In early May, Niall Ferguson, the celebrity Scottish historian, looked out at a packed house seething with antagonism. He had come to Washington to deliver a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations defending his idea that the war in Iraq had not only been the right thing to do, but also ought to be the first step towards a wide-ranging American empire. It would be difficult to imagine a moment when the capital’s bipartisan policy elite —Ferguson’s audience—were less inclined to be receptive to his ideas. The first accounts of the torture at Abu Ghraib had just appeared, and the cause in Iraq was beginning to look more hopeless than ever. And the crowd had come to see someone answer for all of this, to see how Ferguson, whose ideas had help get us into the war, would defend himself. Ferguson didn’t defend himself. He attacked.

Within three minutes, he’d lost the liberals in the crowd, arguing, improbably that the problems in Iraq proved that America ought to be more of an empire, not less of one. A bald-headed scholar from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked him whether the United States ought to be morally willing to slay thousands of Iraqis to stabilize Iraq. Ferguson retorted, “Perhaps you would wish Saddam back in power; that’s the implication of what you’re saying.” The liberal think-tankers around me started guffawing openly, and shooting each other is-this-guy-for-real smirks.

With one leg crossed over the other, his hands folded in his lap, his pale face issuing a dispassionate monotone, Ferguson pressed on. Not only were the problems in Iraq the direct fault of America’s unwillingness to call itself an empire, he said, but they were also predictable. “In behaving the way they did,” Ferguson said, “those soldiers and military policemen [at Abu Ghraib] were largely doing to their prisoners what routinely people in the American military do to new recruits.”

This was too much for even the conservatives in the audience. The guffaws grew louder, the muttered protests reached the front of the room. In the row in front of me, a broad-shouldered, uniformed officer stood up. “Big disagree here, sir,” he bellowed. “Big disagree with your characterization.” (Fleetingly, I wondered if this was how colonels address one another in private). “The institution I have spent my life in abhors what went on in Iraq,” he said. “It’s not the way we treat anyone– a fresh recruit or a plebe at West Point.” The crowd clapped vigorously. In less than 10 minutes, Ferguson had pulled off that rarest of Washington double plays, alienating liberals and conservatives alike.

Ferguson didn’t flinch. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “But you have to recognize that power will corrupt inevitably. It comes with the territory of empire.” Transgressions like this, Ferguson said, were common to “all imperial armies.”

The colonel stood there for a second, not knowing quite what to say. Eventually, he sat down. Ferguson hadn’t quite satisfied the crowd, but he had displayed a mastery of just enough history to disarm them. The audience grumbled at Ferguson throughout the question-and-answer session, but no one really challenged him again. As the panel ended, they clapped grudgingly and then shuffled out of the room, vaguely dissatisfied. Ferguson had replicated his role from the lead-up to the war: In a moment of profound, and deeply felt, confusion at what our national direction ought to be, Ferguson offered extreme certainty. And his claims caught on when no one was able to make a counter-argument with such confidence and clarity.

Ferguson is, at just over 40 and a few months short of a scheduled appointment to a history professorship at Harvard, indisputably one of the world’s most famous and influential historians–he was recently named one of the planet’s 100 Most Influential People by Time, beating out Tony Blair. His influence comes from his dramatic, sweeping intellectual style, whose theme is, more or less, “Everything you thought you knew about history is wrong.” Ferguson’s genius is for counter-conventional thinking, urging radical reinterpretations of topics that everyone else had pretty much considered settled. Ferguson is out of sync with the academy in style, politics, and manner, but he has been a useful intellectual prod, the appeal of his radical theories forcing mainstream academics to refine their own thinking. Read Ferguson for any real stretch of time, and you begin to imagine what it might have been like had Andrew Sullivan chosen as his topic the entire breadth of human history.

It is unpleasant, if compelling in a train-wreck kind of way, to watch what can happen when such a dynamic mind veers dramatically off-track; he can take a lot of people crashing into an intellectual ditch with him. After September 11, Ferguson provided much of the theoretical ballast for a group of British-inflected thinkers–among them Max Boot and Marc Steyn–who urged empire on a newly expansionist American regime, acting as a transatlantic goad, the collective ghost of pith helmets past. Ferguson himself used the issue to edge into popular history; he produced and hosted a six-part program about the British empire on England’s Channel Four which even London’s liberal Guardian, after a great deal of public radio-style hand-wringing, credited with changing the national conversation about the empire.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Ferguson was responsible for inserting the notion of a formal American empire into the public debate. Professors of imperial history around America started turning to his texts. Washington hawks from Richard Perle to Dinesh D’Souza to Bill Kristol drew on Ferguson’s ideas and arguments to help make the case not only for the war in Iraq but also for a revolutionary, if vaguely articulated, new role for America in the world. Within two weeks of arriving in the United States in the fall of 2002, to take up a teaching post at New York University, Ferguson had been summoned to Washington twice, once each by the Departments of Treasury and State, where he explained his convictions to policymakers; in Foggy Bottom, he met with Colin Powell–rarified company for a young historian.

In recent months as the invasion of Iraq has bogged down into a tough and bloody fight, Ferguson’s intellectual fellow-travelers have scrambled to find the high ground. Several, like Richard Perle, continue to maintain against all evidence that things are going fine. Others, such as William Kristol, admit the failures but insist things might have worked out better had the administration put in more troops. A few, such as Fouad Ajami and David Brooks, have essentially conceded that our plans to impose an imperial order on Iraq were flawed from the beginning.

In his just published book, Colossus, Ferguson puts forth his own defense. He fully admits how poorly the American mission in Iraq has gone but says this only proves his ultimate point. Had President Bush been willing to see the United States’ role in the world as essentially imperial, Ferguson argues, he would have understood the depth of commitment, the hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civil administrators, needed to really turn Iraq into a democracy. The failures in Iraq don’t, for Ferguson, mean that the project of American empire was deeply misguided; rather, they affirm that an imperial attitude is the only one that might have done the job in Iraq.

This is quintessential Ferguson thinking–altogether new, seductive, but also almost entirely speculative. Ferguson knows just enough about empire and America to make an argument which is on its face convincing, but not nearly enough to be right. The attempt at empire-building he pushed America towards in Iraq is clearly failing. But rather than question his own thinking, he now argues that a bigger, better version of American empire would have worked and still could. In this, he resembles the American Communist Party of mid-century: The problem with Stalin’s Soviets, they said, was that they weren’t Communist enough.

I first met Niall Ferguson just after noon on what was New York’s very-late-arriving first day of Spring, and the sun made him cheery, proposing a toast to the weather. We met at a French bistro with a bright-blue painted street-front, cranky waiters, and, for two hours at what ought to have been the lunch rush’s peak, only one or two other patrons. Ferguson said the place was a fave; in his culinary choices as in his intellectual ones, he seeks out sparsely populated venues. “I love this place because it’s unfashionable,” he told me, leaning and giving a happy half-sneer. “In New York, the herds are worse than in London, stampeding into restaurants just because it’s fashionable. Nobody comes to this place. You can actually hear yourself think.”

Ferguson has sandy, undergraduate-looking hair and a long nose and a mouth that mostly hangs open, as if waiting to pounce. He is funny and charming and self-effacing in that cocky, Hugh Grant way that tells you that all kidding aside, he knows that he doesn’t have much to be humble about.

And, as public intellectuals go, he doesn’t. Besides his joint teaching appointments at NYU and Jesus College, Oxford, he is engaged simultaneously in a book project rethinking World War II, an adaptation for television of Colossus, a biography of the influential banker Seymour Warburg, and a popular study of the likely impact of demographics on world financial markets.

He’s consequently full of fascinating statistics and anecdotes, such as “by 2050, according to the United Nations, Yemen will have more people than Russia,” which even for a professional polymath is a terrific nugget. But his casual interests go even further afield: As I drove to meet him, with good music in short supply, I turned on New York’s public radio station and heard a theatrical, learned Scots voice going back and forth with a caller named Paresh from Clifton, N.J., who was muttering darkly about the threats a Muslim majority would pose to the public education system. Paresh’s antagonist sure sounded like Ferguson, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure how a financial historian with a sideline in empire had ended up in such a forum. It turned out it was, in fact, Ferguson; he’d written a story for The New York Times‘ Sunday magazine that week about the growing Muslim population of Europe and was just finishing up a radio interview about it before meeting me for lunch.

Talk to Ferguson long enough about America, and you get the distinct sense that he sees himself as Margaret Thatcher to the punditry class’ George H.W. Bush, imploring it not to go all wobbly. Ferguson seems to see his role as pushing America towards the realization that only by ridding itself of its isolationist and politically correct tendencies, and having the confidence of its moral convictions, can it save the world by occupying it.

In this, Ferguson is not unlike many of the leading figures in the Bush administration, hard-minded conservatives who prides themselves on seeing things more clearly than others can. It is not an uncommon sensibility among smart conservative thinkers, who mostly come out of the academy, with its decidedly liberal cast, and in many cases come to see themselves as figures of deep intellectual honesty, who can see through orthodox thought and skewer conventional thinking.

This brand of honesty is seductive and in many ways needed, helping us see through calcified thinking and can reveal hidden truths. But it also contains its own pathologies: The tendency to distrust the evidence and arguments of others, and an inclination to follow one’s own theory to bewildering, and sometimes damaging, logical extremes.

There are a few American intellectuals who, half-way through their careers, stumble on to the level of ubiquity that Ferguson has now achieved, writing so much about such a wide variety of historical topics that they are no longer relying on any particular expertise but try to get by simply on reading the same things everyone else reads, but reading them better, a kind of scholarship of The New York Times. But England, which anoints its geniuses at age 22 rather than 42, seems to produce this type somewhat more regularly: Along with Ferguson, think of the theater critic Kenneth Tynan or the historian Simon Schama, who was hired as a Cambridge don on the strength of his undergraduate thesis. Like Schama, Ferguson writes what he calls a “young man’s history,” sweeping in scope, bold in theory, with little archival work but a lot of argumentative force. The similarity of style between these two famed historians is perhaps not entirely coincidental. It is hard to imagine that those tapped as geniuses at a young age, and called brilliant their whole adult lives, don’t have a greater tendency to think that they are smarter than the rest of the academic gang, and with only a brief stretch of intensive thinking, can master topics they had not previously paid attention to, and discover profound new truths. This is, at the very least, a sensibility which has recently driven Ferguson’s career.

Ferguson, who started his career as a lauded historian of German financial systems, has since written three major books–The House of Rothschild (1998), The Pity of War (1999), and Empire (2002). The first is by far the best. It is a magnificently well-told story of perhaps the most powerful non-governmental family in history, a story propelled by the argument that the bond market, as much as any other institution, predicted and shaped the rise and fall of European empires.

It is a compelling, exhaustively researched and completely novel point–and The House of Rothschild remains Ferguson’s only major work to have received prizes and wide acclaim from other historians. Research restrains sweeping, absolute claims: Rothschild is the last book Ferguson wrote for which he did original archival work, and his detailed knowledge of his subject meant that his arguments for it couldn’t be too grand. His claims about the importance of the bond market didn’t extend to arguing that the advances in British war financing were more important than Nelson’s facility with ships or Wellington’s ability to marshal troops in defeating Napoleon.

Rothschild anointed Ferguson the hot young historian of the moment, his books begetting sprawling response essays in The New York Review of Books. For an encore, he turned out The Pity of War, a book written entirely from secondary sources. Like Rothschild, Pity has a bold argument: that the English entry into World War I turned a contained, regional spat that would likely have ended quickly into something that took four years and hundreds of thousands of lives. Ferguson’s nimble descriptive talents were on display (his devastating reconstructions of the horrors of battle are among the best I’ve ever read), as was his facility for the attention-grabbing stat (it cost the Germans just $5,000 to kill an allied soldier; the much wealthier allies, meanwhile, spent $16,000 for each slaughtered Teuton).

But what was most seductive about the bestselling Pity was its ambition. I was an undergraduate history major when the book appeared, and having spent four years slogging through the work of American academic micro-historians, confined to writing the definitive history of World War I cemeteries in New England, or the experience of the 2nd Massachusetts militia in the revolutionary war, Ferguson felt urgent and crucial: By the end of the term, my three roommates and I owned four copies of Pity between us.

The popular press shared our enthusiasm. Alan Riding of The New York Times called Ferguson “the greatest British historian of his generation.” Some academics, on the other hand, though wowed by his writing and synthetic ability (five complex years of world history combined into one linear argument!), charged him with intellectual overstretch–with underestimating, among other things, the role of the French. Even if the English had stayed out of the war, Ferguson’s critics argued, the French would have been sucked into it, and the resulting fight would not have been all that much less severe than World War I in fact ended up being. (Ferguson told me that he hopes to address the role of the French more thoroughly in the book’s forthcoming second edition.)

With Empire, a breezy, optimistic history of the British empire accompanied by a vociferous essay urging the United States to colonize the world in order to guarantee security, free trade, and development, this tendency went pathological. Empire, which was designed as a companion to a six-part series on Channel Four which Ferguson also executive produced, looks and reads like a coffee-table book, with no footnotes, great photos, and a lively text which focuses heavily on biographical sketches of key imperial figures.

But it also has a defining and forceful argument. Though England’s imperial tentacles may have begun as a series of commercial relationships, Ferguson argues, it was formalized when the government in London realized that to guarantee the security of the nation’s investment in overseas commerce, it would have to take direct physical control of countries overseas. This direct control, which effectively guaranteed the security of investments in everything from railroads to factories, permitted an unprecedented and unrepeated flow of capital from the First to the Third World.

Ferguson had set out to tweak conventional thinking. He told me that he had written his history partly in reaction to endless, “stultifying theories of other,” an out-of-touch historical community that has condemned the British empire as an abhorrent exercise in racism and sexual exploitation, too. And certainly, the lefty theorists who have discussed the empire this way have had some purchase on the scholarly debate recently.

But the academic consensus isn’t nearly as ridiculous as its loudest and brashest voices. The weight of scholarship has said that the British empire did both good and bad. It left good railroads and sound legal systems, and, if you had to be ruled by some European colonial power, the British were a good deal gentler and more liberal than the Portuguese, Spanish, or Belgians. But on balance, the scholarly consensus more or less goes, it’s hard to make the case that the overall effect was positive: Natives were denied any real political rights and subjected not only to often oppressive rule by foreigners but also (in Australia, South Africa and the United States, particularly) to repeated, indiscriminate massacres by British settlers. And the British record at improving the welfare of its colonial subjects is, at best, mixed. India, the largest colony ruled by London, began the colonial period with per capita incomes as high as those in England itself, and ended it as one of the poorest countries on earth.

Ferguson says that the problem in India–and perhaps I will not be alone in detecting a pattern here–was that the British “did not colonize India fully enough.” Given the unprecedented amounts of money and talent the British poured into its crown jewel over 150 years, that is a difficult case to make.

But Ferguson argued that not only was the British empire good, but that a similarly liberal American empire could also play a crucial role in the world today. “Capitalism and democracy,” Ferguson wrote, “are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary… by military force.”

He also went a good deal further than that. An American failure to take up the imperial yoke, he wrote last year, would result in a dangerous and chaotic “apolarity.” The last time the world was truly apolar, Ferguson is fond of saying, was in the 9th century, “and that was the age of the Vikings. There are Vikings today too, only they’re not pagans, they’re zealous monotheists, and they’re a real threat to America and her allies.”

When Ferguson says the United States ought to be an empire, he meant precisely that: He wants America to use her might to exercise benign, formal control over other countries. He does not mean a cultural hegemony or a network of economically and militarily dependent regimes, like the United States worked through in the Cold War. Nor does he favor a role for the United Nations, which he regards (like a generation of writers who saw the U.N.-flubbed deterioration of Yugoslavia up close) as incapable of arranging an effective international system. If the world were made into a movie, for Ferguson, the United Nations would be played by Peter Sellers–faultlessly polite, but intolerably dithering. If an American empire is going to work, Ferguson argued, it is going to have to look as much like its British predecessor as possible.

Ferguson is awfully specific about this. America, he argues, must refit its military to undertake decades-long occupations of foreign nations. It must export settlers, who bring Western values to the rest of the world. It must add a branch of government, the equivalent of the India Civil Service, to provide civil administration to conquered territories.

A comparison this rigid doesn’t make sense: The world is too greatly changed. As Ferguson documented in graphic detail in Empire, building an empire has always been rough, unsavory stuff. Native populations are massacred. Women are raped. The rebellious are burned at the stake. In the 19th century, when British goons were building their empire this way, their transgressions happened at distances of weeks-long journeys by ship and rail, in places far from the spotlight. Now, we know of the violations our troops must commit–whether firing on a wedding party or torturing prisoners or inadvertently bombing an embassy–within days, if not hours. And we are right to refuse to stomach them.

But it is not just Americans who are confronted with these images. People in Riyadh and Karbala and Dhaka see them, too. It is difficult to argue that the war in Iraq has settled, rather than inflamed, violent anti-American feelings throughout the Islamic world. The escalating pace of terrorist attacks and plots in Saudi Arabia, Spain, Jordan, and elsewhere suggests that the images of the American occupation in Iraq have only made moderate Muslims into anti-Americans, and given broader popular support to the ideologies and organizations we are trying to defeat. There is always some kickback over empire, but technology makes that backlash come sooner, and harder.

Ferguson is certainly right–though far from unique–when he writes that to preserve its own security and economic well-being, the United States will have to shed any lasting isolationist tendencies to take an involved role in world affairs. But to argue that the British empire should provide the model now because, Ferguson says, it worked in the past just doesn’t track–it gives history far too big a role in determining current policy. New realities demand new solutions. Most successful armies in human history have won on the strength of their cavalries, but we’re not about to put the American military on horseback.

Ferguson’s theory runs smack into the unsuccessful experience of empires over the last hundred years. Not only did the British and every other European imperial power crumble in the first half of the 20th century, but in the second half attempts to cling to imperial remnants, as the French did in Algeria, or to impose them–think Russia in Afghanistan, or us in Iraq, have also run aground on the resistance of local populations. It’s worth noting that the only successful efforts at nation-building have been conducted by the international community, as in Bosnia or Kosovo, where the natives have accepted the legitimacy of rule.

Unilateral empire might work today if the world beyond America’s borders were populated by five billion Buddhist monks, willing to calmly endure. But the truth is that even the most benign American unilateral efforts overseas spark deep-seated suspicion and antagonism, and send the most apolitical street kids heading for the local Kaloshnikov dealer. Remember the old joke, where an economist plotting his escape from the bottom of a well begins by saying: “Assume a ladder.” Ferguson is similarly improbable: He begins his discussion of America’s place in the world by saying, in effect, “Assume docile natives.”

Ferguson says that we shouldn’t evaluate the idea of empire by the failure of imperial efforts during the last 50 years, because the would-be imperialists have lacked the will and political support to commit themselves fully to an imperial policy, to risk the needed troops and the funds. The French in Algeria lacked the will, as do the Americans in Iraq. This is the central argument of Colossus.

The United States, Ferguson argues in his new book, is not equipped to be the empire it should, since it suffers from three distinct deficits. Its economy, sure to stagger under massive Social Security and Medicare debts, is simply too crippled to fund an empire. We simply don’t have enough troops and diplomats to staff a vast collection of overseas possessions. And, for Ferguson most damning of all, we lack the stomach for extensive engagements abroad. “When America actually undertakes a long-term commitment, as in the Cold War, it works,” he said. “When it doesn’t, which is the far more frequent case, you get Haiti–which is of course what Iraq is about to become, Port-au-Prince on the Tigris.”

But America’s ill-preparedness, both emotionally and structurally, to take on an imperial role was clearly evident before we invaded Iraq–and Ferguson was perfectly aware of it. He published a series of op-eds on the eve of war raising concerns that America was prepping too few troops and seemed to be planning for too short a stay. Yet those same essays were otherwise robust defenses of the nobility of the American exercise in Iraq and the American imperial project in general.

But the simple truth may be that, like many other pro-war intellectuals, Ferguson was so seduced by the boldness of his idea that he neglected to follow the logic of the evidence he saw. And the simple explanation for the failure of the imperial and quasi-imperial attempts of the last 50 years may not be that France, Russia, and the United States all went about it all wrong, but that the project of empire is just not possible in today’s world, that the prevailing political tempers, on each side of the colonial equation, won’t permit it.

Ferguson, like a retreating army, is now shooting his slow horses. First, in Colossus, he pulled back from the idea of American empire that has, so far, come to define his career for many Americans. In a frank, similar move, he told me that Colossus was “vulnerable to attack,” and that his books on empire were “edutainment at best.” There are not many authors willing to spend their publicity junkets openly denigrating the books they are ostensibly trying to sell.

Ferguson’s errors have been far more consequential for the country than they appear to have been to his career. It is impossible, of course, to say precisely how much his ideas helped drive the administration towards war. But for a brief, decisive moment, in the months leading up to the war, his notion that the United States was destined to become, in Thomas Jefferson’s old phrase, an “empire of liberty,” one that would both protect our security and bring freedom to the oppressed of the world, captured the imaginations of a significant part of Washington’s foreign policy elite. Ferguson told me that, when he looked at his publisher’s sales records, he saw that Empire had sold far better in the nation’s capital than anywhere else in the country.

Ferguson is in many ways characteristic of the intellectuals who have urged the Bush administration to its most important foreign policy decisions. He is brilliant, but having just started writing about empire five years ago, hardly an expert on his chosen topic. (Similarly, there are strikingly few Middle East experts among the group of prominent administration hawks who have been dictating policy in that region–though there are a fair number of Russia scholars). Then, too, he thinks of himself as a counter-conventional thinker, whose role is to discern what is hidebound about institutional thinking and then expose it, rather than build his theories from original research. He has a tendency to regard popular wisdom as necessarily fallible, and the institutions which generate it–the academy, newspapers–as corrupted by their own ideologies. In the same way in which Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith believed that the evidence provided by America’s intelligence agencies about the Iraq threat was necessarily incorrect because it emerged from a corrupt bureaucracy with the wrong precepts, and that an independent intelligence body with the correct theory was needed to properly interpret the data (the Office of Special Plans), so Ferguson seems to believe that conventional academic histories are corrupt because they emerge from ideologically wrong-headed universities. Like Wolfowitz, Ferguson is a dazzling thinker, dismissive of those with greater expertise. And like OSP, the historian eschews original research; instead, he makes his career by reading up on other people’s evidence and then coming to widely divergent conclusions.

Ferguson told me he was regarding his forthcoming move to Harvard as a retreat to the ivory tower, as a chance to start doing archival work once more. “The House of Rothschild was really my best book,” he told me, “and it was that because I actually did dusty-fingered research in the archives–that’s where the real breakthroughs always happen, anyway.” Since he quit archival work, his histories have suffered; they tend to sprawl out of control, and hunt down evidence to support his guiding theories. If he does return to the stacks, it may eventually give him a way to rebuke those who think that his true talent to date has been for sloganeering and publicity, not legitimate scholarly breakthroughs. But it will not undo the damage his ideas about empire have helped to bring about.

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Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a staff writer at the New Yorker.