Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Postmodern Historiography: Niall Ferguson's Fictional Case for Pre-emptive War

Niall Ferguson's The origins of the Great War of 2007 - and how it could have been prevented is a fictional piece of history that uses a horrific, but not entirely implausible, imaginary event in the near future, a war in the Middle East precipitated by a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran in August 2007, to make the case for the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.

The narrator of Ferguson's fiction, a historian writing at some unspecified date in the future, describes the conditions that led to the Great Gulf War, an event said to mark "the end of the oil age" and perhaps "the twilight of the West." The three leading preconditions for the war are (1) economic: the rising geopolitical importance of the Gulf region due to the world market's ever-increasing demand for oil (2) demographic: the rapid population growth in Islamic countries coupled with the declining birthrates in European countries and (3) cultural (or, as I would put it in, ideological): the spread of an "anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and anti-Semitic" Islamism. Although this is a fictional piece, it is informed by a thoughtful analysis of actual trends.

In Ferguson's fantastic scenario, the Great Gulf War is precipitated by the failure of the Western powers to respond to Iran's violations of the non-proliferation treaty. Failing to take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's very real threats to Israel seriously and unwilling to act decisively to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the Western powers allow Iran to become a nuclear power. As a consequence, a new world war erupts after a "nuclear exchange" between Iran and Israel. There's a lot to think about in Ferguson's fictional history, including the accuracy of his clash-of-civilizations scenario: Is it the case that the West is underestimating the threat of Islamisism? Does Ferguson exaggerate the pernicious effects of European secularism? How valid is the comparison between Ahmadinejad's Iran and Hitler's Germany? Why does he imagine China allying itself with Iran?

However, the most pressing question concerns Ferguson's agenda. The essay closes with what I read as not only a defense of pre-emptive war, but a call for a strike against the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran:

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

I found the piece to be a chilling and highly effective piece of political propaganda. Effective because the scenario Ferguson describes - a global conflagration triggered by a nuclear conflict between Israel and Iran - seems possible. Chilling because I recognize the danger that an Ahmadinejad-led Iran poses but fear that a U.S. or NATO-led invasion of Iran (which is what ultimately Ferguson appears to be lobbying for) would only further destabilize the Gulf region.

In any case, I'm filing Ferguson's essay to discuss the next time the topic of postmodern historiography comes up in one of my literature classes. Usually when the topic of postmodern historiography comes up, one thinks of Left-leaning novelists writing fictionalized histories and coming under attack for distorting the facts and undermining the notion of the truth. In this case, however, we have an influential historian who is writing a fictionalized history of the future in order, perhaps, to advocate for neoliberal (some would argue Right-wing) political agenda of pre-emptive warfare. One thing is certain: the stakes couldn't be higher.