Writing about Niall Ferguson’s newest book, Civilisation, Sadakat Kadri was moved to qualify it as follows: “(sic)”.
How right Kadri is. Once more, I find myself in the awkward position of wondering why those for whom war is an easy, comfortable, and casual choice—who, of course, never fight it, nor suffer its consequences—are given such platforms. You would think most editors and pundits are unaware that countries include not only territory, but humans.
The absence of humility is startling. The presumptuousness is humbling. The eagerness for violence is terrifying. Once more, as ten years before, a war on a four-letter word of a country is mooted, teased, and bought into, the suspension of admittedly barely critical faculties by this point still surprising. For example, the late Christopher Hitchens’ deep hypocrisy; such people are smart enough to know better.
So why don’t they? Folks often ask me why Muslims don’t do more to condemn terror. In fairness, why do rich and powerful types over here continue to call for war on poor countries, with little consideration of the consequences—especially after the last such war, on Iraq, went so horribly, gruesomely wrong? Hundreds of thousands dead, and counting. At the very least, that should be a consideration.
But not for Niall Ferguson, who renews his enthusiastic celebration of militancy in the aptly-titled Daily Beast, arguing that five of the commonest reasons people give for not going to war with Iran are inadequate and unconvincing. That Ferguson thinks he can offer us a five-step guide to bombing a country indicates what kind of man he is. Still more telling: None of his five reasons speak to the long-term human consequences.
It’s too bad Pankaj Mishra’s eloquent demolition of Ferguson over at The London Review hasn’t sunk in quite yet; every few years, as Mishra pointed out, Ferguson manages to discover himself at the head of the next great cause, whether that’s building an Empire or warning of the inability to sustain one. How convenient for him, and inconvenient for whole countries.
Should we go to war with Iran? Ferguson tells us it’s riskier not to. Because, of course, he is such a good judge of how wars turn out.
The Middle East is clearly a tinderbox, barely contained by its many failed or confused governments—further violence would only aggravate the situation, regardless of which sect that violence is directed against. Whether or not predicted scenarios of rising oil prices do or do not come to pass is to miss the point entirely. The deeper point is: We don’t know what would happen.
When we went to war with Iraq, we shifted hundreds of billions of dollars to an unclear adventure that has been unsatisfactorily unresolved. Those were hundreds of billions we could have used here; indeed, as we focused so intently on the alleged threat posed by a second-rate third-world power, we missed what was happening socioeconomically in our societies, and continue to suffer for it. Not to mention the suffering in Iraq.
Ferguson says nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, and the hundreds of thousands more who suffer, who were expelled, maimed, forced into prostitution, and otherwise traumatized. To Ferguson, humans are second-order policy considerations, though he might ask: Would you rather Saddam was still in power?
I would counter: Would you rather hundreds of thousands dead in an ongoing sectarian war? For all the alleged ability inside that man’s mind, surely he can come up with some other means by which we can promote good governance or counter dictatorship. Allow me to offer a bracing scenario.
Let’s say we bomb Iran’s nuclear sites with sufficient force to provoke a crisis in its regime, which then begins to collapse. Just because a government falls doesn’t mean another will rise in its place. What will we have accomplished then? Creating an open front, so to speak, a giant security vacuum from Pakistan’s frontier with Kashmir to southern Lebanon. Fantastic.
The same extremists who slide in and out of Afghanistan and cause so much damage in that region could then smuggle weapons and material across Iran, through a patchily-governed Iraq, and across an unstable, violent Syria—as is already happening in the aftermath of the redistributive consequences of the Libyan war. They could arm Syrian Sunnis against the Alawi government, or just aim for Israel. I’m sure many such groups would love to try.
And how would it possibly be in Israel’s interest to realize that geopolitical scenario? How could it be in America or Europe’s interest to realize that kind of instability? In which case, we would have to hit Iran hard enough to stop their nuclear program, but not hard enough to collapse their government, which would accomplish what, exactly? And the difficulty of such precision is embodied in Ferguson’s frankly self-defeating comparison of a war on Iran to the ’67 War.
For it was that war which generated the Islamist momentum, to a great degree, that today has won so many elections across the Middle East; the role of that war in the Iranian revolution likewise should not be underestimated. The running theme of the Arab Spring, and much of regional politics, has been the recovery of sovereignty, dignity, and a respected and respectful place in the world. Being bombed, or watching people like you be bombed, every several years is the opposite of that.
Ferguson thinks he’s clever by calling for “creative destruction”; what a tin ear. Indeed, the first thing his unblinking call for war called up in me was Condoleezza Rice’s stunning description of the Lebanon war as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East,” which unfortunately for Ferguson—I don’t think he ever reads the news—was not well-received by Sunni or Shi’i Muslims. And that, too, simply followed after Madeleine Albright’s unforgettable: “We think the price is worth it.”
Iran’s government has much to answer for. But the people who judged Iraq so badly, and so inhumanely, do not have the moral right to preside over that trial. That someone could so blandly suggest that we are on the “eve of creative destruction,” and that “Sunni powers” would not be offended by that, intimates a person whose denial of Muslim humanity should keep him off the newspaper page, and whose deafness to the region suggests willful ignorance.
The Daily Beast, indeed.