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Book Review: Colossus

[ 3 ] August 3, 2006 |

This is the first of a series of eight reviews of books on the Patterson Summer Reading List.

God, this is a terrible book.

You get the sense that it’s bad from the cover quotes. Gaddis: “No contemporary historian rivals … Ferguson for the range, productivity, and visibility of his scholarship.” Ernest May: “Every page of Colossus is provocative.” Paul Kennedy: “Amid the seemingly endless writings and decisions about ‘America as Empire,’ the most prominent recent voice is that of Niall Ferguson.” Even Max Boot: Colossus is sure to shake the assumptions of both fans and critics of American Empire.” Clever readers will note what’s missing from all of these; an actual endorsement of Ferguson’s work. He’s provocative, productive, visible, prominent, and assumption shaking, but none of the esteemed reviewers can actually bring themselves to say his argument is compelling, well reasoned, or sensible. Getting hit in the head with a 2×4 is “provocative”, after all.

I’m not unsympathetic with Ferguson’s central thesis, that the United States is an empire or empire-like entity. That is to say, I may not be convinced, but I’m not viscerally opposed to the notion, either. Ferguson sprinkles the book with a few nuggets about the ineptitude of the Iraq War, and tries to win me over with the following passage:

Yet criticism of American empire was never the exculsive preserve of the political Left. In the eyes of Gore Vidal, the tragedy of the Roman Republic is repeating itself as farce, with the ‘national-security state’ relentlessly encroaching on the prerogatives of the patrician elite to which Vidal himself belongs

A good Gore Vidal bash goes a long way to winning my heart; I recall once a leftish friend in Seattle tried to get me to go to a Gore Vidal talk. I politely declined, thinking to myself that I’d rather have my fingernails ripped out than listen to that smug windbag for two hours. That’s probably not true, but it’s not far off, either.

The word that leapt to my mind most often while reading the book was “fudge.” That is, Ferguson makes his argument by relentlessly fudging every definition that might make his case understandable, logical, and consistent. For someone who likes to talk a lot about empire, Ferguson is extremely reluctant to define what an empire is. This is convenient, as it allows him to count any positive consequence of what might otherwise be called “hegemony” in the imperial column. To give an example, Ferguson declares that the British Empire had any number of ways of manifesting its influence, from direct rule (India) to indirect rule (Egypt) to economic influence (Argentina). He then dispenses with the term “hegemony”, arguing that all of these different forms of authority, and more, basically amount to empire. It doesn’t apparently bother him that this makes no sense; were we to take this definition seriously, we would have to count China and Japan in the 19th century as constituent elements of the American, French, Russian, British, and German empires, all at the same time. I wonder, which empire should the credit for Japanese success go to? When did Japan cease to be part of the British Empire, and become its own empire? Ferguson gives us no insight into this question, apparently because his purpose is to applaud empire without ever giving a clear idea of what empire actually is. Indeed, in his fervor to declare the US an empire he even repeats the old lefty canard about McDonalds and the spread of US imperium, without, again, ever giving any indication of how this matters for political authority. In any case, Ferguson can’t help us at all with the question of whether or not the US is an empire, because, again, to make such a determination one would first have to develop a definition of what empire is. Rather, Ferguson simply glides over the question and moves on.

And move on he does. A few of his more minor sins include extraordinarily shallow and facile interpretations of the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, a claim that the economic reconstructions of Germany and Japan in the 1940s and 1950s are more or less the same as the development of extractive industries in South Africa after the Boer War, and an amazingly bad account of the diplomatic build-up to the Iraq War (did you know that, in spite of popular majorities of 80% plus in opposition to the war, that Europe actually favored the invasion? Neither did I!). Ferguson periodically invokes “will” to explain American failures, and you get the sense that he kind of thinks of himself as a cranky Joseph Conrad-esque figure, mocking the American lack of gumption while celebrating the canon of pro-imperial British literature. In this he forgets to mention Graham Greene, the most interesting (and most skeptical) chronicler of Britain’s late imperial period; I can hardly imagine that Ferguson would sympathize with the protagonist of Heart of the Matter or even The Quiet American. It is hardly worth noting that Ferguson fails to discuss even in passing the negative effects of “empire”, including brutal occupation policies, economic exploitation, involuntary servitude, and political stultification. He also makes no effort to answer the Burkean critique of the domestic consequences of an imperial policy, one which, notably, both Conrad and Greene take seriously. But hey, to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs, right?

You might expect that Ferguson would deal in a perfunctory and unsatisfactory manner with the problem of nationalism. You’d be wrong; he doesn’t grapple with nationalism at all. Party like it’s 1788! You could read this entire book and come away with the notion that the only difference between 1856 and 2006 is that Americans aren’t as willing to dominate the world as the Brits. No discussion of advanced communication technologies. No discussion of identity. No discussion of the proliferation of small arms. No discussion of advances in guerilla technique. Nothing, in fact, that would make you think that Niall lived through the twentieth century at all. He does note that Robert Mugabe thinks that imperialism was bad, which means, obviously, that it must be good. Clever riposte, old man.

Colossus really shook my faith in the idea that “popular” international relations literature could contribute anything useful to a discussion of foreign policy. Fortunately, the rest of the books on the list ended up being a good deal better. I suppose that the most helpful thing I can say about Ferguson’s book is that it should help students develop a healthy critical eye and a skepticism about IR bestsellers.



[ 0 ] August 3, 2006 |


People should really listen to Robert Pape.

And, for that matter, read his book.

I concur and would add:

Read his other book, too. And Mia Bloom’s book.

Not Surprising, Just Funny

[ 0 ] August 2, 2006 |


The Bush administration said it viewed attempts by Venezuela or other countries to influence the transition in Cuba as unwarranted intervention. “The president is worried about people in the neighborhood who seek to destabilize neighbors using economic or other means,” Mr. Snow said.


[ 0 ] August 1, 2006 |


Interesting. Seems to me that in 1982, in Hama, Hafez al-Assad wiped out an uprising against his regime by slaughtering 25,000 over a weekend. And in 1991, Saddam Hussein took down the Shiite uprising with similar viciousness. The idea that such monstrous tactics don’t work is ludicrous. They do work. But I think it’s fair to say that we would rather our civilization die than that we commit such acts.


The thing of it is that it isn’t a coincidence that Saddam and Assad were brutal dictators. Which is to say it’s not that on the one hand they were brutal dictators and then on the other hand they crushed insurgents with brutal measures. In order to make counterinsurgency-through-brutality work you need to be actually trying to establish or maintain a brutal dictatorship, crushing civil society and ruling perpetually through force. This is why the Western colonial powers, despite a willingness to engage in the occassional massacre, couldn’t make even though tactics work to maintain their empires.

Yglesias is correct, but that’s not quite how I would have phrased it. (Incidentally, I also don’t think that Clausewitz is cliche; I believe that he makes a very specific, oft misinterpreted argument, but one that’s quite right. Nevertheless, an argument for another day.) I think it would be more appropriate to say that brutal tactics can destroy an insurgency under some circumstances and not others. J-Pod cites Assad and Hussein, but leaves out the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, the Japanese war in China, the Nationalist Chinese war against the Communist Chinese, the Germans in Yugoslavia, and the French in Spain. In all of those situations the organization conducting the counterinsurgency campaign used the most brutal possible tactics (in an effort, in several cases, to establish a brutal dictatorship), yet the efforts failed. What J-Pod misses is that it’s not simply a question of having the will to engage in indiscriminate slaughter; even organizations that have no such qualms often lose.

I’m inclined to think that this is less a question of will than of military science. I’m sure that Kingdaddy could lend much more productive commentary, but my first cut at the question would be that extermination campaigns can work against opponents who are relatively isolated from the rest of the world, and thus lack supplies, sanctuaries, and a transnational leadership hierarchy. Indeed, although the determinants are probably different in some dimensions, my guess would be that the same factors that help determine success in a “civilized” counter-insurgency campaign are those that indicate success in a brutal one.

God, I Loathe Christopher Hitchens

[ 0 ] August 1, 2006 |

… which makes it all the harder to acknowledge when he nails one on the head. Some choice quotes:

I was just in the middle of writing a long and tedious essay, about how to tell a real anti-Semite from a person who too-loudly rejects the charge of anti-Semitism, when a near-perfect real-life example came to hand. That bad actor and worse director Mel Gibson, pulled over for the alleged offense of speeding and the further alleged offense of speeding under the influence, decided that he needed to demand of the arresting officer whether he was or was not Jewish and that he furthermore needed to impart the information that all the world’s wars are begun by those of Semitic extraction.


One does not abruptly decide, between the first and second vodka, or the ticks of the indicator of velocity, that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are valid after all.


And it has been obvious for some time to the most meager intelligence that he is sick to his empty core with Jew-hatred. This is not just proved by his twistedly homoerotic spank-movie The Passion of the Christ, even though that ghastly production did focus obsessively on the one passage in the one of the four Gospels that tries to convict the Jewish people en masse of the hysterical charge of Christ-killing or “deicide.”

Now it should be fairly acknowledged that one may, between the sixth and seventh scotch on the rocks, decide that Paul Wolfowitz is a genius, especially if one is Christopher Hitchens. Nevertheless…

Just Because Niall Ferguson Says it’s Okay Doesn’t Make it Okay

[ 0 ] August 1, 2006 |

What is it about “hawkish” pundits that they can’t understand nationalism?

In Iraq, the leviathan has somehow managed to give the impression that what previous mid-rank powers would have regarded as a little light colonial policing has left it stretched dangerously thin and bogged down in an almighty quagmire. Even if it were only lamebrain leftist media spin, the fact that it’s accepted by large numbers of Americans and huge majorities of Europeans is a reminder that in free societies a military of unprecedented dominance is not the only source of power. More importantly, significant proportions of this nation’s enemies also believe the spin. In April 2003 was Baby Assad nervous that he’d be next? You bet. Is he nervous now?

It’s not as if nationalism is new; in its modern form, it has been around since at least 1789. Admittedly, the introduction of nationalism as an ideology didn’t happen until the twentieth century in many parts of the world, and in many places identification with the nation-state still isn’t the paramount form of political identity, but you would still expect that advocates of empire would take note of a phenomenon which has been around for a couple of centuries and which has fundamentally challenged the imperial model of governance.

To be as brief as possible, occupying and controlling a country like Iraq is much more difficult today than it would have been in 1890. While the French were able to control all of Indochina in the late 19th century with a relatively small number of troops, the United States couldn’t pacify half of Vietnam with a huge investment of military force in the 1960s. For a variety of reasons, most notably the spread of mass media and the consequent creation of national languages and historical narratives, new types of identification have been created. Entire books have been written about this process; it’s not a secret.

Nevertheless, guys like Steyn and especially Ferguson continue to talk as if they’ve never heard of nationalism. Need to pacify Iraq? Good show; the Ottomans managed with a few battalions in 1884, so shouldn’t be a problem for us. The problem extends into the administration, where policymakers seem to believe that people in Iraq/Lebanon/Iran/Syria will be delighted when the bombs start raining down, as long as the bombs (mostly) hit their domestic opponents.

Modern advocates of empire MUST grapple with the difficulties that nationalism creates if they want to be taken seriously. As I’ll discuss later this week, the pre-eminent imperial advocate, Niall Ferguson, utterly fails to do this. His failure doesn’t absolve the rest, though.

Just a Few LGF Commenters

[ 0 ] August 1, 2006 |

I think it’s time we dispense with this fiction:

I think that [Drum’s] reference to “casual genocide” as the preferred strategy of pro-war people is pretty clear, and pretty absurd. Yeah, you see that kind of thing in blog comments sometime, but I think most people support current U.S. military efforts because they fear that ignoring the problem is likely to produce more death and violence over the long term, not less.

In the wake of J-Pod’s suggestion that we just didn’t kill enough Sunni men to intimidate the rest, and Rush Limbaugh’s Bin Laden-esque justification of the slaughter of civilians, we’re way past the point at which exterminationist sentiment could be blamed on a few commenters. With the twin disasters of Iraq and Lebanon and the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, “Exterminate the Brutes” seems like the only thing the 101st Fighting Keyboarders have left.

Also read Dan on why a “kill ’em all” strategy is likely to fail today, assuming that it could ever be relied upon.

What? Bombing Helps Hardliners?

[ 0 ] July 31, 2006 |

Who knew?

Day by day, even as Iran’s officials assess the military setbacks of Hezbollah, they have grown more and more emboldened by the gathering support in the Islamic world for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia on the front line with Israel. They have grown more and more emboldened by what they see as a validation of their confrontational approach to foreign policy — and in their efforts to silence political opposition at home.

That is the view of at least some opposition figures, analysts and former government officials who say they find themselves in the awkward position of opposing Israel and sympathizing with the Lebanese people, yet fear what might happen should Hezbollah prevail.

But I’m sure that bombing Iran itself WOULD energize the reform movement.

Fidel Sick

[ 0 ] July 31, 2006 |

Wow. Wouldn’t that be a kicker, if Fidel picked this moment to shuffle off the mortal coil?

Everybody knows that US Cuba policy wins no prizes for rationality. That the US has maintained the same policy vis-a-vis Cuba for 44 years is impressive; most countries, seeing no results, would have given up before 20, or 35 at the limit. Does anyone know the last time that a major presidential candidate has advocated a serious change in Cuba policy? The sheer inertia of the policy suggests to me that it won’t be altered until Cuba itself changes. Even then, there are no assurances. As Yglesias noted a while ago, statutory US policy takes seriously the fantasy that Cuban exiles will get all of their property back after Castro is gone. The President at the time of the transition seems to have considerable latitude regarding how and whether the embargo will be lifted. Operating under the assumption that any administration, Democratic or Republican, has to be more diplomatically capable than this one, I can’t help but wonder whether it would be better if Fidel lingered on a couple more years before kicking off. I also have no doubt that a Democrat would be better on Cuba than a Republican, given that the truly psychotic elements of the anti-Castro movement (I recall one guy asserting, on Fox News, that Castro had a hand in 9/11) seem more strongly tied to the GOP.

Lose Control of Your Words?

[ 0 ] July 31, 2006 |

Huh. I’ll allow that I’ve probably had a .12 blood alchohol content my share of times, and I’ve certainly done things worthy of apology, but I don’t recall ever blaming all wars on the Jews. Of course, I don’t have to cover up for my dad denying the Holocaust, either…


[ 0 ] July 31, 2006 |

Praktike is quite right; one of the things that has disappeared in a cloud of Lebanese dust over the past two weeks has been Condi Rice’s reputation as a diplomat. I wasn’t quite willing to give her much credit as Sec State, but from what I know the people at State like her, and she hadn’t seemed egregiously more inept in this job than anyone else in the Bush administration. Certainly, it looked as if her SecState performance was an improvement on her NSA work.

But not now. If she’s not a hawk it’s even worse; if she has influence inside the administration it’s not apparent, and she’s proven completely incapable of putting together any international support for, well, any policy at all. As if it weren’t an absurd proposition in the first place, the “Condi for President” line seems not long for this world.


[ 0 ] July 30, 2006 |

Give a hearty LGM welcome to my newly minted niece, Rowyn Alaina Farley.

It’s good to know that there’s another kidney out there for me.

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