put an end to that double-talk by practicing as well as preaching a policy of democratization—using force to establish elected governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration was elected by a great many Americans who regretted the costs of that policy. Yet in place of the Bush doctrine came… nothing. Obama’s obsequious 2009 speech in Cairo offered a feeble hand of friendship to the Muslim world. But to whom was it extended? To the tyrants? Or to their subject peoples? Obama apparently hoped he, too, could have it both ways, even shaking hands with the odious Muammar Gaddafi.”

True, Obama and Gaddafi shook hands.  But the person who opened US relations with “the odious Muammar Gaddafi” was his favourite proponent of the Bush doctrine, George “My Enemy’s Enemy is my Friend” W. Bush. That’s because geopolitical realities mean that empires cannot react to every situation with the same policy.  Even neo-cons have to compromise.  So he points to the example of the revolution in Egypt as not necessarily being a good thing because the Muslim Brotherhood might take over, or because a truly democratic Egypt might allow further Iranian threats to Israel.  But Mubarak, and lately Gaddafi, were supported by the US until last month because they played along with the geopolitical game (anti-terrorism and/or limited support for Israel).  Empires that rely on collaboration and indirect rule cannot usually afford to overthrow their ‘native authorities’ until that’s a popular position amongst the people being indirectly ruled.

Finally, it’s all well and good to argue that the strategy of the West “should have been to exploit the divisions within the Islamist movement.”  ‘Divide and conquer’ is, afterall, a classic imperial strategy. But to claim that the Bush doctrine was great and then turn around and say that the divisions between various branches of the Islamist movement “are very deep, most obviously because Shiite Iran has an altogether different vision of an Islamicized Middle East than, say, Wahhabi al Qaeda” seems like the most cynical sort of historical forgetting, given the Bush administration’s constant and deliberate conflation of “various branches of the Islamist movement.” And part of the reason for this problem and the lack of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy since 2001 has been the demands of our strategic allies, be they Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, or Shiites in Pakistan.

America may need a new strategy. But if the ‘Colossus’ is to remain an empire, Ferguson will have to deal with hypocrisy, collaboration, and the reality that empires rarely live up to their ideals, whether they be the promotion of ‘civilisation’, ‘free trade,’ ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘democracy.’


Written by apini

March 3, 2011 at 13:46

3 Responses

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  1. I used to like Ferguson. I’m not sure anymore. He writes well and speaks well, but I fear he’s become reflexively anti-Obama rather than a thoughtful conservative. Still, I think it’s important to have historians like Ferguson around, because I would hate for the historical profession to become a liberal to far left echo chamber, which it nearly is right now.


    March 4, 2011 at 15:47

  2. Isn’t this the long way of saying that it’s absurd to argue that democratization has ever been anything other than the opportunistic exception to US foreign policy?

    Andrew Hartman

    March 4, 2011 at 18:29

  3. I agree that he serves an important function and I think he’s not always wrong (or even very far off base). He does seem to be more dogmatic than before – my impression used to be that he was acting as devil’s advocate, rather than that he actually believed Bush was amazing.

    And Andrew: possibly. But that would be a pretty short blog post, wouldn’t it?


    March 15, 2011 at 14:48

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