Everywhere you turn, Niall Ferguson is berating Obama’s “muddling” of Egypt. He’s blogging on The Daily Beast, spewing angrily on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and inaugurating his new column in Newsweek with a cover story blasting Obama. Tahrir Square is the neo-cons’ worst nightmare… And Ferguson is one of the scribes who helped globalize and legitimize the neo-cons’ ideas. Since 9/11, Ferguson’s books on empire have become airport bestsellers, and he’s gone from Oxford to NYU to Harvard. Like the Oxford chap that he is, Ferguson took on the role of tutor: it’s not that imperialism is bad, he advised, it’s just that you Americans didn’t perfect it the way we Brits did. In his colossal (and largely unreadable) homage to the British empire, Ferguson reminded all who had forgotten of the glories of the Raj, the sacrifices people like his forefathers made in manning the empire over which the sun never set. Empire’s chief exports were enlightenment and modernity, necessary prerequisites for democracy. Yes, the British Empire occupied lands and enslaved bodies, but only to free minds, open markets, and rescue women.
The neocons weren’t really camera ready. Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld couldn’t quite tone their rhetoric down enough or pretty themselves up enough to appeal to soccer moms watching “Meet the Press.” Their pal with the Oxbridge pedigree, British accent, and J Crew cashmere sweaters was able to smile, wink, and help brand neo-con ideas to a broader public. As the world watched Tahrir’s demonstrations, the neocons fidgeted in discomfort. Even Anderson Cooper was talking about people power and freedom… It was time for Niall Ferguson to get the American media back on message.
You see, Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wrapped up in his “freedom agenda.” The Islamic world, ie the Middle East, could be free, deserved to be free. But they didn’t quite know that they wanted to be free and if they did, they couldn’t achieve freedom for themselves. They needed the U.S. army to “shock and awe” them into aspiring for and achieving democracy.
Here, the world watched on Al-Jazeera as regular Egyptians, inspired by their Tunisian brethren, organized themselves on Facebook and twitter and took over their city’s main square, Tahrir. For eighteen days they stood their ground, peaceful and determined. Until Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled over them for 30 years, left for his summer palace in Sharm al-Sheikh. It wasn’t the spectre of “a democratic Iraq” or the spark of American missiles or the ideology of MEPI democratization that triggered the people’s revolution in the Arab world. They did it on their own.
And Obama just let them. He let them have their democratic uprising without sending a single U.S. soldier along to help them out. The press was talking about a democracy tsunami across the Arab world—and it didn’t have a Made in the USA label on it. This was the neo-cons’ worst nightmare.
While many progressives criticized Obama for being too soft in his support for the democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the neo-cons were furious that he was on the phone telling their closest ally Husni to pack up and head out. Husni was supposed to pretend to democratize despite the regional threats posed by Iran and the internal dangers of Islamists… That was supposed to be the democratization narrative for Egypt. The neo-cons were to pick and chose which countries in the region should be subjects of their “freedom agenda.”
Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi, and Jordan were to set in motion reforms that would look like democracy so that they could retain their status of “moderate Arab state.” Their authoritarian leaders were essential to the war on terror against Islamic extremists, so they were to be supported and retained in office at all costs. Tahrir upset the equation…and Obama just let it.
Lending historical weight to his analysis, Ferguson wrote that Obama had behaved like Bismarck, when what we really needed was a Kissinger. And then he unleashed the worst possible insult any conservative could use against a world leader—he likened Obama to Jimmy Carter.
Even Fouad Ajami, the Arab scholarly voice that lent credibility to the neo-cons’ war on Iraq had gone soft. There he was on CNN, night after night, telling us the people in Tahrir demanded freedom and Mubarak must leave. “Yes,” Ajami had written in The New Republic in 2004, “America is embattled in Iraq. But its leaders took up the sword against Arab-Muslim troubles and dared to think that tyranny was not fated and inevitable for the Arabs.” The neo-cons must have been dismayed that Ajami seemed to have forgotten the American sword was essential for cutting down Arab tyranny.
While Anderson Cooper, Richard Engel, and even Tom Friedman were hanging out in Tahrir Square and conveying the urgency of the Egyptian people’s desire for freedom to the American public, Niall Ferguson was where it was really happening. “Last week,” he wrote in Newsweek, “while other commentators ran around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.” U.S. policy—and by extension the Arab people’s right to be free, to desire democracy—was to be decided in rooms like this, not in public squares in Arab cities.
To add insult to injury, protestors took to Tehran’s streets yesterday chanting, “Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Now Seyed Ali,” referring to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. If the flames of the Green Movement are reignited by the inspiring models of Tunisia and Egypt, then the neo-cons’ long desired war on Iran might be in jeopardy. Obama really has messed it all up, hasn’t he?