As a battered and weary country peers into the hellmouth of Election 2016, contemplating the “bleak choice between a ‘liar’ and your ‘drunk uncle,’” along come two of (Anglo-) America’s premier public intellectuals with a plan for getting honest, sober policies out of our next president. “We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers,” Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison write in this month’s Atlantic. Modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, the CHA would bring together the country’s finest historical minds, backed by a professional staff, to help close the “history deficit” at 1600 Pennsylvania.
It’s one of those buzzworthy notions that seems ingenious on first airing—a presidential “Dream Team of Historians”!—but gets less shiny the closer you examine it.
“I think there would be more than enough work for a council of applied historians,” says Harvard’s Allison. What kind of work? As Ferguson and Allison envision it, the Council could help presidents avoid unforced historical errors, like the invasion of Iraq. When Bush “chose to topple Saddam Hussein,” they write, “he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” and “he failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.”
It’s a fair critique, but neither Ferguson nor Allison is in a great position to make it. It wasn’t what either of them were saying at the time.
During the war fever of 2002-03, Ferguson wasn’t urging the administration to rethink the Iraq adventure, lest they inadvertently empower Iran–he was cheering the disaster on. “By showing them just how easily Saddam’s vicious little tyranny could be overthrown,” he wrote in the Daily Mail (“Empire of the Gun,” June 21, 2003), “Mr. Bush has made it clear to the leaders of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia that he is in deadly earnest. If their countries continue to sponsor terrorism as all three notoriously do, Saddam’s fate could befall them too. Such saber-rattling evidently works.” Further: “Historians may well look back on 2003 as a turning point in the troubled politics of the Middle East. And they will give much of the credit for that transformation to the courageous and undoubtedly risky strategy adopted by President George Bush.” Just the hard truths Bush needed to hear!