Niall Ferguson: Always Adamant

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in the Washington Monthly (June 2004):

In early May, Niall Ferguson, the celebrity Scottish historian, looked out at a packed house seething with antagonism. He had come to Washington to deliver a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations defending his idea that the war in Iraq had not only been the right thing to do, but also ought to be the first step towards a wide-ranging American empire. It would be difficult to imagine a moment when the capital's bipartisan policy elite --Ferguson's audience--were less inclined to be receptive to his ideas. The first accounts of the torture at Abu Ghraib had just appeared, and the cause in Iraq was beginning to look more hopeless than ever. And the crowd had come to see someone answer for all of this, to see how Ferguson, whose ideas had help get us into the war, would defend himself. Ferguson didn't defend himself. He attacked.

Within three minutes, he'd lost the liberals in the crowd, arguing, improbably that the problems in Iraq proved that America ought to be more of an empire, not less of one. A bald-headed scholar from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked him whether the United States ought to be morally willing to slay thousands of Iraqis to stabilize Iraq. Ferguson retorted, "Perhaps you would wish Saddam back in power; that's the implication of what you're saying." The liberal think-tankers around me started guffawing openly, and shooting each other is-this-guy-for-real smirks.

With one leg crossed over the other, his hands folded in his lap, his pale face issuing a dispassionate monotone, Ferguson pressed on. Not only were the problems in Iraq the direct fault of America's unwillingness to call itself an empire, he said, but they were also predictable. "In behaving the way they did," Ferguson said, "those soldiers and military policemen [at Abu Ghraib] were largely doing to their prisoners what routinely people in the American military do to new recruits."

This was too much for even the conservatives in the audience. The guffaws grew louder, the muttered protests reached the front of the room. In the row in front of me, a broad-shouldered, uniformed officer stood up. "Big disagree here, sir," he bellowed. "Big disagree with your characterization." (Fleetingly, I wondered if this was how colonels address one another in private). "The institution I have spent my life in abhors what went on in Iraq," he said. "It's not the way we treat anyone-- a fresh recruit or a plebe at West Point." The crowd clapped vigorously. In less than 10 minutes, Ferguson had pulled off that rarest of Washington double plays, alienating liberals and conservatives alike.

Ferguson didn't flinch. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "But you have to recognize that power will corrupt inevitably. It comes with the territory of empire." Transgressions like this, Ferguson said, were common to "all imperial armies."

The colonel stood there for a second, not knowing quite what to say. Eventually, he sat down. Ferguson hadn't quite satisfied the crowd, but he had displayed a mastery of just enough history to disarm them. The audience grumbled at Ferguson throughout the question-and-answer session, but no one really challenged him again. As the panel ended, they clapped grudgingly and then shuffled out of the room, vaguely dissatisfied. Ferguson had replicated his role from the lead-up to the war: In a moment of profound, and deeply felt, confusion at what our national direction ought to be, Ferguson offered extreme certainty. And his claims caught on when no one was able to make a counter-argument with such confidence and clarity.

Ferguson is, at just over 40 and a few months short of a scheduled appointment to a history professorship at Harvard, indisputably one of the world's most famous and influential historians--he was recently named one of the planet's 100 Most Influential People by Time, beating out Tony Blair. His influence comes from his dramatic, sweeping intellectual style, whose theme is, more or less, "Everything you thought you knew about history is wrong." Ferguson's genius is for counter-conventional thinking, urging radical reinterpretations of topics that everyone else had pretty much considered settled. Ferguson is out of sync with the academy in style, politics, and manner, but he has been a useful intellectual prod, the appeal of his radical theories forcing mainstream academics to refine their own thinking. Read Ferguson for any real stretch of time, and you begin to imagine what it might have been like had Andrew Sullivan chosen as his topic the entire breadth of human history. ...

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