Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I'm trying to divine Niall Ferguson's overall message here, the only one that I'm able to draw is that we are seriously up shit creek in Iraq. It's testament to his skills as an apologist that he can relay this point while still executing perfect backflips and shaking his pom-poms for imperialism.

Ferguson begins by suggesting that we shouldn't be so durn pessimistic about U.S. success against the Iraqi insurgency (somebody call Christopher Hitchens, Niall used the "I" word!), and should buck up and consider past colonial victories over insurgencies. As exhibit A, he offers that of the British in Iraq in 1920. Then, quite ably negating that point, he lays out three advantages that the British enjoyed in 1920 that the U.S. does not in 2005: much greater troop strength in relation to the population, a complete disregard for any rules regarding the mass killing of non-combatants, and no forced timetable for withdrawal.

I have to say that I'm a little disturbed, if not very surprised, by Ferguson's putting the 1920 Iraq insurgency in the Good! column. I suppose the British crackdown could be considered a victory in that it ended the insurgency, but, as Ferguson admits, that victory was largely due to the massive aerial bombardment of civilians, "breaking their spirits" as a good colonialist would say. Then as now, the "liberation" of Iraq necessarily required the deaths of many thousands of Iraqis, and one would be a fool to suppose that lingering resentment from the British colonial period, the brutality of which still exists in living memory, doesn't play a major part in the recruitment efforts of the insurgents. Considering this, how much of a victory was 1920 for the British? In any case, it's clearly not a good model for the U.S. to follow.

Then I found this a bit disturbing:

Indeed, if there is asymmetry it lies in the advantages enjoyed by the insurgents. The cost of training and equipping an American soldier is high; by contrast, life is tragically cheap among the young men of Baghdad and Falluja. Even if the insurgents lose 10 men for every 1 they kill, they are still winning, not least because the American side takes its losses so much harder.

What do you suppose Ferguson means by this? That American soldiers grieve more at the loss of their comrades? That American families suffer more than Iraqi ones at the deaths of their children? Amazing how the same cliches always eventually show up in the exhortations of colonial apologists: They're not like us. They don't feel pain like we do. The question is: Does Ferguson actually wear a pith helmet while at the keyboard?

As to the question of withdrawal, Ferguson recognizes that we are already locked into something of a timetable: the 2008 U.S. presidential election. It's obvious that, regardless of whether a plan for phased withdrawal arises from a shift in policy from this administration or from a newly elected American administration, the insurgents will claim victory when such a plan is announced. It seems to me that such a claim would be more believable if it came in the wake of a Democratic presidential victory won as a result of declining fortunes in Iraq, whether or not it happened to be true. It comes down to whether announcing a plan for withdrawal will on balance do more to stabilize Iraq by giving more juice to the new Iraqi government than it will to destabilize Iraq by giving the insurgency a propaganda victory. At this point I think the latter is true, but not by much.

I think it was a big mistake not to announce a plan for withdrawal during the brief moment of elation after the reasonably successful Iraqi elections, when the U.S. could've credibly claimed that things were reasonably on track. I don't know if we'll see another window of opportunity like that in the near future. Given the colonial legacy in Iraq, though, a plan for withdrawal would be a sign that the U.S. is serious about Iraqi sovereignty and democracy, and in the long run would be a lot more effective than the crackdown which Ferguson seems to be suggesting.

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