COLOSSUS: The Price of America's Empire

By Ferguson, Niall; Bothwell, Robert | International Journal, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

COLOSSUS: The Price of America's Empire


Ferguson, Niall, Bothwell, Robert, International Journal


COLOSSUS: The Price of America's Empire Niall Ferguson New York: Penguin Press, 2004. 384pp, $38.00 cloth (ISBN 1-59420-013-0)

One of the problems with current history is how swiftly it becomes dated. Historians have never been particularly good at the prognostication business, but they are no better than anybody else at resisting the blandishments of fame and the temptations of fortune. Fame is of course less fickle than fortune, and so it is with Niall Ferguson's latest book, Colossus, in which he struggles to fit the United States to the procrustean bed of empire.

Empire is one of those notions that comes round again and again, every couple of generations, to afflict us. Historians study it-how can they help it?-for history is strewn with empires and their ruins. Empires satisfy the aesthetic requirement for scenic grandeur, and so they are a favourite subject for film makers-Alexander (the Great) this year, Gladiator a few seasons ago. And who can forget Lawrence of Arabia, Gunga Din, The Lives of the Bengal Lancers or The English Patient? Who could resist the temptation, even at the cost of a little present-mindedness?

Not Niall Ferguson, it seems. Empire is a hot property, he has spent some of his career haunting its archival middens, and so he is well adapted to proffer advice based on that late great empire, the British, to the new empire, the American. And, following the law of averages, some of his advice in Colossus, a vade mecum for the new empire, is good, while some is, well, less good.

Canadians should be susceptible to this. We are, or were, a fragment of the British empire. We are close cousins to the Americans and maybe, culturally and economically speaking, a fragment of their empire as well. We should hearken to the voice of empire as it comes down the corridor, informing us of its next adventure. And sometimes the old synapses fire, the muscles twitch. The Book of Job put it best, in the King James Version: "He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting."

Certain elements of Canadian society did indeed paw the ground during the Iraq invasion in the spring of 2003-Stephen Harper and his Conservatives in the house of commons, The National Postin Toronto, and so forth. President George W Bush caught the moment in his Star Wars-inspired strut on an American aircraft carrier, under the banner "mission accomplished," a month into the war. But the war went on.

It was Ferguson's misfortune to write and publish Colossus before the full effect of the "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq became apparent. There is no doubt that he sees the invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush (along with his "mini-me," Tony Blair) as justified both in terms of its particulars and in general principles.

As for the particular occasion for war, Saddam Hussein's was "a regime that had repeatedly broken international law, repeatedly defied the United Nations Security Council and...repeatedly murdered its own citizens" (164). Further, Saddam procrastinated, prevaricated, and obstructed. No wonder, Ferguson writes, that the "Bush administration's patience with Saddam ran out in the second half of 2002" (155). Some commentators have placed that date rather earlier, in September 2001, right after the terrorist attack on New York. Bush and his most influential advisers early became fixated on Iraq and no amount of intelligence data afterwards could persuade them to the contrary. The sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the United Nations was costly and ineffective, Ferguson argues, and the United Nations was itself a useless talk shop. Ferguson believes that Bush and Blair were right to go around the UN, and to reject the delays that other UN delegations, including the Canadian, wished to impose on them, though he does not go into the details of the diplomatic manoeuvrings in New York. Given what followed, it is at least a question whether a sober second look was not worth it; and given the official excuse for the war, the weapons of mass destruction, it is now clear that evidence of their absence might have helped derail Bush's war-bound bandwagon. …

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