Monday, January 16, 2006

Niall Ferguson's apologist history of the future

You may have noticed Niall Ferguson's dark "'What if?' History of the Future of Iran-U.S. Relations." Fergsuon's essay is, in essence, an answer to the imaginary history essay question of the future: "In 2007, Iran-U.S. relations deteriorated to the point where these is a nuclear exchange. How did this happen?"

What's most striking about Ferguson's scenario is how many right-wing cliches he manages to embed in his narrative: a stalwart, misunderstood American Republican leadership; a Chamberlinite domestic opposition in Britain and the U.S.; a heroic Ariel Sharon, laid tragically low at the moment he was most needed; a pusillanimous Continental leadership; an opportunistic Russian and Chinese leadership; and of course (always!) those fanatically malevolent "Middle Easterners." Indeed, one is tempted to say that the main purpose of the essay is less to guide any kind of critical thinking about current foreign policy than it is to promote the continued operational usefulness of these cliches.

Had I the time, I'd be tempted to write the progressive counterpoint to the same scenario. Imagine how someone informed by a different politics than Ferguson might come up with a totally different narrative: one in which the Bushist declaration of Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil" in 2001, coupled with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, was perceived in Iran as a de facto declaration of war. (Michael Ledeen would be quoted as idiotic-instigator-in-chief in this scenario.) The historian might then show how this de facto declaration spurred in the Iranian leadership a desperate search for a defensive posture capable of warding off the U.S. military threat, inevitably leading to the reactivation of a previously dormant drive to build a nuclear device. The historian might also note that the U.S. occupation of Iraq by (inadvertently) empowering of the fundamentalist Shiite majority in Iraq, also precipitated a radicalization of Shiite religious energies in Iran, eventuating in the election of a militant and aggressive millenarian to the Iranian Presidency.

This same historian might also note that the fact that the U.S. policy in the Middle East was driven by a the most secrecy-obsessed Presidency in the history of the country had led to a globally widespread suspicion of the American's regime's motives, magnifying the difficulty of presenting a globally united front against Iranian proliferation. The fact that terrible domestic policies were finally being perceived by the American public had resulted in a wounded and ineffective leadership by America in 2005-2007, causing that leadership to respond to its weak negotiating position by ratcheting up its rhetoric of war, further exacerbating the negative dynamic in Iran, and further isolating it from what might otherwise have been sympathetic Western opinion.

Yes, one can certainly imagine such a scenario. And a good deal more plausible as a history it would be, too. But of course, that's not Ferguson's project; rather, his project is to provide advance neocon spin for the oncoming world-historical catastrophe that the neocon ideological project may be bringing down on all our heads. What Ferguson's article is really represents, in short, is an attempt to deal with the neocons' calamitous PR problem: whatever happens in the Middle East over the next couple of years, it's going to be exceedingly difficult to try to pin the blame for the catastrophe on anyone else. But Ferguson's trying, good man.

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