The Imperial Lament

There is something refreshing about British historian Niall Ferguson’s argument “not merely that the United States is an empire, but that it has always been an empire.” For a certain kind of American liberal, the Bush administration’s eager invasion of Iraq has been a bad dream. The ignominious departure of US viceroy L. Paul Bremer from Baghdad on June 28, many assume, marks the beginning of the end of a grim, aberrant interlude in an otherwise innocent and idealistic US foreign policy. In contrast, Ferguson cheerily cites the work of the independent Marxist, Harry Magdoff, and the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Geir Lundestad, to establish that US armed forces were stationed in 64 countries in 1967 and that those forces conducted 168 different overseas military interventions between 1946 and 1965.


Like the new left historical revisionists exemplified by William Appleman Williams in his classic, Empire as a Way of Life, Ferguson dismisses the hallowed notion of American exceptionalism. But he draws opposite conclusions from those who have used the term “empire” to critique US global power. His principal point is that the United States, like Great Britain before it, should be an empire and that the world badly needs the US to behave like one. The problem is not, as some would have it, that great powers tend to arrogantly overstep their bounds or give rise to countervailing forces, but that today’s sole superpower is a “colossus with an attention-deficit disorder,” unsuited by temperament for the pesky tasks of global domination. Ferguson‘s Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), is an exhortation as well as a lament. If the US does not embrace history’s charge and acknowledge itself as an empire, he fears, the world could suffer “a new Dark Age of waning empires and religious fanaticism…of economic stagnation and a retreat of civilization into a few fortified enclaves.”


Though Ferguson was an ardent advocate of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, he has found himself at semantic odds with the neo-conservative intellectuals who provided the justification for the war. In July 2003, he debated one of these deep thinkers, Robert Kagan, at the American Enterprise Institute on the proposition that the US “is and should be an empire.” Kagan, upholding the usual American anti-imperialist self-image, argued that the US is “a global hegemon.” But like many neo-conservatives outside government, Ferguson opposes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s strategy of empire on the cheap and argues that the occupation of Iraq has floundered because the US has tried to occupy the country with too few troops, too few air raids upon Falluja and too legalistic and mincing a demeanor. As a historian, Ferguson sees the Iraq war as a real-time test for lessons derived from his study of the past: successful empires cannot be afraid to use the force at their disposal. The credibility of his prescriptions therefore rests, substantially, on the quality of Colossus as history.




To be fair, Ferguson‘s main focus in Colossus is not on the salutary effects of imperial violence. Rather, he argues that the US, like Britain, is and should be a liberal empire:


that is to say, one that not only underwrites free international exchange of commodities, labor and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function — peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies — as well as provides public goods, such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools, which would not otherwise exist.


The political vision underlying this proposal can be determined by the absences in its formulation: no inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; no liberty, equality and fraternity; no right of nations to self-determination in either the Wilsonian or Leninist sense. This is a dream — many would call it an apparition — of markets über alles.


Admirably, Ferguson, in contrast to most academic historians who remain within the boundaries of ever narrowing specializations and write for diminishing audiences, aspires to influence public culture and political discourse. He is unapologetically presentist and believes that historical insight can be applied to the pressing questions of the moment. The obvious peril of such writing is that no one can reasonably be expected to be an expert on all the topics in a book ranging across the last 200 years of Anglo-American history. What can be expected is basic factual accuracy, internally consistent use of the evidence presented, broad consultation of others’ work and due consideration of differing interpretations on matters that are critical to the argument. In these respects, Ferguson disappoints. When addressing the actual histories of Latin America, Vietnam or the Middle East, Ferguson simply ignores unambiguous facts and interpretations that do not confirm his opinions.


For example, he claims that “spasmodic [US] intervention in Central America and the Caribbean” led to undemocratic governments in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Cuba and Nicaragua. Had US forces stayed longer, or annexed the territories outright, as was the case with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, things “might have been better for all these places.” Such counterfactual arguments are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove. Moreover, Ferguson admits on the next page that as of 1939 the only democracy in the region was Costa Rica, where there had never been a US military intervention, a fact that would seem to contradict his original assertion. The longest US military occupation in the region was in Haiti: from 1915 to 1934, with several subsequent briefer interventions. Does this explain why Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere or why it suffered the viciously despotic regime of the Duvaliers?


Taking the argument to a more distant region, did the relatively lengthy occupation of the Philippines from 1898 to 1946 result in a democratic regime? Does anyone remember Ferdinand Marcos, for whose regime the term “crony capitalism” was first coined, and his wife Imelda of the myriad shoes? Their names do not appear in Colossus. Ferguson is aware of these cases that undermine his argument, but they are relegated without comment to a statistical appendix.




Both advocates and opponents of an American empire agree that its center of gravity, if not quite the jewel in the crown, is the Middle East. We might, therefore, expect that Ferguson would take particular care in discussing this region. But just as the neo-conservative war party consulted only those who would say what they wanted to hear, Ferguson is, for the most part, trapped in an imperial echo chamber that muffles the voices of those with a more substantial understanding of the modern Middle East.


Ferguson diverges slightly from a colonial historical perspective and hegemonic political doctrine on two Middle East-related issues: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and US-Israeli relations. He violates a virtual taboo in American discourse by indecorously observing that, “What the Zionist extremists had once done to drive the British out of Palestine [i.e., terrorism], Palestinian extremists now did to the Israelis.” In contrast to the oft-parroted notion that the United States and Israel have a “special relationship,” Ferguson emphasizes the “friction and ambivalence” in US-Israeli relations. He believes that “the Israelis tenaciously resisted American pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians” in the 1980s.


Three factors may explain these deviations from prevailing orthodoxy. First, Ferguson is a bold, even if not an entirely original, thinker; he appears to enjoy ruffling feathers. Second, like most Europeans, his views on Israel and Palestine are somewhat more rooted in reality than is the case for most Americans. Third, Ferguson doesn’t know the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and US-Israeli relations well.


Ferguson is very likely correct that there will not be a significant diminution of terrorism in the Middle East “so long as Israel seeks a purely military solution to the problem.” Conclusions about the urgency of a negotiated solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might follow from this observation. But going there would make Ferguson a political pariah in the circles he is closest to and even risk accusations of anti-Semitism from the Zionist ultras. Despite such flashes of realism, Ferguson‘s historical understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict is seriously deficient.


The Arab states did not sponsor Palestinian terrorism early on. As Israeli historians Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris have demonstrated based on extensive archival research, Jordan has almost always tried to prevent Palestinian infiltration into Israel. Egypt did so until a massive Israeli raid on the police headquarters of Gaza in February 1955. Many consider this to be the event that initiated the countdown to the 1956 Suez/Sinai war. After that war, Egypt again sought and largely succeeded in preventing Palestinian infiltration into Israel until the 1967 war. Syria began to promote Palestinian attacks on Israel in the mid-1960s in response to Israel‘s construction of a National Water Carrier, which diverted waters from the Sea of Galilee without Syria‘s agreement. Israel initiated many provocative retaliation raids on Jordan and Egypt, but rarely Syria, even when there was no evidence of their responsibility for acts of terror. Morris suggests that military figures like Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon were looking for an opportunity to launch a second war after 1948.[1]




Ferguson’s argument for “friction and ambivalence” in US-Israeli relations is partly based on President Dwight Eisenhower’s demand that Israel withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, which it occupied in the 1956 war. Israel, Britain and France had colluded to attack Egypt to reverse the nationalization of the Suez Canal, an imperial adventure to which Ferguson uncharacteristically objects. However, there was no US-Israeli “special relationship” at this time. From the early 1950s until 1967, France was Israel‘s principal ally and the source of its advanced tanks, aircraft and, in part, nuclear expertise. The Eisenhower administration opposed the tripartite aggression against Egypt because it believed that the maintenance of French and British colonial empires was an obstacle to fighting the Cold War in Africa and Asia. It supported Algerian independence for the same reason. Israel‘s particular interests had to be subordinated to this primary foreign and military policy objective.


Ferguson claims that Israel failed to warn the US about the 1967 war. This assertion can only be sustained by an obtusely literal reading of the diplomatic record. Several Israeli emissaries visited Washington before the war and warned that Israel might resort to arms. Most scholars and diplomatic observers believe that Israel ultimately received a green, or at least a yellow, light from the Johnson administration to attack.[2]


The US-Israeli “special relationship” emerged after the 1967 war, especially after the promulgation of the Nixon Doctrine in 1969. By then, Israel was the overwhelmingly dominant military power in the Middle East. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sought to integrate it into US policy as a tool to contain and discipline Arab states considered pro-Soviet: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Moreover, despite their copious anti-Zionist rhetoric, the Saudis had made it clear that they would not use their oil to punish Washington for this policy.




Ferguson greatly exaggerates the direct consequences of the brief and highly permeable Arab oil embargo of October 1973 to March 1974. The oil shortage and price spike of the mid-1970s were not primarily due to a shortage of crude in the market. The embargo never reduced the flow of oil by more than 15 percent; it was loosely enforced; and it lasted only a few months. Much more significant in the long run was the lack of sufficient refining capacity in the United States as a result of inadequate capital investment by American-based corporations. The price spike had more significant effects. But its main victims were Third World countries that do not produce oil. They could generally not compensate for the increased cost of fuel because US and European agricultural price supports kept prices for agricultural goods artificially low. Moreover, the price spike enhanced the profits of the major multinational petroleum companies even more than the revenues of the oil-producing states.


In order to secure Israel‘s second pullback in the Sinai Peninsula following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Kissinger signed a memorandum of agreement on September 1, 1975 that gave Israel veto power over any future US-PLO negotiations. Kissinger would not have needed to do this had he been willing to exert pressure on Israel to withdraw. But because he mistakenly viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict primarily as a regional front in the global Cold War, Kissinger did not believe it was proper for Washington to pressure its regional asset to make concessions to a Soviet ally. Even in Cold War terms, Kissinger misread the situation. Egypt was no longer a Soviet asset. President Anwar al-Sadat had proclaimed his readiness for peace with Israeli in 1971, expelled Soviet military advisors in 1972 and announced the opening of Egypt‘s economy to the global market in 1974. He was more than eager to reorient Egypt toward the West.


Although the Palestine National Council recognized Israel and renounced terrorism in November 1988, the US did not immediately begin a diplomatic dialogue with the PLO. Secretary of State George Shultz violated the treaty establishing the UN headquarters in New York by rejecting Yasser Arafat’s request for a visa to communicate the PLO’s decision in an address to the UN General Assembly. Only after Arafat jumped through several additional hoops and a delegation of American Jews visited him in Norway and pronounced him kosher did the US-PLO dialogue begin. It ceased, with no visible accomplishments, in June 1990, after Arafat refused to denounce a military operation against Israel by the Palestine Liberation Front, a minor albeit especially brutal PLO faction with no support among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The United States acquiesced to Israel‘s demand that the PLO be excluded from the 1991 Madrid conference and the subsequent bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington.


Consequently, in 1993, when an Israeli government became serious about trying to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, it conducted secret talks in the Norwegian capital of Oslo behind the back of the Clinton administration. The United States played no role in reaching the 1993 Oslo accords other than ratifying them after the fact. This narrative does not indicate significant “American pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians.” Of course, it depends on what the definition of “pressure” is.