Niall Ferguson: A war to start all wars





[Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution. His latest book, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, is published by Penguin Press.]

The United States invaded Iraq in April 2003 for multiple reasons, but the most ambitious was a desire to remake a whole region. The Middle East, it was argued, was full of political and economic underachievers, driven to violence by a Muslim/Arab inferiority complex. Replacing Saddam Hussein with an exemplary democracy would begin a domino effect, spreading American values to Iraq’s mostly undemocratic neighbors.

Oh dear. Iraq is now in the midst of a civil war—already one of the world’s biggest since 1945, with the kind of escalating tit-for-tat killings and ethnic cleansing that can last for years, even decades. Debate currently centers on how quickly the United States can wind down its involvement in Iraq and on whether neighboring countries can be persuaded to help stabilize it.

But what if it is Iraq that destabilizes its neighbors? The irony is that America’s ill-executed intervention may yet remake the Middle East. But not quite in the way neoconservatives intended.

The critical question today is whether the current civil war could spread beyond Iraq’s borders, engulfing its neighbors or sparking a regional war. Realists—not least James Baker, co-chair of the Iraq Study Group—have an interest in arguing that it could. In seeking to enlist the assistance of Iraq’s neighbors, specifically Syria and Iran, the United States would be appealing to their self-interest, not their altruism. Fear of contagion is why these long-standing foes of the United States might be willing to help stop the slaughter in Iraq....

Only in our time, then, has the Middle East reached the political stage that Central and Eastern Europe reached after the First World War. Only now are countries like Iraq and Lebanon experimenting with democracy. The lesson of European history is that this experiment is a highly dangerous one, particularly at times of economic volatility and chronic insecurity, and particularly where tribes and peoples are mixed up geographically, both within and across borders. The minorities fear—with good reason—the tyranny of the majorities. People vote their ethnicity, not their pocketbook or ideology. And even before the votes are counted, the shooting begins.

What will the United States do if Iraq’s neighbors fail to contain the ethnic conflict that is now consuming Iraq? The simple answer would be to leave the people to kill and displace one another until ethnic homogeneity has been established in the various states. That has effectively been American policy in central Africa. The trouble, of course, is that Iraq matters more than Rwanda, economically and strategically. Does anyone seriously believe that a regional conflagration would leave Israel and Saudi Arabia—America’s most important allies in the Middle East—unscathed?

Ask a different question. Did anyone seriously believe that a war in Central and Eastern Europe in 1939 would leave Britain and France unaffected? The really sobering lesson of the twentieth century is that some civil wars can grow into more than just regional wars. If the stakes are high enough, they have the potential to become world wars too.


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samey awad - 5/13/2009

Ex-president bush walked in Iraq and Afghanistan with lots of gambling money to be won (oil, drugs, guns), lots of stakes to be lost(independence, religion, national identity), lots of chips(media, political bargains, military), and lots of whiskey(war hype, battle lust, historical facts and fictions), he got everyone to place their bets and get wasted. Then just before the dealer uncovers his cards, Bush threw a chair at the only light bulb in the bar. As soon as it became pitch black, he bunched the nearest two faces to him, flipped the table on everyone, and the fight began. The results are Americans killing Arabs and vice verse, simply because they can hear a different language cursing. But we have also Arabs killing Arabs, and Americans killing Americans, simply due to the amount of whiskey consumed, the stakes, the prize, the darkness, and the chance to do something one does not ordinarily get to do. All the neighbors outside are leaning so hard on the doors to prevent anyone from going out and causing the fight to spread, destroying the town. Every time someone has had enough inside and tries to crawl outside of the bar, and reaches the door, someone grabs him by the neck and belt, throws him in the middle of the bar unknowingly, while shouting "Get out of the bar". Even though Ex-President Bush has sneaked out of the bar, the fight is not going down any time soon. Actually it is getting more brutal with the experienced fighters picking up fighting skills and abilities to fight in the darkness. After all, it is bitch black, and no one has any batteries or lights, nor have any intention to stop fighting to light a candle. After all, the stakes are getting higher and the prize is getting behemoth big every minute passes.