Niall Ferguson: The Tragedie of George has three more scenes

Roundup: Historians' Take

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

... George W Bush's dominant character traits, his decisiveness and tenacity, at first appeared to be strengths. But once he had been convinced by his advisers that the attacks of 9/11 furnished a pretext for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, these became weaknesses.

As in Macbeth, King George was soon "in blood stepp'd in so far" that turning back seemed no more attractive than wading onward. Remember: the corpses that litter this stage can already be counted in the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands.

And, as in King Lear, the whole catastrophe has stemmed from a fatal confusion at the outset between the true and the false, enemy and friends. Lear succumbs to the flattery of the ugly sisters, Regan and Goneril, and casts out the blunt but honest Cordelia (not to mention the straight-talking Kent). The mistaken identity in the tragedy of King George was that of the real enemy in the post-9/11 War on Terror.

It is almost certain that the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia (15), the United Arab Emirates (2), Egypt (1) and Lebanon (1). The chief architect of the plot, Osama bin Laden, was also a Saudi. Contrast this list of countries with the list of members of the "Axis of Evil" identified by President Bush in his famous speech of January 2002 as "regimes that sponsor terror [and] threaten America... with weapons of mass destruction": North Korea, Iran and Iraq. President Bush was quite right to target Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, since the Taliban regime was sheltering al-Qaeda's leadership. But the decision to overthrow Saddam was one of history's great non sequiturs.

The real enemy in the Global War on Terror is not the Axis of Evil but the Axis of Allies. Today, the countries most likely to produce another 9/11 are not Iran, much less North Korea, but countries long regarded as (after Israel) America's most reliable allies in the Greater Middle East. Step forward Saudi Arabia (almost certainly still the biggest source of funding for radical Islamists) and Pakistan (very definitely their one-stop shop for nuclear weaponry).

There is, in short, a twist in this tale. Before the curtain can fall on The Tragedie of King George, we need at least three more scenes to decide the fates of three crucial characters - the only principals still left standing aside from King George himself.

First, we need a scene in Israel. Since the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's popularity has been in free fall. His current approval rating is around 2 per cent, by comparison with which King George is a pop idol. Somehow, despite the resignation of his foreign minister, Mr Olmert is still clinging to political life. But he surely cannot last much longer. What happens next will be crucial, for if Binyamin Netanyahu returns to power, the probability of a military confrontation with Iran goes up above 50 per cent.

Remember, Mr Netanyahu is on record as comparing the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Hitler. "It is the year 1938," Netanyahu recently declared, "and Iran is Germany." I suspect his private views are not so very far removed from those of the renowned Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, the professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Van Creveld is deeply pessimistic about Israel's future, menaced on one side by an increasingly violent and fissiparous Palestinian population and on the other by a would-be nuclear Iran. But he expects his country at least to go down fighting.

"We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions," van Creveld declared in an interview in September 2003. "We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that this will happen before Israel goes under."

Then we need a scene in Saudi Arabia. Here the key figure is Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud who, as Saudi ambassador to the United States, was one of the leading advocates of the attack on Iraq. Since October 2005 he has been back in Riyadh as Secretary-General of the National Security Council, where he is said to be lobbying hard for another attack: this time (you guessed it) on Iran.

Finally, the action needs to shift eastwards to Pakistan, where it is the future of General Pervez Musharraf that hangs in the balance. Eight days ago, 40 people died in rioting in Karachi, apparently as a result of attempts by pro-government forces to discourage a rally by disgruntled lawyers, who have been incensed by Musharraf's decision to oust the head of the Supreme Court.....

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Connor Wells Anderson - 5/23/2007

Personally, I find the image of GWB enduring the torments of Richard III on the eve of Bosworth Field to be a fine Shakespearian image:
Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.
Have mercy, Jesu!--Soft! I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder'd
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.

David J Merkowitz - 5/22/2007

FWIW, the article is in the Telegraph not the Independent.

James Alexander McGill - 5/22/2007

You forgot one final scene: who gets to play Fortinbras?