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Harvard professor and historian Niall Ferguson calling for UN intervention in Iraq.

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HH: Joined now from England by Harvard professor and historian, Niall Ferguson, author of the widely acclaimed War of the World on bookshelves now, Colossus, also in bookstores. I’ve linked both of them at, must reads for anyone serious about the world. Professor, good to talk to you.

NF: It’s nice to be on the show, Hugh.

HH: Let’s begin with your Los Angeles Times column, Blue Helmet Time In Iraq. I enjoy almost everything you write, but when you recommended that it’s time to send in the blue helmets to Iraq, I gave out one of those splutters, because I just can’t see them doing anything except getting massacred. How do you foresee the U.N. having a role to play in Iraq?

NF: Well, I think the first thing to recognize is that the U.S. presence in Iraq has passed its sell-by date. And no additional number of American troops is going to stop this civil war from escalating. I think that’s a hard thing to accept, particularly if like me you were in favor of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam. But we now have to recognize that terrible mistakes were made after Saddam’s deposition, and we’ve reached the point where, really, the additional American surge is not going to make a decisive break, because the U.S. troops are seen as, in some measure, tainted by association with the now Shiite-dominated government. Now I probably share all of your prejudices against the United Nations, and after all, it performed pretty dismally in the 1990’s. On the other hand, what else have we got to fall back on? I don’t see cutting and running as an option. If you leave Iraq now, it’s going to turn into one of the nastiest civil wars of modern times. The U.N. really seems to be the only option, and we just have to try to think through how a peacemaking, not just peacekeeping, but a peacemaking operation could run.

HH: Professor, outside of Korea, where of course, that’s a U.S.-led intervention against the North when they invade, has a blue helmet contingent every successfully made peace?

NF: Well, that’s a hard question to answer, because of course, there are now quite a large number of U.N. contingents around the world. Whether they’ve made peace, or whether they’re simply keeping it, is a really hard thing to determine. At the moment, the record tells us that most U.N. contingents are too small to be considered as anything other than peacekeeping, or simply peace observing forces. But I don’t think we should rule out the option of, in a sense, going down the Korean route again, putting out a U.N. force that is substantial, could indeed have a U.S. contingent, could indeed be U.S. led. And in some measure, this is a matter of rebranding an American presence in order to relegitimize it. Because at the moment, there’s a legitimacy problem, which is really, really hard to overcome. And if nothing else, the United Nations has some legitimacy in the Middle East.

HH: Now when the U.N. attempted, post-invasion and overthrow of Saddam to establish a presence, as soon as a horrific attack, and it was horrific, it killed one of the great civil servants of the U.N.’s history, they cut and ran as soon as that happened. Any reason to believe it would be different this time?

NF: Well, we have a new secretary-general, who has got some credibility to establish, and I think there’s no question that if you look at recent U.N. peacekeeping performance, it has improved. The Rand Organization recently compared U.N./U.S. performance in conflict zones, and reported very favorably as far as the U.N. was concerned. So I don’t think that we should rule out on the basis of past performance the possibility that the U.N. could deliver an effective force, into Baghdad, particularly. At the moment, my fear is that all that is going to happen with 20,000 additional Americans is an escalation, or worse still, the U.S. will be used against the Sunnis by the Shiites. I mean, unless I’ve misunderstood this, there’s no intention to use the new forces against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. But if you don’t do something about that, then it seems to me you’re really not going to achieve anything except to do Muqtada’s work for him. If we are simply going to crack down on the Sunnis, the people we continue to call insurgents, I think we’re simply acting as participants in the civil war, rather than as peacemakers.

HH: We are in 100% agreement on that. I’ve pressed a number of administration officials on Sadr, because it seems to me that you’re right about that peril. Let me ask you about a parallel. When Great Britian withdrew from its attempt to govern the mandate in the aftermath of World War II, you had the Israelis and the Palestinians clash, and then you had a war come that was really quite terrible in its consequences. If the United States withdraws from Iraq quickly, as Democrats, who you criticize in your piece urge us to do, would we not have exactly the same situation, only on a scale even more horrific?

NF: Oh, certainly. And I wouldn’t be talking in terms of the United Nations, if I didn’t see the currently available Democratic policy of withdrawal as being absolutely disastrous. I mean, part of the point of my argument is to at least force the Democrats to say something rational, because at the moment, what they’re saying is completely irrational, that they want to get the troops out, and in effect, leave the Iraqis to it. But I think if you allow Iraq to descend into a kind of Haiti on the Tigris, you’re going to end up with something really, really disastrous, not only for the Middle East, but for the security of the United States.

HH: Now let me ask you about…we’ve only got two minutes left. There’s one line in your piece which struck me as over the top. You wrote that hardly anyone can now share George Bush’s view that the war in Iraq is, “the decisive ideological struggle of our time.” Indeed, even Laura and Barney must sometime have their doubts. Well, I’m one of that group that still believes it, as is Victor Davis Hanson, as are, I mean, a lot of people across the center-right spectrum. Do you dismiss that too quickly, Professor, because a lot of people do believe that in fact, if you do not stop Islamic fundamentalism now, we won’t get a second chance to engage it on the front line again?

NF: Well, I think it’s highly questionable that that is what the Iraq operation was ever going to achieve. I think if anything, it turns out that invading Iraq has given something of a set up to the radical Islamists, whose most important argument is that Muslims should unite against Israel and the United States. In other words, they should overcome their very profound difference, the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. So far, and I say this to be absolutely up front, as somebody who was in favor of Saddam’s overthrow, so far, all we’ve done is to stimulate and encourage Islamic radicalism. We’ve got to think again, because the way we’re going, it seems to me we’re not making this problem better, we’re making it worse. And after all, look at other fronts in this so-called war on terror, in Afghanistan, and now in Somalia. I’m increasingly doubtful that the American policy is doing anything other than fuel radical Islamism, and I think this as seriously as you, but I worry that we are actually…increasingly, we are the problem which we are pretending to cure.

HH: Can I keep you for three more minutes after the break? I want to follow up on that.

NF: Yeah, I’d be happy to.

– – – – – –

HH: Professor, I hope we have you back often. It’s a fascinating conversation. But when we went to break, I wasn’t arguing so much with you about your view of what’s happened, as your assertion that hardly anyone can now share George Bush’s view that the war in Iraq is the decisive ideological struggle of our time. I think of Victor Davis Hanson, I think of David Petraeus, the new general. I think of, actually, scores of people whom you seem to dismiss either as inconsequential, or insincere. Did you mean it that way?

NF: No, on the contrary, I mean, my point is not that there isn’t an ideological war going on, there clearly is, and it’s being waged on us by the likes of Osama bin Laden. The point is that I don’t think that ideological war is going on in Iraq. That is not what Iraq is about. Right now, Iraq is a civil war, within Islam. It’s not Islam against the West, it’s become a war between Sunnis and Shiites, and to a lesser extent, Kurds. And we find ourselves, rather unwittingly, as participants in this war on the side of the Shiites.

HH: Again, I get that part, but what I was struggling with when you wrote hardly anyone can now share his view, that goes back to the experts who do share his view. And do you believe them to be ill-informed, stupid, too few in number to matter, or hypocrites, is really what I’m pushing?

NF: No, I think that would be putting it too strongly. My point is that the ideological conflict between radical Islam and the West is real, but where President Bush is wrong is in thinking that Iraq is a key front in that war. It’s not.

HH: But lots of people think it is. Isn’t that true?

NF: Well, I wonder if even Victor genuinely believes that that is what is at issue. After all, Saddam Hussein’s regime was not an Islamist regime. It’s connections with radical Islam were almost non-existent. And if we’ve achieved anything, in fact, it’s been to overthrow a secular regime in Iraq and create the possibility of a Shiite theocratic regime, aligned to Iran.

HH: Kristol, Kagan, all these people, they’re just not sincere when they say it is the decisive…

NF: I think they’re absolutely sincere, and nobody should cast aspersions on the sincerity of the neo-conservatives. But you know, I see myself as more of a realist, and perhaps somebody who’s study of history has made him cynical about those who interpret the world as a series of grand, ideological conflict between good and evil. Even if you look at World War II in close inspection, that war was much less of the ideological conflict than we tend to assume. After all, we ended up on the same side as guess who? Joseph Stalin. If World War II was a conflict, it was in large measure, between two totalitarian regimes. And in just the same way, I think we fall into a trap, and it’s a very American trap, a trap to simplify the world in thinking that we’re participating in a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. Most people who will be killed in the world this year will be killed by members of their own civilization. Most Iraqis killed this year will be killed by other Iraqis, most Muslims will be killed by other Muslims. And I think we delude ourselves if we think that there really is primarily an ideological conflict out there in the world.

HH: Fascinating. Professor, I look forward to many more conversations at your convenience. It is Niall Ferguson, professor at Harvard, his books War of the World, Colossus, linked at

End of interview.


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