Niall Ferguson: Why America Fails Usually at Foreign Interventions

From an interview with Niall Ferguson in the Atlantic (May 25, 2004):

In the book you break down the typical pattern of U.S. intervention into a series of stages. So far in Iraq we have gone through the first and second phases—the"impressive initial military success," followed by"a flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." Now we're heading into phase three,"a strategy of limited war and gradual escalation." (The subsequent stages you identify are,"domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict,""premature democratization,""the ascendancy of domestic economic considerations," and finally,"ultimate withdrawal.")

I'm afraid most Americans tend to think of Vietnam as the parallel to Iraq, but the pattern goes back a lot further than that—at least to the Philippines in 1899. These sorts of overseas undertakings do have a tendency to go wrong. I think the book has an important contribution to make there, by pointing out that this pattern is, in a sense, a function of America's political culture. It's almost a consequence of being both a republic and an empire, that your staying power isn't very good. And I do think it helps answer the question: Why is this fantastically rich, economically sophisticated country relatively unsuccessful at overseas intervention? When you actually make a list of all the interventions, you find that only about two or three of them are unqualified successes. I don't think anybody I've read has come up with an entirely clear explanation of why the failures outnumber the successes by maybe three to one. It's a little dispiriting to be vindicated on this point, but from a selfish point of view, it beats being wrong.

I was especially interested in the second phase, the"flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." In your book, you point out that a third of Americans thought the Contras were fighting in Norway, and you discuss the lack of Arabic speakers in the CIA. And, of course, the invasion of Iraq was pushed by a President who had only been out of the country three times before taking office.

It's obviously a phenomenon that isn't peculiar to George W. Bush. A very large proportion of Americans don't have passports. But even more striking to me is the fact that the kind of people you might expect to be well-equipped to engage in what we rather euphemistically call nation-building—that's to say, the graduates of the elite universities—disproportionately avoid overseas engagements. The ambitions of the educational elite in this country are quite domestically focused. They really would rather be running a Wall Street law firm than governing Baghdad. And I think that's a fundamental social-cultural reason why the United States is bad at empire.

Right now in Iraq, the reliance on the military is almost complete. The British operation a hundred years ago was much more evenly divided between military and civilian administration. And indeed the civilians predominated. There aren't that many Jerry Bremers. This country doesn't produce people like him in large numbers. And you need to have hundreds of them to make a success of something like this. What's interesting is that in 1945 through to the early 1950s, when Germany and Japan were the targets of American quasi-imperial nation-building, the talent was there. And the reason the talent was there was the draft. By 1945, the American armed services were full of all kinds of diverse talents because of the sheer scale of World War Two. That meant you could turn to the army in Germany in 1945 and find economists and lawyers and people who had an understanding of business. In today's volunteer professional army you don't have those skills at all. You have people who are tremendously good at being soldiers and Marines. But they're not really trained to do the sorts of thing that you have to do once you've won a war. And they're the first to admit it. They're quite candid that they are practitioners of offensive military operations—killing bad guys is what they're trained to do. The business of constructing the rule of law and a functioning market economy is about as far removed from their expertise as you could get.

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