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Don't blame President Obama for deaths in Syria
Niall Ferguson's imperialist assumptions show what is wrong with the interventionist mindset
Better to ignore than intervene?
Better to ignore than intervene? (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
W

hen it comes to foreign policy, President Obama has instituted national security practices that are highly alarming — most prominently, the assassination of American citizens without due process. But Obama's greatest strength in foreign policy is his palpable reluctance to commit the U.S. to ground wars. When it comes to Syria, Iran, and elsewhere, it is obvious that this president will grab just about any excuse to avoid a large-scale military intervention, even if it takes seizing on offhand comments from John Kerry to do so.

This is a marked and highly welcome contrast to President Bush's country-smashing belligerence. Obama may be entirely too reckless with the drone strikes, but at least he appears to recognize the cost — in lives, treasure, and global credibility — of invading entire nations.

So it's only natural that Bush's most buffoonish supporters would be enraged. Latest up is Harvard historian and professional troll Niall Ferguson, who has taken to The Wall Street Journal to lament Obama's reluctance to wield American military might with a heavier hand. On the specific points Ferguson is laughably wrong. Furthermore, the mindset underpinning his worldview betrays the misguided nature of the interventionist project.

For example, here's Ferguson on Obama's reluctance to get more involved in Syria:

The result of this U.S. inaction is a disaster. At a minimum, 130,000 Syrian civilians have been killed and nine million driven from their homes by forces loyal to the tyrant. At least 11,000 people have been tortured to death. Hundreds of thousands are besieged, their supplies of food and medicine cut off, as bombs and shells rain down...

Mr. Obama's supporters like nothing better than to portray him as the peacemaker to George W. Bush's warmonger. But it is now almost certain that more people have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East during this presidency than during the last one. [Wall Street Journal]

On the question of responsibility, Daniel Larison at The American Conservative makes the correct point:

Ferguson's calculations depend on ignoring the many terrible things that happened during the Bush era in countries that the U.S. also chose to ignore. Terrible and costly conflicts raged in Congo and Sudan while Bush was president, but it would never have occurred to Ferguson to lay the consequences of these conflicts at Bush's door. Bush was no more responsible for these conflicts than Obama is for Syria, and no one but the most desperate and dishonest partisan would claim that he was at fault for "failing" to halt these conflicts. [The American Conservative]

As Larison says, it's the height of Western chauvinism to believe that every bad thing that happens in the world is somehow the fault of America. It turns out there are other people in the world, with their own beliefs, enemies, and history. They act for their own reasons, which oftentimes can't be influenced by U.S. action one way or the other.

However, the half-million or so dead and millions of refugees from the Iraq War are rightfully laid at Bush's feet, because he started that war.

But this raises an interesting question: what about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Most people don't know this, but the deadliest conflict since World War II happened there, killing about 5.4 million people at the peak of the conflict in 1998-2003 and beyond. Any account of the origins of that conflict would start with the Berlin Conference, where the Congo was handed to Belgium, probably the most brutal colonial power in history. The account would certainly include the assassination of Patrice Lumumba with the suspected involvement of Belgium, the U.S., and Britain, and the billions of dollars in American aid that went to the Zairian dictator Mobutu.

By Ferguson's logic, one might think that colonial Europe and America would bear some burden for the apocalyptic Second Congo War. But nope: As a "paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang" and defender of European imperialism generally, he thinks that Obama is learning the wrong lessons from history and that the U.S. should intervene more aggressively in other countries' affairs.

As Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued more than half a century ago in his book A World Restored, balance is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. "The balance of power only limits the scope of aggression but does not prevent it," Dr. Kissinger wrote. "The balance of power is the classic expression of the lesson of history that no order is safe without physical safeguards against aggression."

What that implied in the 19th century was that Britain was the "balancer" — the superpower that retained the option to intervene in Europe to preserve balance. The problem with the current U.S. geopolitical taper is that President Obama is not willing to play that role in the Middle East today. [Wall Street Journal]

I actually have a bit of sympathy for this worldview. It was terrible that nobody did anything about the Rwandan genocide. It is terrible that protesters have been gunned down in Ukraine and elsewhere.

But I have almost no trust in Western institutions to intervene and guide these places to security and democracy. After all, the last time we listened to Niall Ferguson and his ilk it was a bloody catastrophe — and continues to be so. Furthermore, the idea that global security would be better enhanced by a hegemonic "balancer" — which is virtually synonymous with an aggressor in Ferguson's argument — is the exact wrong conclusion to take from many episodes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It's not just the Congo. European colonialism was the rape, both metaphorical and literal, of nations and continents. The physical theft of resources, the murder of native elites, and full-blown genocides were the most obvious of colonialism's evils. But what may prove to be more consequential in the long run was how colonial powers poisoned politics in the countries they dominated. Racist European colonial governors asserted that the colonized could not govern themselves, and set about murdering native leaders and making their subjects complicit in their own oppression. This planted the seeds of a toxic political dynamic that has led to corruption and political collapse almost universally across Africa after the formal end of colonialism.

This is what happens when the West tries to "bring civilization" to rest of the world. Obama's reluctance to engage in such projects is for the best, at least compared to Ferguson's pith-helmeted swaggering.

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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