Daniel W. Drezner

Since everyone else is fact-checking Niall Ferguson this week…

Your humble blogger has fiercely resisted getting drawn into the scrum regarding Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek jeremiad against Barack Obama.  I kinda already said my piece about Ferguson as a polemicist more than a year ago. The fact-check critical blowback and Ferguson’s response and the response to Ferguson’s response have been truly nasty.  And I’m supposed ...

Your humble blogger has fiercely resisted getting drawn into the scrum regarding Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek jeremiad against Barack Obama.  I kinda already said my piece about Ferguson as a polemicist more than a year ago. The fact-check critical blowback and Ferguson’s response and the response to Ferguson’s response have been truly nasty.  And I’m supposed to be on vacation.  There are beaches very close to where I am typing this.  The Official Blog Wife will be unhappy — and you do not want to see the Official Blog Wife unhappy on vacation. 

At the moment, however, I find myself alone next to a computer.  And I have noticed that most of the commentary has been directed at Ferguson’s discussion of the U.S. economy.  The foreign policy section of the essay has been comparatively neglected (though see here), and I was curious to see how it held up to a fact-check.  So — quickly, before the Official Blog Family returns from the beach — let’s dive in!  

The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States.

David Frum has already pointed out — in a defense of Ferguson, mind you — the ways in which Ferguson’s calculatons of the Chinese economy are… er… geopolitically a bit off.  By using purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates, Ferguson is magnifying China’s economic power just a wee bit.  Or as Frum puts it, "things are not yet quite so dire as Ferguson fears."


Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.

You know, it’s a funny coincidence, cause I was just perusing the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2012 Global Peace Index, which measures "the extent to which countries are involved
in ongoing domestic and international conflicts."  A key conclusion they draw in the 2012 report?  "The average level of peacefulness in 2012 is approximately the same as it was in 2007 (p. 37)."  So, actually, it is somewhat clear that the world — and the United States — remains comparatively safe and secure.  


For me the president’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power. Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.

I discussed whether the Obama administration had a grand strategy at length in Foreign Affairs last year.  I think Ferguson has half a point here on the "touchy-feely speeches" Obama delivered in his first year — but his administration has clearly pivoted (get it?) away from that first-year approach

In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another … The United States does not seek to contain China … On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.

What evidence is there that the rebalancing strategy hasn’t worked and lacks credibility?  The initial response to the pivot was pretty positive, and it’s safe to say that China noticed it.  I’m not saying that no evidence exists, mind you.  I’m saying that sheer assertion by Ferguson does not in and of itself constiute evidence. 

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.  Ditto Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.” The result was a foreign-policy debacle. Not only were Egypt’s elites appalled by what seemed to them a betrayal, but the victors—the Muslim Brotherhood—had nothing to be grateful for. America’s closest Middle Eastern allies—Israel and the Saudis—looked on in amazement.

"This is what happens when you get caught by surprise," an anonymous American official told the New York Times in February 2011. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.” 

Man, there’s a lot to unpack here.  First, I’m calling bulls**t on the Iran claimNote to Niall:  it’s never a good idea to use a Jennifer Rubin talking point.  Second, I’m pretty sure the administration has been active in Syria — just not as active as Ferguson would like.  Third, it’s waaaaay too soon and simplistic describe Egypt as a "foreign-policy debacle."

Regarding the strategic surprise, Ferguson is telling the truth but not the whole truth.  Sure, Obama was caught unawares.  So was everyone else.  I talked to a lot of high-ranking Israeli leaders/thinkers when I visited the country less than six months before the Arab Spring, and not a single person we talked to even hinted at any kind of pan-Arab uprising.  Ferguson attends Herzliya regularly, so I’m curious whether he knows any Israelis who picked up on this. 

My point here is that Israel has a powerful incentive to monitor everything going on in the Arab world — and they didn’t pick up on the Arab Spring.  Does Ferguson seriously believbe a President McCain would have detected it? 

Remarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security. Yet the public mistakes his administration’s astonishingly uninhibited use of political assassination for a coherent strategy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the civilian proportion of drone casualties was 16 percent last year. Ask yourself how the liberal media would have behaved if George W. Bush had used drones this way. Yet somehow it is only ever Republican secretaries of state who are accused of committing “war crimes.”

The real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes. It symbolizes the administration’s decision to abandon counterinsurgency in favor of a narrow counterterrorism. What that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice was for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.

Ferguson makes some interesting points here, but can we talk about the elephant in the room?  Why does Ferguson think Obama polls well on national security?  Killing bin Laden, the Libya war, the rebalancing strategy, and the withdrawal from Iraq are commonly cited.  Guess which one on that list Ferguson fails to mention. 

As for what veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq think, well, Pew polled vets on this very question in the fall of 2011.  The results?  "While post-9/11 veterans are more supportive than the general public, just one-third (34%) say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have both been worth fighting."  Nevertheless, 96% of them felt proud of their military service.  So I’m guessing that they want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan too. 

[UPDATE:  Damn Pew’s deceptive topline results!  Looking a bit deeper, I see support for the war in Afghanistan still commands 50% support among post-9/11 veterans.  On the other hand, these post-9/11 veterans also overwhelmingly (87%) support the increased use of unmanned drones that Ferguson dislikes so much.] 

America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement. Small wonder 46 percent of Americans—and 63 percent of Chinese—believe that China already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or eventually will.

I like using survey data to bolster my arguments just as much as the next guy — but I’m also willing to say quite clearly when the public is wrong about something — and they’re wrong about this.  Furthermore, Ferguson knows this perception is wrong.  We know from the previous paragraph that he doesn’t care for public attitudes when he disagrees with them, but he uses it here.  The reason?  This time it supports his argument. 

My verdict:  the foreign policy section isn’t as bad as the domestic policy section of Ferguson’s article, but it’s still sloppy.  Ferguson makes a lot of lazy assertions without backing them up with facts.  Some of the facts he uses are a bad fit for the arguments he’s trying to make.  And he values similar data points differently depending on whether they support his argument or not. 

There are some good critiques that can be made of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and Ferguson skirts close to some of them.  But Romney supporters can do better. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner