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Tilting at Windmills

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April 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

"NEEDLESS KOWTOWING"....On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of parliament's passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act, Tony Blair expressed "deep sorrow and regret for our nation's role in the slave trade." Today, Niall Ferguson says that Blair's "needless kowtowing over slavery" was the proximate cause of Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines a week ago. It demonstrated weakness, you see.

Seriously. That's what he said. Click the link if you don't believe me.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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This guy is a Professor of History at Harvard University. I do wish this is just a bad April Fool's joke, but it does seem legitimate. And I am mystified: How exactly did we come to a point in history where sheer and obvious stupidity is rewarded with a professorship in a prestigious university and a column in a major US newspaper? This is a serious question. I am really at a loss to understand what's going on.

Posted by: Aris on April 1, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

The Peter Principle at work, Aris.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C) on April 1, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Much as I would love it to be true, I think th article is being misinterpreted. What the article is saying is not that slavery apology caused the Iranians to seize the British sailors, but that the niceness showed by the apology manifests itself in other ways, causing the Iranians to seize the sailors. I.e., it's a correlation and not causation thing. Which is unfortunate, because it'd be much funnier if he did argue that.

Posted by: wait on April 1, 2007 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

I read the link the same as 'wait' does

Posted by: Jim on April 1, 2007 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

"needless kowtowing over slavery" was the proximate cause of Iran's seizure

He says no such thing. His second sentence is this:

"Even before Britain's politicians had finished saying sorry last Sunday for depriving millions of their liberty, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, 15 Britons found themselves deprived of their liberty by the Iranian government."

For those with reading comprehension problems, this means that the capture happened before the apology for slavery. Whatever you think of his point or the analogy, he's not saying the apology for slavery was the "proximate cause" of the seizure of the British sailors. Really Kevin, sometimes you can be so disingenuous.

Posted by: Homer on April 1, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

wait beat me to it.

His point seems to be that the apology for slavery is a symptom of overall weakness in the British crown unknown in times past; and that this weakness enables Iran to act with impunity.

Posted by: Homer on April 1, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Like each of us, Kevin has his weak points. And analysis and writing about foreign affairs is clearly a weak area he should steer away from.

Posted by: Pat on April 1, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Many of us on this side of the Atlantic are quite happy to have Niall stay at Harvard as long as he likes. Actually, if he could arrange to be a little further away, perhaps Stanford, or someplace in Tasmania, it would be even better.

Posted by: Mike on April 1, 2007 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Whoa. That's a profound piece of hackery. What's Ferguson want Tony to do? Secretly broker an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran? That's what the Iron Lady's "political soulmate" Reagan did.

Ferguson's main point is that Tony is too nice and Iran preyed on the "weakest link." I can almost hear Niall's lament (Waah!) pining for the days of the British Empire, of Victorian "retribution to those who had the temerity to deprive British subjects of their liberty." Yet, Blair joined the Iraq invasion blunder that has tipped the scales toward Iran's ascension. How does Prof. Ferguson manage to ignore that reality?

Posted by: Apollo 13 on April 1, 2007 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

A modest show of male gender, such as that shown by Margaret Thatcher some years ago, would have ended the crisis promptly. When the Iranians siezed the US embassy, Carter asked his military chiefs for suggestions and got one that would have dealt with the matter immediately. Capture Kharg Island. Iran would have collapsed. That was their only oil export window. Carter chose weakness, just as Blair is doing, and the Brits will pay a price.

I do think this is a sign of weakness by the regime but the failure of the Britsh to respond does discourage the Iranian elements who might be looking for help from outside. As Osama says, not many chose the weak horse.

Posted by: Mike K on April 1, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Mike K,

The Soviets showed a lot of 'male gender' in Afghanistan and it didn't do them any good.

The Iranians aren't in a shooting war yet. They're playing chess with us (the Anglo-West) and Blair's responding to their latest move intelligently, trying not to get the hostages killed and not to send oil prices higher.

Besides, if it's really true that the US is positioning its forces in preparation for a summer attack on Iran, it would be irresponsible for Blair to precipitate a shooting war now before all their ally's preparations have been completed.

Posted by: otherpaul on April 1, 2007 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

I do so love the way all the wannabe Col. Blimps like Ferguson and the folks at the Daily Torygraph ignore that, in order for Britain to act as in days gone by, it would have to be the Empire it was in days gone by.

Britain could only afford the massive gunboat diplomacy efforts of the Blimpoids' "golden age" by systematically exploiting every other country in its Empire. Proof - the British military budget was massively cut after the Falklands Campaign. Further proof - the destruction of our military preparedness and budget following Blair's poodling in Iraq.

We Brits knowingly gave up our pretensions of Empire when we gave back India, and that's a good thing IMHO.

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig on April 1, 2007 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

The Ferguson guy must be a descendent of Brigadier General Harry Dyer.

Posted by: gregor on April 1, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

Mike K - "The failure of the British to respond"....."Carter chose weakness just as Blair is doing"......"A modest show of male gender such as Thatcher showed a dew years ago would have ended the crisis promptly".

Oh really. Now just what firm macho action could the Brits take? A repeat of the Falklands war?Bomb Tehran? Shell the oilfields? Invade? Invade where? Launch an "Entebbe" type rescue mission like poor hapless Jimmy Carter did? The reality is that British military on its own is far too puny to be able to take action against a country that has 50% more people and five times more land than the UK. The two British aircraft carriers are 20000 tonnes in weight - compared to the 80 to 100 thousand tonnes of American carriers. The British army is stretched in its commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Israelis took "firm action" against Hezbollah and Lebanon when two of their soldiers were seized last year. Look what Israel achieved in that fiasco. Why should the Brits be any more successful?

And other than military action, what firm male macho Thatcheresque action could Blair take? Threaten? Shout? Chew the carpet at Downing Street in rage? Oh yes - freeze Iran's bank accounts; get a UN resolution; complain to uncle George in the White House that it jolly wellisn't fair? Threaten terrible things - full of sounds and fury - signifying nothing - and told by an idiot. "I shall do such things - I yet know not what - but they shall be the terror of the World"

The fact is the Blair wanted to play soldiers with the big boys so for a jolly spiffing wheeze joined in the Fabulous Adventure in Iraq. Now he's got his fingers burnt and there's not a single thing he can do. He's like a kid who has kicked his football into some bruiser's backyard and all he can do is plaintively ask for his ball back. He doesn't have the ships or the men sufficient to spread terror among the 80 million Iranians. He doesn't have anything more than sympathy from his pal over in Washington. He is stuck up shit creek without a paddle. So it would be nice too know from Mike K or John Bolton what precise firm macho male ballsy things that Blair should be doing that he is not doing at the moment.

Posted by: Mike G on April 1, 2007 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

Wait/Jim/Homer: take another look. (And Homer, the Iranian seizure came after the apology.)

Aside from the history lesson, Ferguson makes two points. (1) Britain no longer has the military power to invade a country like Iran and get its soldiers back. That's true, but it's been true for a very long time. (2) Blair's apology for slavery was a demonstration of weakness. He shouldn't have done it, because it's precisely the kind of thing that emboldens people like the Iranians.

How else can you interpret what he said? Here's the opening paragraph:

"Let that be a lesson. Even before Britain's politicians had finished saying sorry last Sunday for depriving millions of their liberty, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, 15 Britons found themselves deprived of their liberty by the Iranian government. When will Tony Blair ever learn that, in international relations, nice guys finish last?

This is indeed what comes of being too nice...."

Posted by: Kevin Drum on April 1, 2007 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

That article was a shame. A more reality based assessment was provided today by LA TImes reporter Borzou Daragahi, in Tehran--he spoke on Cspan's Washington Journal, describing a very complicated situation, noting the flooding of military presence in the Persian Gulf by the US, UK and France literally fencing in Iran,
with Iran likely believing, hey, look, UK, you are this big power, you got yourself in this predicament in Iraq, and our little Navy can capture your sailors--essentially calling the bluff of the UK and US. However, Iranian news reporters/newscasters are not calling them hostages or captives--referring to them as "the British sailors." I thought this was significant.

Borzou says that given the complexities, upping the pressure on Iran, putting a strangehold on them, might have an opposite effect. Incidentally, Iranian citizens have a Persian holiday now--their spring break.
He noted the European Union and others tend to have an attitude, understandably, that-- we told you not to get involved in Iraq--it is the result of that conflict, and you're inablility to get out--that this has happened, now this is seen as a part of the larger Iraq quagmire. It is a sad commentary that the UK and US have gotten themselves into this with Iraq.
He said this in response to an inflammatory comment by Nile Gardiner, also on the program, from the right wing Heritage Foundation, wanting a "vigorous response" from the UK, and even saying the sailors were in the waters as a result of a UN mandate. He was a hit with the winger republican callers.

Borzou, however, to his credit, kept stressing it was a situation conflated with broader complications. He sounded quite reasonable, saying the British were trying to work their connections, trying to get a consolate visit.

There is a rumor in Iran there will be a US/UK attack on Iran by 4/6.

Posted by: consider wisely on April 1, 2007 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

I am deeply indebted to many of my high school teachers, and I know that, in part, my work now should be something that would make my teachers proud of me, and failures would, in part, be seen as reflecting poorly on and embarrassing my teachers. As a consequence, I'm obligated to be as professional as possible in my career.

Had I, as a high school student, submitted such an essay to my teachers, they would have excoriated me for such a terrible piece of work. Had I written something as an adult, my instructors would have been embarrassed that I had not learned anything during my time with them.

Seriously, that work is shameful and wouldn't pass muster in any high school English class. How did Ferguson's editor not laugh in his face for submitting a column like that?

Posted by: Constantine on April 1, 2007 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Notice the assumption that issuing an apology is always a sign of weakness, even if it's for something as obviously wrong as slavery. That speaks volumes about the right-wing mentality.

Posted by: otherpaul on April 1, 2007 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK

There's nothing new here.

Shorter Ferguson: taking responsibility is a sign of weakness.

Uh, hasn't this been the obvious underlying principal of the wingnuts for, well, forever?

-- the real Disputo, not the handle-stealing wingnut troll AH who is incapable of taking responsibility for his own words.

Posted by: Disputo on April 1, 2007 at 7:23 PM | PERMALINK

Why were British sailors captured? On prerequisite, of course, was that they were actually there to be captured, which came as part of using military power. Their presence there, of course, is normally taken as an action of strength. This is, however, one of the ironies of power. The more of it you have, the more likely you'll use it. The more you use it, the more you put your troops at risk.

Posted by: buckets on April 1, 2007 at 8:54 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Ferguson: An imperial America is a good thing, and we should be willing to kill a lot of people to make it happen.

Everything else is a pretty argument made in support of a bad conclusion...just like most of what passes for neoconservative 'thought'...

Posted by: grape_crush on April 1, 2007 at 9:59 PM | PERMALINK

Niall Ferguson has become a shameless hack whose entire world view seems to be that someone responsible needs to keep the wog in his place. And as an old Brit friend of mine used to day, "wog begins in Calais."

Posted by: klein's tiny left nut on April 1, 2007 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

Academic otherwise-unemployables, aka Twits With Tenure (TWT) seem to be particularly common among "conservative historians." They want to defend the otherwise-undefendable (white supremacy, slavery, wars-of-choice, the Nazis, Jim Crow, etc., etc.,) but know they can't and keep their all-precious tenure, so they do it through the backdoor window, with crap like this.

The Chicago Tribune West, formerly the Los Angeles Times, certainly does more than its share of assisting the TWT's with supplemental income,doesn't it? All part of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.

Posted by: TCinLA on April 1, 2007 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

Aw, more flyoverland bashing.

Chill TCinLA.

The Tribune Company is getting close to accepting a deal, and then either LAians will own the LAT *and* the Chicago Trib (as well as the Cubs), or the LAT will be sold off by the Chicagoan vying for ownership.

Posted by: Disputo on April 2, 2007 at 12:07 AM | PERMALINK

Gotta disagree: Ferguson is on the money. The Barbary pirate mentality is alive and well in the Middle East. It is still a good living. Do you know Teddy Roosevelt's telegram when an American was kidnapped by one? That is the message you have to send.

Since you don't know about the Barbary pirates, you don't know Roosevelt's telegram, and you are just interested in striking poses, I strongly advise you kids not to venture further east than NYC.

The US should put sailors in the same place the Brits were taken, and dare the Iransians to do something about it. That's what JFK would have done.

Posted by: Bob M on April 2, 2007 at 12:20 AM | PERMALINK

"Perdicaris alive or Rasuli dead!"

Bob M, I presume you're talking about the Perdicaris affair, when an American citizen of Greek descent, Ion Perdicaris, was kidnapped and held hostage by a desert bandit named Mulai Rasuli. ( Actually, it turned out that Perdicaris had renounced his citizenship during the Civil War to prevent the Confederacy from confiscating hie southern properties.)

And the result of Teddy's iron resolve?

"Seven battleships from the Atlantic fleet were dispatched to the Moroccan coast. But even with the public and press crying for blood, Roosevelt knew he couldn't send marines on a rescue mission on unfamiliar soil. And on June 1, he was faced with further trouble -- a confidential message from the U.S. embassy in Greece sending word that Perdicaris was not, as widely believed, an American citizen.

So the United States quietly enlisted Britain and France to put pressure on the tottering sultan and accept Raisuli's demands.

This the sultan agreed to do, on June 21. But to cover his tracks, Hay -- no doubt with some prodding from the hot-blooded commander in chief -- issued a stirring telegram to Gummere in Tangier.

"This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead," went the telegram.

Read for the first time at the Republican national convention, the challenge turned a dull proceeding into a frenzy of all-American excitement.

A few days later, Perdicaris was free and safe, Raisuli was $70,000 richer and Roosevelt was renominated for another term, propelling him to easily win a second term in the November elections.

Forgotten in the excitement was the fact the U.S. government had, essentially, given in to all the kidnapper's demands. And the public was never told Perdicaris' secret that he wasn't even a citizen."


Republicans... even then, always ready to dollop out the tough-guy B.S. in public, while doing the dirty deal behind closed doors.

And of course, the rubes fall for it every time

Posted by: MikeN on April 2, 2007 at 2:44 AM | PERMALINK

The Perdicaris affair was fictionalised as "The Wind and the Lion", with Rasuli played by Sean Connery and Ion Perdicaris transformed into Candice Bergen.

The director, John Milius, was also responsible for "Red Dawn" and "Conan the Barbarian"
Maybe you're getting the history mixed up with the movie?

Posted by: MikeN on April 2, 2007 at 2:51 AM | PERMALINK

Mike G @ 4:32 pm - great post.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that guys like Ferguson get paid for penning such jingoist tripe & others like you write with such style & substance for free. Let me say it again, great post.

Posted by: DanJoaquinOz on April 2, 2007 at 3:25 AM | PERMALINK


Thanks, but 90% of the post was a quote from somebody else.

Anybody, help! How do you post quotes here?

Posted by: MikeN on April 2, 2007 at 4:56 AM | PERMALINK

The article was hackiliscious, especially in relation to current affairs.
But as a take on the lessons of history and morality, it is dead on.
It is beyond pathetic for the United Kingdom to apologise for slavery. The British Empire was the first Empire in the history of Man to abolish the slave trade and actually do something about it. This should be a celebration of British culture and the victory of the abolishionist achievement. Not a bowing and pleading for forgiveness from present day African tyrrants to absolve us of the sins of the past.
As for Islam... well lets just say that there is a reason why slavery persists in many Islamic nations, there is no prohibition in the Koran. It is permitted.
In his rush to bang out an article Fergeson has mashed two things together that don't fit, but the UK elite apologising for slavery is cultural mental retardation. If the South Carolina legislature wants to apologise for the slave trade in America, that would be historically correct and appropriate, but for the country that did more to end legal slavery throughout the entire world to apologise is rediculous and an insult to our common past.

Posted by: Nemesis on April 2, 2007 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

"Anybody, help! How do you post quotes here?"

We generally use either the italic or blockquote HTML tags. There isn't any built-in support in the comments window, since this is a low-budget operation.

The italic tag is <i>your text here</i>

The blockquote tag is similar, but with blockquote between the brackets:

<blockquote>your block quoted text here</blockquote>

Hope this helps.

Posted by: PaulB on April 2, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Hi MikeN,

No, I never saw the movie, though I often mix up fiction with reality. :-)

I take your point that life and politics are filled with ambiguities, and I defer to your more erudite posting.

But I do think this is a good opportunity for the US. The US does international nose to nose confrontations well, though this Admin, who knows with them....

I do think this stuff is like pro wrestling, though, all posturing. I think maybe I caught the mood.


Posted by: Bob M on April 2, 2007 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK



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