The combination of President Obama's Afghanistan speech, recent congressional votes on Libya, and the tenor of the GOP presidential debate have prompted gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects about the rise of isolationism and the decline of America. This is good -- a robust debate should be had about balancing America's role abroad with fiscal demands at home, what it means for the United States to have a robust overseas presence, and so forth.
Please, however, for the love of God, can this debate take place without Niall Ferguson?
I ask because his latest essay for Newsweek contains the laziest paragraph I will read today. In this column, Ferguson strains to displace Tom Friedman as The Creator of Inane Metaphors. He coins "IOU-solationism" to descibe the instinct to retrench because of domestic difficulties. There's a pedestrian description of rising sentiment for retrenchment. Then we get to the lazy paragraph, which happens to be the only one in his column that provides a justification for why defense cuts are a bad idea:
The United States certainly needs to get its fiscal house in order. But any serious analysis of the benefits of defense cuts needs to consider the potential costs of walking away from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, I hadn’t noticed.
A few thoughts:
1) Psst... Niall.... just because you haven't noticed does not mean that radical Islamist movements haven't declined. Last I checked, groups like Al Qaeda were waning in popularity among Muslim populations (to the point where Osama bin Laden mused about renaming Al Qaeda). Oh, and if you failed to notice, you should know that Osama bin Laden is still dead.
I understand that not every assertion can be backed up in an 800 word column. Really, I get that. It's perfectly fine to assert "the U.S. economy is weak" or "China is rising" or "Salma Hayek is hot" without providing any supporting evidence -- these stylized facts represent common knowledge. The rising power of radical Islam does not fall into this category, however. Seriously, this might be the worst paragraph I've seen in a published column this year. It's all casual assertion and no evidence.
2) There is a difference between radical Islamist groups that wish to control their own territory and groups like Al Qaeda that want to target the rest of the world. I'm not the biggest fan of the former groups, but Ferguson presumes that U.S. military force should be directed at them. This strikes me as a great way to globalize local conflicts, amping up the threats to the United States rather than tamping them down. I suspect Ferguson disagrees -- but he provides no counterargument.
3) Ferguson alludes to recent developments in Yemen as a reason to be concerned about Al Qaeda and its affiliates exploiting the Arab Spring, which is a fair point. Here's a key question, however -- does having large numbers of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq help or hinder a policy response in other vulnerable countries? And when is the use of force not the best allocation of resources for this policy conundrum?
I'm not the only one to notice Ferguson's recent bloviations. Last month Michael Lind wrote a broadside against Ferguson in Salon. Lind paints Ferguson as someone who's always been a hack, which is unfair -- he produced some genuinely interesting economic history back in the day. Still, it's genuinely sad to witness the odd decline of Ferguson from premier economic historian to hack commentator. Financially, he's much richer from this move, but his writing has become so impoverished over the past decade that he's writing his way out of the foreign policy conversation.
I've frequently bemoaned the ignorance of economic history and foreign economic policy in debates about international relations. Because of this, I must mourn the passing of Ferguson's ability to make informed contributions to important policy debates. The opportunity cost of reading his current hackwork, however, has become way too high.