Niall Ferguson: There are 300m Americans, but still not enough to rule the world

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University.]

You would have thought that 300 million Americans would be enough to rule the world, or at least a couple of medium-sized failed states. The population of Iraq is 27 million, that of Afghanistan 31 million. Yet the same week that the population of the United States officially passed the 300 million mark, we heard two startling admissions that testify to the scale of crisis facing America's unspoken empire.

The first admission came on Wednesday from George W. Bush himself. Asked by reporters if the situation in Iraq was comparable with that in Vietnam at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive — an event popularly (though wrongly) perceived as the beginning of the end for the American defence of South Vietnam — the President conceded the comparison "could be right".

The very next day, the spokesman for the US military command in Iraq confessed that the army's latest effort to quell the escalating civil war in central Iraq "has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence" (military-speak for "has totally failed").

A year ago these admissions would have been headline news. Today, people just shrug. That Iraq is America's new "quagmire" has become conventional wisdom.

But why should this be so? Less than a century ago, before the First World War, the population of Britain was 46 million, barely 2.5 per cent of humanity. And yet the British were able to govern a vast empire that encompassed an additional 375 million people, more than a fifth of the world's population. Why can't 300 million Americans control fewer than 30 million Iraqis?

Three years ago, as the United States swept into Iraq, I wrote a book entitled Colossus that offered a sombre prediction, summed up in its subtitle: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. My argument was that the United States was unlikely to be as successful or as enduring an imperial power as its British predecessor for three reasons: its financial deficit, its attention deficit and, perhaps most surprisingly, its manpower deficit. Rather cruelly, I compared the American empire to a "strategic couch-potato… consuming on credit, reluctant to go to the front line [and] inclined to lose interest in protracted undertakings".

I wish I'd been proved wrong. Sadly, events in Iraq have borne out that analysis. No Marshall Plan for the Middle East materialised to revive the Iraqi economy. And domestic support for the enterprise proved short-lived.

I have spent much of the past month on the road, talking to readers in bookstores and lecture halls from downtown Manhattan to suburban California to rural Arizona. Practically everyone I have talked to, including many a Republican, yearns for their country to get out of Iraq. (One email I received this week summed up the mood: "We are sick of him [Bush] and his war.")...

[Ed. Ferguson goes on to argue that American foreign policy is being driven by domestic considerations, dooming ikts impeerial ventures in Iraq and possibly elsewhere.]

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