Home/Daniel Larison/Niall Ferguson and the “Major Strategic Challenge” from China

Niall Ferguson and the “Major Strategic Challenge” from China

Most of the criticism of Niall Ferguson’s recent essay hasn’t touched on his foreign policy arguments. One of Ferguson’s main complaints is that Obama was insufficiently supportive of foreign popular uprisings:

Believing it was his role to repudiate neoconservatism, Obama completely missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy—precisely the wave the neocons had hoped to trigger with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When revolution broke out—first in Iran, then in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail.

In the case of Iran he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations.

As usual, Ferguson doesn’t explain what Obama could have done in Iran or elsewhere that would have resulted in a significantly different and better outcome. That’s not surprising, since there was little or nothing that Obama or anyone else in his position could have done that would have made the slightest bit of difference. Like many other critics, Ferguson seems to take for granted that the Green movement protests represented an “opportunity” that Obama “missed,” but there is no reason to believe that. He seems not to have noticed that the “forces of reaction” (i.e., adherents of the old regimes) are not prevailing in Tunisia and Libya. Whether that is good news or not is a different question. The point is that it isn’t happening. I opposed the Libyan war and still regard it as the wrong thing for the U.S. to have done, but it is tendentious for Ferguson to dismiss it as quickly as he does. He could fairly hold Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya accountable for contributing indirectly to the upheaval and conflict in Mali, but that undermines his larger argument that Obama has been insufficiently meddlesome in other countries’ affairs.

Ferguson glosses over the effects of the Iraq war and the so-called “freedom agenda” on the countries affected by them, and conveniently ignores that the Iraq war was a great boon to authoritarian governments in the region. These governments could point to the chaos in Iraq and use it as evidence of the fruits of U.S.-led democracy promotion, which helped to undermine political reform elsewhere in the region. Ferguson is still trying in 2012 to defend the neoconservative fantasies about what the regional effects of the Iraq war would be. He overlooks the fact that Obama didn’t need to repudiate neoconservatism. Neoconservatives had already discredited it well before then.

Ferguson defends his claims in a new article, and reviews his foreign policy objections:

His withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan will, in my view, prove to have been premature. More importantly, he has been indecisive in his responses to the revolutionary wave that has swept the Middle East since the Iranian “green” revolution of 2009. And, finally, he has been inconsistent and ineffective in his handling of the major strategic challenge of our times, the rise of China.

He treats the withdrawal from Iraq as if it were something that could have been avoided. U.S. forces were bound to leave Iraq in 2011. There is no rationale for a continued, open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. Of course, there is no arguing with someone like Ferguson on these points. Neo-imperialists seem to take it for granted than endless military deployments in hostile countries are desirable.

It is the last claim about handling China that deserves more attention. If the rise of China is America’s “major strategic challenge,” what should the U.S. be doing to face it? Robert Merry addresses this question in a new article. He lists several things that the U.S. should and should not be doing in the near future: a “smooth exit from Afghanistan,” “getting right with Russia,” avoiding war with Iran, no more U.S. soldiers deployed in Muslim countries, and the promotion of economic growth. Leaving aside the last of these, it is difficult to see how following the counsel of Ferguson et al. on the other four would aid the U.S. in facing this “major strategic challenge.” Romney appears to be less interested in withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014, much more antagonistic towards Russia, more belligerent towards Iran, and slightly more inclined to intervene in Syria.

If Ferguson had his way, there would still be U.S. forces in Iraq, and they would be staying in Afghanistan for an indefinite period of time. Needless to say, Romney and Ryan have shown no interest in improving relations with Russia, and Romney has made it clear he considers a good relationship with Russia to be undesirable. Romney and his advisers appear to be more inclined to use force against Iran (they would certainly like everyone to think that they are more willing), and Ferguson seems to be suggesting that he thinks the U.S. should be doing more in Syria than it has been doing. If China is the “major strategic challenge of our times,” one might be able to fault Obama for not handling it as well as he could have. Naturally, Ferguson never really substantiates his criticism in the essay or in his later defense. He deems Obama’s actions insufficient, but never explains what should have been done instead. However, no one can pretend that Romney would handle the challenge from China any better, especially since the rest of his foreign policy promises to bog down the U.S. in unnecessary conflicts and needless confrontation with Russia.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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