Niall Ferguson is an idiot

There’s something very wrong about a world that considers Niall Ferguson brilliant. How is it that so many people get diverted by a few well-turned phrases and miss the shallowness and intellectual dishonesty of his writing?

Today I read this piece by Ferguson in The Daily Beast/Newsweek in which he makes the case for supporting an attack by Israel on Iran. And, not incidentally, argues that those who oppose such an attack are intellectual lightweights. He sets up five arguments against the attack and then, by his lights, demolishes them. Let’s take a look.

The Iranians would retaliate with great fury, closing the Strait of Hormuz and unleashing the dogs of terror in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq.
This, he says after ridiculing President Obama in an imaginary Oval Office scenario, would never happen because the US would intervene. Since US intervention is exactly what people who oppose attacking Iran want to avoid, his position here doesn’t advance his case. Apparently he considers ridiculing Obama sufficient and doesn’t need to refute his opponent.

Or maybe he thinks the threat of a US response will prevent Iran from retaliating. This assumes Iran will act rationally, a notion he scoffs at later in the piece.

The entire region would be set ablaze by irate Muslims; the Arab Spring would turn into a frigid Islamist winter.
Here Ferguson argues that other Muslim countries would not support Iran because they’re on the other side of the Shia/Sunni divide. I’m actually sympathetic to his argument here and won’t try to dispute it, although I think the reticence of other Muslim countries would be due less to religious differences and more to political concerns. A weakened Iran tips the balance of power in the Arab world in their favor.

The world economy would be dealt a death blow in the form of higher oil prices.
Ferguson says oil prices wouldn’t rise much because “the Saudis stand ready to pump out additional supplies to limit the size of the spike.” Just about the only people who say the Saudis have this kind of control over the oil market are the Saudis themselves, and they’re not the most reliable source. They haven’t demonstrated that kind of control in ages, and most observers don’t believe they have the spare capacity—certainly not online and ready to pump at a moment’s notice.

The Iranian regime would be strengthened, having been attacked by the Zionists its propaganda so regularly vilifies.
Ferguson’s counterargument here is so bad I have to quote it in full:

Please send me a list of all the regimes of the past 60 years that have survived such military humiliation. Saddam Hussein’s survival of Gulf War I is the only case I can think of—and we got him the second time around.

Does Ferguson have a short memory or does he simply hope that we do? Saddam didn’t just survive Gulf War I, he also survived the Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor in 1981 an attack that’s directly analogous to the one Ferguson is proposing. A more recent direct analogy was the Israeli attack on a facility in Syria in 2007. Bashar al-Asad is still in power 4½ years later.

And what’s with the “we got him the second time around” bit? All that does is suggest that we’ll have to fight two wars with Iran instead of one. That’s a better argument for the opponents of attack than for Ferguson.

A nuclear-armed Iran is nothing to worry about. States actually become more risk-averse once they acquire nuclear weapons.
OK, here I’m going to call bullshit before I even present Ferguson’s counterargument. No one says a nuclear Iran is nothing to worry about. Claiming they do goes beyond slanted rhetoric and into full-on lying.

Here’s how Ferguson “destroys” this straw man:

Wait. We’re supposed to believe that a revolutionary Shiite theocracy is overnight going to become a sober, calculating disciple of the realist school of diplomacy … because it has finally acquired weapons of mass destruction? Presumably this would be in the same way that, if German scientists had developed an atomic bomb as quickly as the Manhattan Project, the Second World War would have ended with a negotiated settlement brokered by the League of Nations.

Note first his derision at the notion that Iran will act rationally, a view that he himself supported earlier in the article. Then he falls afoul of Godwin’s Law, as every proponent of preemptive wars in the Middle East does. Somehow, though, he manages to make his analogy even less apt than those who are always raving on about Chamberlain and Munich. He’s saying that Iran getting nuclear weapons in a world with several nuclear powers, is comparable to Nazi Germany with sole possession of the atomic bomb. Obvious nonsense.

So, in summary, this vaunted public intellectual

Impressive.

And yet somehow this idiot’s shitty reasoning will be taken up by the entire Republican party—and, I’m sorry to say, not a few Democrats—and used to get us into another Middle East war.


5 Responses to “Niall Ferguson is an idiot”

  1. Bob says:

    I agree in general that Ferguson’s piece is shit, but I think his first point is consistent with his fifth: he does not claim that a rational Iran would not retaliate. He instead suggests (but does not state) that American firepower would overwhelm any retaliation by an irrational Iran, and his little skit presupposes both Iranian retaliation and American efforts to limit its effect.

    All the same, the mere ability to win a war is insufficient grounds to wage it in the first place.

  2. Carl says:

    It’s really depressing to read the OpEd pages and realize that these are the guys politicians listen to. Nothing has changed since the days of Socrates: no one really knows anything, but (almost) everyone is willing to pretend that they do, even in matters of life and death.

  3. Andrew says:

    You may be pleased to know you’re in good company with your assessment of what makes Niall Ferguson popular. Krugman says almost exactly what you say in your opening paragraph.

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/17/black-cats/

  4. Dr. Drang says:

    I see your point, Bob, and I suppose I should have said that Ferguson was either making his opponents’ case because he couldn’t pass up a cheap shot or making opposite arguments in different parts of the article.

    Still, I can’t help but but think that Ferguson wanted to have it both ways: the gunboat diplomacy imagery suggests a rational Iran that’ll be too scared to try to block the Strait, while the Aaron Sorkin pastiche suggests an Iran that does try and gets slapped down.

  5. Alan says:

    Only a publication craven and debased enough to act as a mouthpiece for fraud and charlatan Niall Ferguson would argue that nuclear states are nothing to worry about:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/08/28/why-obama-should-learn-to-love-the-bomb.html