Niall Ferguson teaches history at Harvard. He has a very conservative world outlook which, when applied to the analysis of current social reality, has a tendency to so warp his perceptions that the situation he writes about becomes an imaginary inverted world where truth becomes falsity and falsity truth. But don't take my word for it. Just look at his article in the Wall Street Journal for 10/10-11/2015: "The Real Obama Doctrine." Ferguson's take on Obama can only be the result of a profound ignorance of the historical reality he professes to understand.
He opens his article by referring to ideas expressed by the revered, but morally reprehensible, Henry Kissinger in 1968. Kissinger expressed the opinion that America didn't really have a foreign policy. He might have noted the U.S. was too busy butchering Vietnamese peasants to pay attention to much else.
Be that as it may, there was no real coherent strategic thinking going on and this for two reasons according to Kissinger. First, the president was not selected for his strategic thinking but his "will" to get elected, and second, there are just too many lawyers working for the government. Now lawyers are clever but they don't know enough about history and this deficiency has led to the adoption of a "minimum risk" attitude when it comes to policy. Well, Ferguson teaches history at Harvard; what better guide could we have to lead us to understand Obama's plans for the U.S. of A.
Seeing that Obama was elected due to his will to win, has a passel of lawyers at work in his administration, and doesn't support a "maximum risk" policy, he seems to exemplify just what Henry K was complaining about to a tee. Ferguson tells us, in fact, that he himself has "spent much of the last seven years trying to work out" just what strategy Obama was following. Here is what he found out.
He read Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech but wasn’t clear on how it would result in practical actions. The speech was full of good intentions and was met positively by those friendly to the U.S. and either negatively or skeptically by those hostile to it. The criticisms basically were that actions speak louder than words and that upbeat speeches were no substitute for a change in policies. Ferguson doesn’t go into much detail on the speech, but needless to say he should have known that Obama would not be able to quickly reverse fifty years of cold war policies and the fact that the Bush administration had left the entire Middle East entirely in flames or on the verge erupting into chaos.
Obama’s attempt to disengage U.S. ground forces in Iraq and strengthen Iraqi security forces is called by Ferguson “precipitate withdrawal.” The fact is that the damage done to Iraq by the Bush policies are almost irreversible and the sectarian Shia government the U.S. created is both corrupt and unwilling, or unable, to reconcile with the Sunni minority. Obama must either try to wind down American involvement or hunker down and prepare for an open ended American occupation. The American people definitely want to get out of Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and they don’t want to get involved in Syria either. Obama cannot, no president could, put the Middle East back together again after the Bush folks so thoroughly smashed it up. The best he can do is respond to the will of the American people and try and limit the damage caused by the Bush gang.
Besides not having a clue to the complexities in Afghanistan, Ferguson thinks Obama has become “indifferent” to Europe as a result of the attempted “reset” with Russia. It’s true the reset failed but only because it was predicated on Russia following American dictates against its own interests and there is no evidence that Obama has become indifferent to Europe.
But Ferguson also discovered something more troubling than Obama’s failure to clean up the mess left behind by Bush. It is one thing to reject Bush’s policies, but the 2012 debate with Mitt Romney revealed, horror of horrors, that Obama was also “turning away from Ronald Reagan.” Romney held that enemy numero uno to our world wide hegemony was Russia and Obama dismissed this. And what happened? In March 2014 [as a result of the U.S. and E.U. intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine] Russia annexed Crimea returning it to Russian administration after it had been assigned by the Soviet Union to Ukraine in the 1950s. Historian that he is, Ferguson thinks Romney “prescient” in spotting that, in his words, Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe.” We had better move the Seventh Fleet to the Bering Strait in case Putin decides to reverse the Alaska Purchase.
Ferguson also discovered, by reading articles and interviews given by Obama in the popular press, that it was his intention to “create a new balance of power in the Middle East.” Obama said that he wanted to end the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni by trying to get Iran to abandon its (in his opinion) negative policies and to work with the mostly Sunni Gulf states in a common effort to build a positive future in the region.
Obama hopes an international coalition, which could include Iran, might work together to solve the problems of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Unmentioned is the fact that the crises in all these countries are the results of Saudi and American actions and interference. It would be the U.S. and not Iran that would have to abandon its negative policies. It is unlikely to do so since it profits from arms sales to the region.
Ferguson, however, has other reasons for objecting to Obama’s Middle East policies which he says are based on the president’s “fuzzy thinking.” In his recent U.N. speech Obama indicated he was willing to work with other nations “under the mantle of international norms and principles” and with both Russia and Iran (as long as they agreed to eventually dump Assad) in solving the Syrian problem. Obama is “fuzzy” because, Ferguson says, neither Russia nor Iran are “famed” for operating under the “mantle of international norms and principles.”
One would expect a Harvard history professor to be aware of the fact that the U.S. is also not “famed” for operating under this mantle. In fact, even a slight acquaintance with modern history would show U.S. behavior is more egregious in this respect than that of either Russia or Iran. In fact, almost every crisis in world diplomacy since (and most of them before) the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the result of the U.S. flouting international norms. To blame Obama for trying to improve this dismal record doesn’t say much in favor of Ferguson’s bona fides.
Ferguson thinks Obama's policies are failing because, since 2010, terrorism and violence in the Middle East from North Africa (Libya) to Pakistan and Afghanistan have dramatically increased and we can expect even more violence to come “as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post American hegemon.”
It’s true that American policies are not working out if peace is the goal. If, however, the goal is to sell billions of dollars worth of new weapons systems to the governments in the area as well as to ramp up military spending at home, these policies at least make some sense.
After Bush/Cheney destroyed Iraq in the east and the Obama/ U.S. supported NATO intervention in Libya (pushed by Secretary of State Clinton) effectively destroyed that country in the west the growth of terrorism was bound to increase as outside governments and their proxies moved in to take advantage of the chaos the U.S. created.
It was the Sunni governments that moved to take advantage of the situation. The U.S. destroyed two major secular governments and both the Saudi Arabians, and Gulf Sunni states, representing the most backward “Islamic” radical ideology, funded Sunni terrorist groups, as well as Pakistan’s covert support of the Taliban, that has led to the impotence of U.S. policy on the ground. The U.S. still sends billions of dollars in military aid (much of it actually spent at home to support the military industrial complex behind our domestic deep state) to countries who pass some of it along to the very terrorist groups the U.S. is fighting.
The truth is that Iran is not trying to become a hegemon. It was the Shah, installed as a result of a CIA coup against a democratically elected government and backed by the U.S., who was moving to both develop nuclear weapons and establish hegemony, as a U.S. client state, in the region until he was overthrown in 1979. The U.S. has been trying to get rid of the new Iranian government ever since.
Iran’s actions have been purely defensive in nature. It supports its Shia allies in Iraq against the Sunni Islamic State, it supports its ally Assad in Syria against the Islamic state and the Sunni jihadists supported by the Saudis and indirectly by the U.S. under the covering myth of supporting “moderates.” All this puts the lie to Ferguson’s pseudo-historical analysis of “Obama’s failures.” Obama’s problem, such as it is, has been his inability to reverse the movement of Middle Eastern disintegration initiated by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has succeeded in preventing the implosion of half the Mediterranean world by keeping boots off the ground in Libya and Syria, and thus not compounding the Bush/Chenny Iraq folly. Nevertheless his interventionist actions in these two countries threaten to create a wider area of war and destabilization which the next president will have to defuse unless he takes actions towards withdrawal and cooperation with the Iranians and Russians to limit Saudi and Pakistani sponsored jihadists.
Finally, Ferguson concludes there are three major problems facing U.S. foreign policy; the Middle East, Russia’s meddling, and China’s ambitions. Obama, he says, is failing to properly address these problems. The reason for this failure is that he does not have advisors of the caliber of Zbigniew Brzezinski (whose Afghan policies gave us both Osama ben Laden and the Taliban) and Henry Kissinger (whose war crimes against humanity gave us fascism in Chile and Pol Pot in Cambodia, among achievements of similar note). Both of these stalwarts, Furgeson says, have made intellectual contributions to strategic doctrine far greater than the advisors surrounding Obama. Perhaps, but more people around the world have died meaningless deaths and suffered injuries and loss of loved ones due to the strategic doctrines of Brzezinski and Kissinger than due to the policies of Obama (but he is running a close second with his Syrian policies).
U.S. policy does have problems. In the Middle East it supports dictators and tyrants and its blanket support of Israel and Israel’s truly barbaric treatment of the Palestinians prevents it from having a policy that the majority of Middle Eastern people can live with. We create the very terrorists we seek to fight. Russian meddling is nothing more than its advancing policies that protect its interests and are usually just reactions to overt or covert U.S. provocations. There will be no reset of relations with Russia as long as the U.S. acts in bad faith. China’s ambitions are perfectly normal. They want to play a role in their part of the world commensurate with their growing economic and political strength. As long as the U.S. seeks to challenge them in this respect (such as U.S. air and naval provocations in the South China Sea) there will be no real cooperation possible nor any incentive for Chinese to trust the U.S.
The above comments are just a reflection of the current Zeitgeist and it appears that the role of the U.S. is contrary to the movement that spirit is taking — a movement that is pointing us towards a world of better cooperation and understanding and is not subject to the negative destructive will of one rogue superpower. This, and not the views of Henry Kissinger, is what the next president must keep in mind.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.