It doesn't happen nearly often enough. Or then again, perhaps it happens too often. An opinion piece masquerading as intellectual acumen that is in reality so vapid, so nonsensical, so downright idiotic that it breaches new horizons--nay, new vistas--in stupidity. Such a striking anomaly to the discourse of the body politic that makes one gaze, stupefied at the pure essence of its inanity.
Such is the most recent effort of one Harvard Professor named Niall Ferguson. This piece, which graced the cover of the February 18th issue of Newsweek under the eye-catching title of Egypt: How Obama Blew It, should be pored over by students in future times, preserved and reverently treasured as a precious historical artifact documenting the sorry intersection of American journalism with shallow political analysis. Emblazoned before a photograph of a sullen, morose Obama, eyes downcast and angst-ridden, Egypt: How Obama Blew It taunts us, beckons us, with the promise of cruel malice, to witness the sorry spectacle of a President's comeuppance.
"The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the hem of His coat, that is all.” Thus Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who united Germany and thereby reshaped Europe’s balance of power nearly a century and a half ago.
Last week, for the second time in his presidency, Barack Obama heard those footsteps, jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity … and missed it completely.
In Bismarck’s case it was not so much God’s coattails he caught as the revolutionary wave of mid-19th-century German nationalism. And he did more than catch it; he managed to surf it in a direction of his own choosing.
The surfing Bismarck leads us to the raging whirlpool that is Ferguson's thesis: Obama has failed, utterly failed to harness the zeitgeist that is driving the popular rebellions in the Middle East and Northern Africa and surf it to America's advantage. And, most importantly, he's failed twice.
Once is happenstance, twice, well, twice suggests incompetence, right?
The other, preceding instance of Obama's purported failure, in Ferguson's view, is that he didn't throw his full-throated, unconditional support behind the 2009 protests in Iran. Ferguson appears to think that doing so would have changed the outcome there, and implicitly would have somehow elevated the U.S. to some illusory status of moral arbiter and Bismarckian unifier.
This is not only unrealistic, but foolish. Breathtakingly, cardiac-arrestingly foolish. And Ferguson need only look in the mirror to see why.
As we all know, the Iranian protests were ultimately put down by the Iranian security apparatus which brought violence, tear gas and torture down on the youthful uprising until its spirit dimmed. One of the reasons Iran's leaders could do this with impunity is the fact that their regime was immeasurably aided by the same type of shallow, short-sighted and myopic America-as-center-of-the-universe worldview that apparently guides Ferguson here. I speak of the small matter of the invasion of Iraq, a venture that resulted in Iran's transformation to the dominant power in the region, increasing its influence twofold at least, and imbuing it with a confidence and hubris that accompanies such success.
Ferguson apparently forgets that the Iranian regime's principal rhetorical weapon against the protesters was the spectre of foreign meddling. If the indigenous movement could be tainted as the pawn of foreign interests its legitimacy among the rest of the people would wane. The regime's response was brutal enough. Imagine the brutality that would have ensued had Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made loud public statements calling for the dissolution of the Islamic regime, and declaring the commitment of U.S. resources to the uprising. The regime would then have had a complete justification for its actions, not only for public relations purposes but also in the eyes of its own people. Beyond the sheer annihilation of the protesters, imagine what would have happened to our troops in Iraq. Imagine a blockade of Iranian oil shipments. Imagine what would have happened to the world economy had Iran retaliated. Imagine us losing allies, fast. One thing seems glaringly obvious: had we done so the prospects of reform in Iran would have been set back even further than they are now.
Ferguson's magical thinking supposes there is some inclination in the rest of the world to credit American actions with anything but self-interest. After the Iraq debacle, which Ferguson enthusiastically supported, there is zero confidence in the competence, let alone the motivation of American efforts abroad. Nonetheless, Ferguson now urges that Obama is mistaken for not doubling down on Bush's failure. This is not the mark of a historian: it is the mark of a fool who has learned nothing from history.
If the U.S. declares support for an indigenous uprising the existing regime has every reason to use that fact against the protesters to delegitimize their complaints, both in the eyes of the world and the perceptions of those uncommitted, thus lessening the likelihood that they will succeed. If the U.S. openly backs the dictator (as it did in pre-1980 Iran) and he is overthrown, the revolutionaries do not forget. There can be no "grand strategy" to address these types of developments. As Iraq showed, "grand strategies" indiscriminately brandished like a sledgehammer tend to end in geopolitical disasters. Each situation must be evaluated in context, and that is exactly how Obama is approaching it. This may be too complicated and unsatisfying a concept for for Ferguson to grasp, but it is reality.
You need to read the whole piece to appreciate how bad it really is. Keep in mind that not a lot of folks actually subscribe to Newsweek. Most Americans' exposure to it is in offices and airport newsstands. So far more people will see the cover than will actually read the article only to discover that the cover story is senseless drivel.
With that in mind, and given the fact that even the fairly useless is subject to fair use, we will now examine some of Ferguson's more egregious fulminations.
In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.
Ferguson claims Obama had a "choice," as if only two stark alternatives presented themselves for handling a complex and unprecedented foreign policy situation, one with the potential of drastically and perhaps permanently impacting the oil supply that keeps this country operating as a going concern; impacting the continued existence and security of the state of Israel; and affecting the geopolitical balance and structure of power between the U.S., Asia and Europe. Those are the issues implicated by the turmoil in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Those are the issues that the Administration must weigh in the formulation of any "response:" its impact on relationships with existing monarchies such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and most importantly the potential for lasting and damaging blowback. These issues cannot be reduced to an "either/or" approach.
Ferguson then smugly reports on "flying" to Tel-Aviv (really, how else would he get there? By boat?) and attending an impressive sounding foreign policy conference (the "annual Herzliya security conference") which he says, deemed American foreign policy a "colossal failure." What is the "Herzliya conference?"
The Herzliya Conference, hosted by the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, is Israel's center stage for the articulation of national policy by its most prominent leaders, including the Israeli President, the Prime Minister, the IDF Chief of General Staff, and the leading contenders for high political office
Hardly an unbiased gathering, to say the least. One wonders exactly what response Israel's "most prominent leaders" would have approved, given the fact that Mubarek was their cooperative partner for 30 years. More fundamentally, one wonders why Ferguson would cite his presence at this gathering without bothering to explain exactly what it is.
The piece grows more venomous. With a backhanded reference to Obama's "cosmopolitan" (i.e., multiracial) background, Ferguson graciously allows that Obama himself is not "wholly to blame" for his lack of "grand strategy," although "more than a few" veteran foreign policy analysts are frankly "worried"(whosoever would he mean?). He blames Obama's choice of James Jones as National Security chief, then extols the virtues of Henry Kissinger. Ultimately he compares Obama to Carter, inserting this howler:
The contrast between the foreign policy of the Nixon-Ford years and that of President Jimmy Carter is a stark reminder of how easily foreign policy can founder when there is a failure of strategic thinking. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which took the Carter administration wholly by surprise, was a catastrophe far greater than the loss of South Vietnam.
This is a revealing statement because it shows that neocons and their adherents (for that is exactly the philosophy Ferguson espouses) again and again tend to place their "principles" (whatever they are) above practical considerations like human lives, for example. To elevate the Iranian revolution in significance over the Vietnam War in a column dealing with American foreign policy is either disingenuousness or, more likely, willful blindness. In terms of foreign policy debacles Vietnam is without parallel in its cultural impact on the U.S. as well as the ensuing history of its foreign and military policy. Again, if Ferguson wants to examine a foreign policy debacle of staggering proportions he would do better to look at Iraq. But of course, he doesn't.
Dropping the pretense of graciousness, Ferguson accuses the Administration of "bungling" because it did not run various scenarios through think-tanks anticipating popular revolt in Egypt. Predictably, the Islamic bogeyman of the Muslim Brotherhood is dangled as a lingering threat to re-establish a "Caliphate," ignoring the fact that the Brotherhood is hardly monolithic and has enjoyed discreet communications with the U.S. for decades.
The portentousness grows heavy in Ferguson's dire pronouncements:
Grand strategy is all about the necessity of choice. Today, it means choosing between a daunting list of objectives: to resist the spread of radical Islam, to limit Iran’s ambition to become dominant in the Middle East, to contain the rise of China as an economic rival, to guard against a Russian “reconquista” of Eastern Europe—and so on.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It's merely a warmed over version of the Project for the New American Century credo.
[What we require is] a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities. Of course, the United States must be prudent in how it exercises its power. But we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership of the costs that are associated with its exercise. America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of the past century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.
We didn't have the time, money, or lives to waste on this delusional nonsense in 2000, and we are still suffering the consequences of it. That Newsweek should give a forum to this babbling idiot Ferguson is bad enough, but putting it on the cover is simply a disgrace. It is also unfathomable why Newsweek would put its reputation on the line by calling Obama a "failure" while events in the Middle East continue to rapidly evolve (Is anyone in Egypt really lamenting that "Obama blew it?")
Ferguson followed up in the February 27 issue with what we can only assume is a "clarification".
Two weeks ago I criticized the Obama administration for its failure not only to foresee this crisis but also to have any kind of coherent grand strategy to cope with it—resulting in a period of hapless confusion in American foreign policy. A number of critics wondered what such a coherent strategy might have looked like. The answer is this.
For many years American administrations tried to have it both ways in the Middle East, preaching the merits of democratization while doing next to nothing to pressure the region’s despots to reform, provided their misbehavior remained within tolerable limits (no invading Israel or Kuwait, no acquiring weapons of mass destruction). 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.
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.
This is more nonsense, unfortunately. First of all, Ferguson has no idea what policy McCain/Palin would have pursued. No one does. But judging from McCain's inability to pivot during the campaign and address the financial meltdown there is no reason to expect that his foreign policy judgments would have ended in anything but disaster for us. The argument that Iraq or its people are somehow better off, or that the U.S. is somehow better off, as a result of the U.S. invasion is demonstrably false. In fact they, and we, are worse off.
After the disaster in Iraq (which is now gradually edging towards a dictatorship), one would have hoped that these delusional proponents of American exceptionalism would have scurried back under the rocks from whence they came. Niall Ferguson and Newsweek magazine prove that rumors of their demise are, sadly, overstated.