Niall Fergusson: Controversial historian in McCain's Orbit





A recent New York Times article about John McCain's growing "kitchen cabinet," contained a piece of information that might have been meaningless to many American readers, but resonated strongly with most British ones.

According to a McCain aide, the article said, one of the senator's unofficial advisors as he ponders a possible run for the White House is the British-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson.

Though relatively unknown in the United States, Ferguson is a controversial figure in the United Kingdom, where he continues to spend much of his time. Ferguson has been besieged by critics and admirers in Britain ever since the publication of his 2003 book "Empire" and its companion TV series.

For some time, much of Britain has regarded its imperial history with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. Indeed, the prominent think-tank, Demos, once suggested that Queen Elizabeth II ought to be forced on "a world tour to apologize for the past sins of Empire."

Ferguson stepped into this environment of national hand-wringing and self-hatred with a shocking proposition — that the British Empire should be regarded, like any empire, in a broad historical context. To even greater uproar, he suggested that it might actually have been of some global merit in that it helped spread democratic values around the world.

The public was enormously divided. To fans, Ferguson seemed a brave challenger of taboos, willing to take on issues most British citizens instinctively shy away from. To critics, he came across as a vile historical revisionist, an apologist for imperial crimes, and possibly just a poseur, adopting controversial positions solely for the sake of fame.

Indeed, theatre-going New Yorkers may have already encountered this take on Ferguson: He is widely regarded as the inspiration for the central character in Alan Bennett's drama, "The History Boys." This still-running Tony Award winner revolves around the recollections of fictional character, Tom Irwin, an amoral TV historian turned amoral political aide, famed for his willingness to argue the unthinkable.

And while many in Britain would raise eyebrows at the news McCain may be consulting with Ferguson, even in only a casual way, the link has received relatively little attention in America — although certainly, anyone who has seen the Bennett play might think that life is imitating art.

Writing on andrewsullivan.com in the eponymous blogger's absence, David Wiegel worried about what Ferguson's influence might mean for a possible McCain presidency. Wiegel called Ferguson a "foaming-at-the-mouth 'national greatness conservative.' " His piece concluded that, "a president with Niall Ferguson at his shoulder is a president who'll stretch our military even thinner across the globe."

This concern has been echoed by the London-based columnist Johann Hari, who wrote that Ferguson had been positioning himself to become "court historian to the imperial American hard right."

But are these conclusions fair? After all, as the prominent British historian Tristram Hunt observed, "You don't become a Harvard professor without being a historian of substance." Ferguson does indeed have highly regarded and nuanced works to his name, even while entering into some controversial areas of discussion and study.

For instance, Ferguson's 2004 book, "Colossus — The Rise and Fall of the American Empire," argued that the United States should face up to its status as a de facto empire. His intention, he said, was to encourage America to become an "effective liberal empire" that learned "humility" from the mistakes of its British forbear.

His resulting thoughts on the Iraq war received a fair amount of attention in Britain. Ferguson wrote that America's practice had all too often been to "fire some shells, march in, hold elections, and then get the hell out — until the next crisis." At the start of the war, he encouraged America to commit more resources to Iraq, and stay the course.

However, Ferguson has also expressed increasing dismay at the manner in which the war is being run, and often stresses that America must maintain its democratic credentials through its actions around the world.

This determination to protect American values may have been what brought him into McCain's unofficial orbit of influences. During the discussion last year about U.S torture practices, Ferguson wrote that, "The White House should shut up and back Sen. John McCain's bill, which would unequivocally ban torture by American military or intelligence personnel."

This was the second time in two months that Ferguson had mentioned McCain in his weekly column for Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. The first occasion may even provide a potential insight into foreign policy under a putative President McCain.

In that passage, comparing America to ancient Rome, Ferguson noted the geographical similarity between present-day American foreign interests and the conquests of the Roman emperor Trajan. Quoting from the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, Ferguson then turned his attention to how Trajan's successor, Hadrian, dealt with the "over-extension of the empire" that he inherited from his predecessor.

"By every honorable expedient, [Hadrian] invited the friendship of the barbarians; and endeavored to convince mankind that the Roman power, raised above the temptation of conquest, was actuated only by the love of order and justice."

Ferguson concluded this sounded like "a straightforward enough foreign policy for Mr. Bush's successor," before noting that he hoped that successor would be John McCain.

Neither Ferguson nor McCain responded to inquiries for this article, so the nature of their relationship, if any, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that McCain has tapped a controversial academic to be a member of his virtual "kitchen cabinet." There is, of course, an old saying that goes, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." Ferguson has shown he is more than able to stand the heat, and given his reputation, there will surely be much more of it to come.


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