Historian Niall Ferguson turns to fortune cookie writing, creating a history of the future that sees grave consequences–a World War–in the absence of a commitment to preemption. (HT: Ralph Luker) The gist: turning against Bush’s bold policies created the conditions of appeasement that will allow militaristic powers in Iran to move from (not so) covert support of terrorism to outright warfare with weapons of mass destruction.

I’m sure plenty of others have written about Ferguson’s screediness, as well as his potential recklessness–more punditry than history. But I feel obliged to look at what he has written and examine the choices he made in his speculations.

The refrain of Ferguson’s article is that conditions are so much like the 1930s that a future conflict cannot be avoided–better to embrace preemption now than let the opportunity pass. It is a retread about the failure of appeasement.

As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking. Perhaps, some said, Ahmadinejad was only sabre-rattling because his domestic position was so weak. Perhaps his political rivals in the Iranian clergy were on the point of getting rid of him. In that case, the last thing the West should do was to take a tough line; that would only bolster Ahmadinejad by inflaming Iranian popular feeling. So in Washington and in London people crossed their fingers, hoping for the deus ex machina of a home-grown regime change in Teheran.

Obviously this plays well into the end of history. Ferguson offers us the opportunity to use war to destroy the cycle of past.

But why is the decade of the 1930s the only one he uses to compare to the present? Why didn’t Ferguson use World War I as his referent, which he discussed skillfully and creatively in his book, The Pity of War?

In his imaginative study, Ferguson asked tough question about how British involvement shaped the First World War, perhaps turning it into a deadlier, more protracted conflicted than it needed to be. Did Prussian militarism have to be destroyed at all cost? (Personally, I’d say yes–too bad it was not.) Ferguson put Fritz Fischer’s thesis (Griff nach Weltmacht) in doubt: Germany had modest war aims at the beginning of the war that the British government could have tolerated, and the dream of German hegemony over Europe evolved later on. Ferguson even says that no proof exists that the German military or political leadership took hegemony as a serious goal.

A Germany victorious would have led to a different world:

“Had Britain stood aside — even for a matter of weeks — continental Europe could therefore have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today …. Perhaps too the complete collapse of Russia into the horrors of civil war and Bolshevism may have been averted …. And there plainly would not have been that great incursion of American financial and military power into European affairs …. Granted, there might still have been Fascism in Europe in the 1920s; but it would have been in France rather than Germany ….”

“With the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter … And Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich …”

“In the final analysis, then, the historian is bound to ask if acceptance of a German victory on the continent would have been damaging to British interests … The answer here is that it would not have been.”

Ferguson presents a scenario in which the only salvation from our impasse is war. This sounds so much like the pulp fiction of the 1900s that imagined German threats lurking everywhere, the apocalyptic literature in which bloody destruction must precede spiritual rebirth, the idealism of artists who declared, “Except in struggle there could be no beauty–No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece.

Could similar questions be asked about Iraq and the future of conflict in the Middle East?

Comparing current events to the lead-up to WWI might produced unsatisfying results. Militarism escalated in the context of conflicts over resources (the mineral resources of Africa becoming more important to industrial development and armament.) The comparison also has the potential for judging the victors harshly. Modris Eksteins, in Rites of Spring, argued that German warfare originated in British imperial tactics (Britain invented modern warfare, Germany perfected it.)

But then again, World Wars I and II are not the only example. What about the Crimea? French Revolution? Seven Years War? The Thirty Years War?

This does not mean that military force should not be used to counteract nuclear proliferation. I suggest that Ferguson should make a fuller accounting of continental and global conflicts to situate the current crisis in a better light. The meme today-as-1930s has already been used, and the policy it supported did not produce the expected results. Perhaps the same questions could be asked: could misinterpretation of goals, protracted conflict, and (indeed) involvement shape how goals and policies of Iran change? These question need not turn against military action, but Ferguson should not shy away from asking them.