Crimson Chagrin: Harvard Prof’s Iraq Imperialism

niall ferguson getty edit Crimson Chagrin: Harvard Prof’s Iraq ImperialismOn the occasion of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, allow me to speak bluntly about the chief reason why our involvement there has been such a wretched failure.

It’s simple: We don’t have the guts and the brains to build and sustain an empire. The proof of our inadequacy is that our best and brightest young people would prefer to get jobs here rather than overseas. By best and brightest, I mean graduates from Havard, Yale and the other Ivies, not people who went to second-rate “small liberal arts colleges” or third-rate state universities. (I warned you that I was going to be blunt.) The only way we could have turned our occupation in Iraq into a successful imperial outpost was to get the smartest Americans to administer it. That never happened.

Instead we got a lot of hardworking, lower-middle-class first-generation immigrants. After so much death and destruction, we should be honest with ourselves about these kids. They had plenty of guts but woefully little brains. They had names like Edward Chin and Kemaphoom Chanawongse, not Roosevelt or Wilson, and they lacked the social and intellectual pedigree that every colonial administrator should possess. Not only that, but there are a lot of African-Americans serving some of the longest tours of duty. No wonder Iraq is still a mess. How different we are from the British imperialists, who held together a vast empire for generations because they sent products of the elite institutions of Oxford and Cambridge to rule their colonial possessions.

Are you appalled by what I just wrote? Disgusted? Enraged? Me, too. Those are not, I can assure you, my thoughts or my sentiments. Incredible as it may seem, that stream of viciousness was published in The New York Times Magazine in April 2003, just weeks after the American invasion of Iraq, and it was emitted by one Professor Niall Ferguson, of Harvard University.

Meanwhile, The New Republic’s Peter Beinart is so shallow and empty that he could be mistaken for a hotel ashtray.

In that article Professor Ferguson lamented “the difficulty the American empire finds in recruiting the right sort of people to run it.” This is because, he sniffed, “America’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia, but to manage MTV; not to rule Hejaz, but to run a hedge fund;  not to be a C.B.E., or Commander of the British Empire, but to be a C.E.O. And that, of course, is one reason so many of the Americans currently in Iraq are first-generation immigrants to the United States–men like Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse.” Why an American would want to be a “C.B.E.” escapes me. But Professor Ferguson presses on, his Big Idea rattling in his little head: “The products of America’s elite educational institutions are the people least likely to head overseas, other than on flying visits and holidays,” he writes. Instead of these elite products, the professor instructs us, you get lots of African-Americans, who shockingly make up “12.9 per cent of the population, 25.4 per cent of the Army Reserve” and who are among those “who serve the longest tours of duty.” As a result, Professor Ferguson warns that “if the occupation of Iraq is to be run by the military, then it can hardly fail to create career opportunities for the growing number of African-American officers in the Army” rather than those cherished “products of elite educational institutions.” You see, I wasn’t joking. 

As we brood over the catastrophe in Iraq, which is not over but whose economic and political ramifications are just beginning to bring us down, we need to remember creatures like Niall Ferguson, a standout figure in the motley assortment of opportunists who used the occasion of the Iraq war to begin, jump-start or further their careers. These journalists, intellectuals, academics shaped the warped public consciousness that sent us into Iraq and thus into what is perhaps the worst foreign policy mistake in the country’s history. We need to understand the mechanisms by which they distorted–and by which they were allowed to distort–reality to the point that war was turned into peace and a new type of national incarceration into freedom.

Of course, not everyone who advocated toppling Saddam Hussein and establishing a democracy in Iraq was a scoundrel. Not by any means. It was perfectly honorable to believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and to want to destroy them. It was perfectly honorable–if naïve and even obtuse–to wish to liberate the Iraqis who had suffered so terribly at Saddam’s hands. Most of the people who advocated war in Iraq underwent painful, conscientious revolutions in their thought when they saw the debacle unfolding; many of them visited Iraq and experienced the factual rebuttal of their theories. A reader knew that they were writing honestly when they publicly wrestled with the consequences of their original thoughts about freedom and Iraq. You know when someone is writing honestly.

But then there were the others, whose intellectual reversals were executed with so little agony, with such a small amount of personal inconvenience, that their about-faces seemed the stuff of satire. Consider Peter Beinart. In 2006, Mr. Beinart published a book arguing that liberals will only be worthy of the name liberal if they learn how to fight the “good fight,” the noble conflict in this case being the subjugation of Iraq. Just a couple of months ago, however, he published another book, this time arguing that liberals will be worthy of the name liberal only if they learn how to restrain their “hubris,” the product of sinful pride in this case being the subjugation of Iraq.

Mr. Beinart is so shallow and empty that he could be mistaken for a hotel ashtray. Reading him, you feel that he has the soul of a receptacle. But should he be laughed away? In November 2001, Mr. Beinart responded to those who compared the American slaughter of innocent civilians in Afghanistan to the Taliban’s own brutality: “For the United States,” he wrote in The New Republic, of which he was the editor, “killing civilians is a tragic by-product of war, not its purpose.” He went on to say that “killing 5,000 Afghans could indeed be necessary to save American lives–if that were the only way to destroy a terrorist government that, if allowed to endure, would surely kill more Americans in the future.” In other words, the chastiser of American hubris in the form of American military aggression believed, just a few years ago, that killing 5,000 innocent men, women and children “could indeed be necessary” if the unknowable future decided that it should be so.

Still, the slippery Mr. Beinart pales in comparison to Professor Ferguson. This imported Scot’s toxic sentiments were bad and un-American enough, but the professor’s argument was just as miserable. Great numbers of British colonial administrators might have matriculated at Oxford and Cambridge, but that did not mean that they were not morally, intellectually and spiritually depleted as persons. In fact, as Orwell knew and wrote, Britain’s colonial satraps and their underlings were often people who could not find gainful employment in Britain. (If you can’t teach, teach gym; and if you can’t teach gym, go run India.) For a historian, Professor Ferguson has a dismayingly unsophisticated grasp of how the world works. Or maybe as an immigrant Scot seeking work in the American Empire, he is in a snit of denial about the nature of colonial arrivistes. He is certainly just plain ignorant of what is sometimes the inverse relationship between America’s top schools and the judgment and character of their graduates. You would need a calculator to add up the number of Ivy League grads behind the catastrophe in Iraq. How, after
 David Halberstam’s famous book, could this academic huckster use the phrase “best and brightest” without irony?

At the time Professor Ferguson’s essay was published, no one thought to call him out on his vile sentiments. But we had better remember the precise form his and others’ moral imbecility took seven years ago, at that fateful turning point in our history, or we will find ourselves there once again, faster than you can pronounce the beautiful names of all those “first-generation immigrants”–not at all the “right sort of people,” as Professor Ferguson puts it–who died in the sand in Iraq.

editorial@observer.com