by Matt Taibbi
Niall Ferguson, Scottish historian and Hoover Institution Fellow, published a Bloomberg column yesterday mourning the death of the imperial project. Americans are incorrigible in their selfishness, it seems, insisting on domestic investment when they should be volunteering to die in faraway deserts and jungles with smiles on their faces, like 19th century Britons:
Most Americans have no great enthusiasm for spending large parts of their lives in far-flung hot, poor and dangerous countries… Today, fully 57% of Republican voters, and 51% of Independents, say that “US interests are better served by using our resources to improve life for ordinary Americans at home.” Just a third agree that “US interests are best served by supporting freedom and democracy around the world when they are under threat.” I am with the minority on this question…
Ferguson lustily supported the War on Terror and never forgave George W. Bush for failing to commit enough lives to colonize Iraq, which in our combat-squeamish hands became, he lamented, “a Haiti on the Tigris.” Now he’s beside himself that a population not even being asked to send its own sons and daughters to death refuses to back open-ended war in Ukraine. America’s “attention deficit disorder,” he complains, “is now so severe that the public expresses impatience with wars it is merely being asked to support with money and material.”
Ferguson reads like a parody of a U.K. imperialist, like Colonel Mustard reading The White Man’s Burden on endless loop. The tone of recent columns suggests he’s never interacted socially with someone worth less than two million dollars. In September, he conceded the U.S. made commitments to Ukraine totaling $76.8 billion, and “like anything involving the word ‘billion,’ that sounds like a lot of money.” However, he wrote, that paltry sum “amounts to just 0.33% of U.S. GDP,” a pittance compared to wars in Vietnam (five times that percentage) or Iraq (four times).
Never mind that Vietnam and Iraq were historic lessons in the futility of doubling down in the face of moral and strategic defeat. The notion that $76.8 billion isn’t a lot of money was such a wonderfully stupid idea that Paul Krugman of the New York Times appropriated it right away. Krugman changed the bare minimum of words for his cut-and-paste job, like a “Biggest Loser” contestant expending just enough effort to reach the remote:
In the 18 months after the Russian invasion, U.S. aid totaled $77 billion. That may sound like a lot… But… Ukraine aid accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending (and less than 0.3 percent of G.D.P.).
Krugman couched the unwillingness to spend 1% of the budget as “Why MAGA wants to Betray Ukraine,” then quoted the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain in saying this betrayal was a “Seinfeld Shutdown,” i.e. a revolt “about nothing.” Venturing into the unfamiliar waters of literary invention, Krugman then said he preferred the concept of a “Network shutdown, as in people shouting ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!’”
Strain’s Seinfeld metaphor made rhetorical sense, but the point of the brilliantly prescient Network was that ordinary people tend to boil over with justified rage when fed bullshit on a daily basis by mass-media hacks like, well, Paul Krugman. A “Network shutdown” is the opposite of a revolt “about nothing.” The Nobel-winning columnist went on to conclude of the unwillingness to spend on Ukraine, “Nothing short of a coup can satisfy this inchoate rage.” Voters, he said, object to war spending because “They want Putin to win” and are “enemies of democracy, both abroad and at home.”
Ferguson and Krugman represent a widening bubble of establishment buffoons who, like Scooby-Doo villains, really do regard voters as meddling kids gumming the works of empire. Ferguson’s buddies at the Hoover Institution have been hammering the need for shows of force across the board: not just Ukraine, but also Gaza and Taiwan. Visiting National Security fellow Jakub Grygiel took to the Wall Street Journal to rip the “illusion” that “greater trade and wealth produce peace,” arguing, as Hoover put it in last month’s national security briefing, that “only military power can defend and advance the interests of the US and its allies.” Former Deputy National Security Advisor Nadia Schadlow likewise complained that “the US and its allies have forgotten the central goal of geopolitics: to maintain the balance of military power.”
These people won’t be convinced that American voters have actual reasons to object to their policy ideas. It’s a trifle, apparently, that the people asked to fight their Middle Eastern wars were told — by another Hoover/Stanford creature, incidentally, in Condoleezza Rice — they were doing so to protect America, because we “don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Just a year after Condi nearly scared the beard off Wolf Blitzer with that 2003 interview, Ferguson whined in the New York Times about America’s obsession with Vietnam and “quagmires,” offering a scolding reminder that Britain’s 19th century experience taught that “colonial rule” will “require severity.”
Ferguson might have been right, but Americans never consented to fight and die for “colonial rule,” and had every right to refuse to do so once it became clear that was the motive. They’ve rejected the colonial project at the ballot at least twice, first in 2008 with Barack Obama, whose “meteoric rise” according even to Ferguson was “based on not having supported the war,” then again — this is true, there’s no way around this — in 2016, when Donald Trump began promising to “keep America out of these endless, ridiculous, stupid, foreign wars in countries that you’ve never even heard of.”
Trump wasn’t any kind of traditional antiwar figure, but his running commentary on America’s interventionist plan was hilarious and exactly what the average person would say, if shown the ledger of recent Pentagon “accomplishments.” He had a talent for puking on Beltway war pieties, saying, “They can do what they want there, frankly” about Iran in Syria, or tweeting that the Kurds fought with us, but “but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.” This behavior inspired fits among foreign policy wonks accustomed to having even their most idiotic pronouncements hailed as Timeless Wisdom, but Trump capturing votes of war-weary Americans in 2016 showed how the public felt about such people, and his recent campaign to stall the Ukraine project has been successful for the same reason.
Rather than listen to voters, the Beltway establishment has elected to denounce their judgments as ignorant, baseless, racist, and at least in the mind of Ferguson, grounded in something like cowardice, a lack of Victorian bottle. This, from a Scottish intellectual who’d surely end up dressed like a deer on the hood of an F-150 if he went to any VFW hall and repeated his tweedy lecture about Americans’ fear of “hot, poor, and dangerous” places.
Heading into a historic election season — or non-election season, as it seems after Colorado and Maine — there’s a reason we need to listen to these war party tantrums about voter intransigence. What’s the real motive for the extraordinary amount of anti-democratic intervention on the part of institutional America we’ve already seen in this cycle not just with regard to Trump, but candidates like Robert K. Kennedy, Jr., Marianne Williamson, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Cornel West?
The cover story is fear of right-wing dictatorship, but it feels like the more likely explanation is that establishment patience with voters in general has been exhausted. These people just don’t know how to hide what they think. It’s a little on-the-nose, for instance, that the same empire pimps at Stanford who worked with the National Endowment for Democracy (read: the CIA) to craft a playbook for dealing with “anti-democratic” behavior “to delegitimize elections” abroad, also created the Election Integrity Partnership content moderation program at home to deal with posts about “delegitimization.” Whether describing the “inchoate rage” in Serbia or South Carolina, you’ll find the same language now.
In the early 2000s, the Fergusons of the world faulted American voters for failing to endorse the need for “severity” in dealing with insurgencies who refused to see the benevolence of empire. Now, American voters are themselves the insurgency. Who thinks our thought leaders aren’t dumb enough to opt for “severity” at home, too?