MOYERS: In Washington yesterday, you might have wondered if the American Revolution had been revoked.
The British were back, and in the city the redcoats once burned, they were hailed now as conquering heroes. Tony Blair's address to a joint session of Congress was his reward for America in the invasion of Iraq. In American sports parlance, he knocked it out of the park.
BLAIR: I am deeply touched by that warm and generous welcome. That's more than I deserve and more than I am used to, quite frankly.
MOYERS: Blair told Congress he hadn't forgotten the Library of Congress books that also went up in smoke in 1814.
BLAIR: I know this is kind of late, but sorry.
MOYERS: The Prime Minister was then treated to dinner in the very White House to which British troops had also once put the torch.
Back home in London, Blair still faces what Brits would call a sticky wicket. One British tabloid called his speech "claptrap," and you might have thought that he, not Saddam Hussein, had lost the war.
His standing in the polls has dropped from almost 90% two years ago to about 1/3 as his opponents accuse him of going to war on the basis of misleading intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.
IAIN DUNCAN SMITH, CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION LEADER: The truth is that nobody believes a word that the Prime Minister is saying. Will he now either publish that dossier right now, or hold an independent inquiry so that the public can judge for themselves?
MOYERS: Here to talk about this are two historians, both British, both living here in the United States. Niall Ferguson teaches at New York University, and is a senior fellow at Oxford. His most recent book is EMPIRE: THE RISE AND DEMISE OF THE BRITISH WORLD ORDER AND THE LESSONS FOR GLOBAL POWER.
Simon Schama has been a frequent guest on our program. He teaches at Columbia University, wrote the multi-volume A HISTORY OF BRITAIN, and is the star of the BBC television series of the same name. Gentlemen, welcome.
Would you agree that Tony Blair got a royal welcome in Washington?
FERGUSON: I don't think Americans do royal welcomes. But he maybe got an imperial welcome. Certainly something imperial about the ovation. And one could see that Tony Blair was loving every second of this because as he himself admitted, he doesn't get that kind of reception back home.
I think this might have a big Gorbachev factor. When a political leader becomes more popular abroad than he is at home. And I think that's the real significance of this episode.
MOYERS: The British press is beating up on him this morning.
MOYERS: They're relentless.
SCHAMA: Yeah they are and one's tempted to say that, you know, he thrives on adversity, that he would sort of drink it off. But actually, I don't think he does.
Some of the great figures in British political life since the war, Mr. Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher, pretend to have a kind of bulldog pugnacity. But actually, they love adulation and apotheosis, really.
There is a sense, though, the newspapers may be a bit misleading. Because despite our sense here on this side of the Atlantic that there is a very fierce phobic anti-American vein going on in Britain now, the fact is actually the kind of taxi driver working-class constituency seeing our lad Tony adored by, you know, rising the crest of the wave of roaring applause. To them, it feels like a kind of, you know, a conquest, actually, in some ways. And I think they drink in it.
MOYERS: But two thirds of Britain said in a recent poll that they believe Blair misled them. Most Americans, our surveys show, still believe Bush waged the war in good faith. How do you explain the difference in public attitudes?
FERGUSON: Simple as that.
FERGUSON: The British public has not has the experience that the public of the United States had in September 2001. And after 9-11, a great deal more slack was cut to the American government than has been cut for decades.
SCHAMA: But I would also say that when, Bill, you say, "Well, you know, large majority still believes the war was carried out in good faith," I don't disagree with that view. A distressingly large majority in the opinion poll I seem to remember reading, still believe that Iraqis were primarily responsible for 9-11, for the attack on the World Trade Center.
It wasn't exactly a hard sell to say, "Look, there is a connection between what we must do in Iraq and what happened to us on 9-11," a connection which still remains to be proven.
MOYERS: But in his speech yesterday, Simon, he shifted the ground. He was saying that even if no link is found between… is proven between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, those are irrelevant anyway. What's really important is that he and the United States got rid of a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. And that, he said, is how history will judge us.
FERGUSON: But that was not the legal basis for intervention in Iraq.
MOYERS: The legal basis.
FERGUSON: The legal basis was that Saddam Hussein was not cooperating with weapons inspectors…
FERGUSON: …and may very well have had weapons of mass destruction. That's why the war happened. And the fact that Mr. Blair justified this intervention with intelligence that had been, quote, "sexed up," that allegation is a very, very damaging one in the British Parliamentary system.
SCHAMA: It was not only not the legal basis, the basis on which the war was sold to the public of the United States, to the American public, as well as to the British public, was that the war is necessary as an act of self-defense. That it would be a disgraceful abdication of the first responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief, Prime Minister and President, to walk away from something which was transparently an unparalleled imminent danger.
MOYERS: The notion that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons.
SCHAMA: Right absolutely.
MOYERS: Or some weapons that he was going to…
SCHAMA: That's what I supported, actually. Ultimately, that's what turned me into a supporter.
MOYERS: Well, we know in 1991 he did.
MOYERS: He was out to develop a weapons system that he could intimidate the West and other… and his neighbors with.
SCHAMA: But what Tony Blair said yesterday, moving from that position to say that even this should turn out… even if that judgment should turn out to be wrong, and based on dodgy intelligence, it was necessary and a good thing that we embarked on the war. There was no possibility of selling the war to either the American or the British public. To say, "This is a crusade on behalf of democracy. Our empire will be an empire of social, moral, and political engineering." Try that on Duluth. Try that on Aberdeen. I don't think so.
MOYERS: Look, you both are historians. Condoleezza Rice, the President's national security advisor, said on Fox News, quote, "It's simply revisionist history for people to suggest there was no reason to believe the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction." What do you historians make of that?
FERGUSON: Well, I'm actually quite sympathetic to both Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush and Condi Rice on this. Even if there was a one percent chance that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was not cooperating with the U.N. inspectors to conceal that fact, that provided an adequate basis for military intervention.
To be honest, I think this whole media storm in Britain is a storm about the wrong question. It's a storm about the past. Whereas the real issue, the issue we should be pressing both Blair and Bush about, is the future of Iraq.
If you think that you can transform Iraq, which has been reduced to the status of a sub-Saharan African economy by Saddam Hussein's tyranny, if you can restore that to not only functioning free market economics, but to democracy, in a time frame that nobody seems to regard as being more than four years, and at the early stages of this campaign, was supposed to happen within 12 months, you are fantasizing.
MOYERS: It took you guys how long to fail?
FERGUSON: Well, we've spent 40 years trying…40 years trying to transform Iraq. After the first World War until finally, you withdrew your support for our position in the late 1950s.
Now how many Americans seriously think they're going to be in Baghdad in the year 2043? Not one, I would venture to suggest.
MOYERS: You're saying we're in denial?
FERGUSON: You're in denial about the extent of the project that you've undertaken.
MOYERS: Can't afford this, or we won't afford it?
SCHAMA: America, as we've both said, is in terrible denial about what the time scale, the costs. You can't have run this kind of empire of political change on a kind of, you know, Wal-Mart basis. You can't… a tax cut empire is an oxymoron.
MOYERS: And you…
SCHAMA: It's an oxymoron.
MOYERS: What do you mean you… we have a tax cut empire?
FERGUSON: Well, I think the point is that this whole thing has been done on the cheap. It seems to me that many, many people in this country have been deeply shocked by two pieces of news this week.
One, that the cost of occupying Iraq currently runs at around about $4 billion a month. Two, that this year's federal government deficit is going to be going on for $500 billion.
Now these figures are, by no means, unrelated. They tell us a very important story. Because if that is the cost of the military occupation of Iraq, what will the cost be of the economic reconstruction of Iraq?
FERGUSON: So far, nobody has put a figure on that in the administration.
FERGUSON: And if that isn't achieved, if there's no economic reconstruction in Iraq, then it will simply become a kind of God forsaken Haiti on the banks of the Tigris.
SCHAMA: I'll tell you why that hasn't happened, because it's actually a gigantic, you know, piece of schizophrenia going on in the current administration. Doing Iraq properly, democratically and economically, is a maximilist enterprise.
MOYERS: A what?
SCHAMA: A maximilist…
SCHAMA: It's a big government enterprise. There's a big… remember those words? Big government, Bill?
MOYERS: I do.
SCHAMA: Sound familiar?
MOYERS: Present at the creation.
SCHAMA: You were indeed. But, I mean, that's what it is. It requires people, money, commitment, for a long time on a large scale. That runs counter to every instinct in the present American administration, which is minimalist, which is no government is good government. I mean I don't know how you possibly square that circle.
MOYERS: What's your greatest concern right now for this government?
FERGUSON: My greatest concern is that the timeframe is unrealistically short, and the resources are not being committed to, quote unquote, "nation building." Let me give you an illustration of just how serious this problem is.
We've all forgotten about Afghanistan. One and a half years on, we're supposed to be nation building in Afghanistan for one and a half years. Do you know how much money the American government has given to the government that it installed in Kabul? The answer is $500 million.
Now $500 million does not go very far when you're trying to transform a country like Afghanistan. And it seems to me that is a measure of the completely negligent way in which this government is approaching the project of nation building.
It's criminally irresponsible. When Al Qaeda came from Afghanistan, it came from anarchy in Afghanistan to perpetrate the crime of 9-11. And yet, we're allowing Afghanistan to slide back into anarchy just one and a half years after military intervention. That…
SCHAMA: If W-1 still lives. W-1's say we're not in the business of nation building. And you know…
MOYERS: President Bush the first?
SCHAMA: President Bush the fir… well, I mean… I don't mean elder Bush. I mean Baby Bush. Excuse me, the President. I mean he said the campaign was, "We are not in the business of nation building." Now despite everything that's happened since 9-11, he still sort of believes that.
MOYERS: But you know, I've read so much that each of you has written on this. You seem to think that Americans should take up this burden, that we should replace the British Empire as the power around the globe. And you have doubts about that.
SCHAMA: I do. I just… I find it… I've been in this country approximately 28 years longer than Niall, I think. The old geezer strategy again. I just find it…
MOYERS: And you're a citizen, right?
SCHAMA: …inconceivable that actually if properly and honestly and truthfully and comprehensively educated about what this imperial burden means, it could ever be sold to the American electorate. There's something about Jeffersonian America, something about deep America in the heartlands, that does not want to be in that imperial position.
MOYERS: But we're a business society now. And business exists to spread, to grow. We're a commercial society. Doesn't that make a difference? When…
SCHAMA: Kellogg, Brown and Root cannot build a… It can build a road, it cannot build a democracy.
FERGUSON: Nor can Wal-Mart and that certainly grew a third. But it does seem to me that the project is not a wholly unrealistic one, despite admittedly, the lack of a firm basis in the American network foreign nation building for a quasi-imperial project. It still seems to me to be absolutely crucial that the United States makes this work.
If it's serious about the war against terror. Because terrorism breeds in failed states and situations of civil war. And in tyrannies and despotisms. And if we allow countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to remain failed states, and worst of all, worst of all to remain failed states with American military occupation as a kind of veneer of nation-building, then we'll end up with the worst of all worlds.
We'll end up with a situation which there are breeding grounds for terrorism, which nevertheless can be described as American colonies. It's an awful combination.
MOYERS: But how do you want us to pay for it? How do you want us to carry it... When you were out running the world you had civil service…
FERGUSON: No, no.
MOYERS: …that grew up to go out and run the world. We don't have that.
FERGUSON: The American economy is the biggest economy in the world. It accounts for around about 30 percent of world's GDP. Even under… even if it's very high, Great Britain's economy accounted for no more than 10 percent of world output. You're vastly richer than we ever were.
Your military advantage are far greater over your rivals than Britain's ever was. It ought to be possible, surely, to successfully launch a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, a Marshall Plan for Iraq. You did it for West Germany, you did it for western Europe after the Second World War with huge success. Also for Japan.
American troops remain in those countries to this day. It's not as if America hasn't successfully brought about nation-building, transformation, democratization in rogue states in the past.
SCHAMA: Germany had a democratic parliamentary and constitutional past before the Third Reich. Iraq doesn't.
FERGUSON: Well, I don't think that that necessarily precludes a successful transition in Iraq. Iraq has not always been under Saddam Hussein. He's only been in power... was only in power from 1979 under British rule a constitutional monarchy which was not a model democracy. But nor was it a despotic planned economy. In fact it was a market economy.
MOYERS: What are the consequences of an imperial role for America on democracy at home?
SCHAMA: Well, I don't think they're necessarily baleful but I think they're not particularly auspicious. Again in terms of how you make it work fiscally. If you're going to commit the kind of resources actually, which go way beyond even, you know, five billion dollars, four billion dollars amount for what we're talking about. Obviously, and the deficit is just gonna become, you know, balloon astrally even by Ronald Reagan's standards.
Something has got to give. And we've already had a seriously degraded infrastructure. States... all the problem and pain has been shoved off on some states really. They're having real trouble fixing the potholes, paying the teachers, putting enough cops on the street, doing all that kind of thing.
It's weird in a way because when you mention the Roman Empire, one thinks of there being a natural fit, a natural match between prosperity and power at home in Rome and the kind of projection of that prosperity, power, education, engineering abroad.
Here we're, I think, in more painfully zero- sum game. The more we actually are prepared to transfer those resources the more the struggle to actually keep our sense of a well-managed society at home will be.
FERGUSON: I wouldn't draw such a sharp distinction. I think it was no coincidence that the movie GLADIATOR was such a hit when it came out, what was it? Last year? Russell Crowe's great line, "Are you not entertained?" seems to me very appropriate here. The American public is entertained. It's more entertained than any populace has ever been in all history.
It's entertained by multiple television channels. By an endless stream of movies. By sports, more or less 24/7. And yet, while that entertainment goes on in the great coliseum of the American media, American soldiers are out there on the imperial borders, waging pretty thankless wars against the barbarians.
Does anyone back home in the Coliseum give a damn about the guys on the front line? I don't know in the end whether that disjunction between entertainment at home and peripheral border wars is not a very Roman disjunction.
MOYERS: Empire is entertainment?
FERGUSON: Well, no. In a sense the entertainment is there to distract the populace from the Empire. To distract it from the problems of the imperial frontier.
SCHAMA: A lot of dangerous circuses but no bread. Or not enough bread.
FERGUSON: There's no shortage of bread in this country. Let's not be unrealistic.
MOYERS: Tony Blair says America must… is the leader of the world. That's our destiny. But can you have a world leader when you have unemployment so rampant, fiscal bankruptcy, infrastructure crumbling. Can you hollow out society at home in the interest of perpetuating and maintaining…
FERGUSON: I think probably not. I think probably not. And this is the bottom line of American politics. In the end the real over-stretch that the American, quote unquote, "empire" faces is not the cost of policing Afghanistan and Iraq. It's not the over-stretch that my good friend Paul Kennedy predicted back in the 1980s. It's over-stretch at home. The over-stretch of the Medicare budget. Of the Social Security budget.
As the "baby boomers" retire, there is going to be a hole in federal finances of the order of 44 trillion dollars. So I think the real problem is not actually got much to do with America's overseas adventures. It's got everything to do with domestic finance.
SCHAMA: We were sitting here at the beginning of summer, deep into the summer. This is the debate that we must actually have in the coming electoral campaign.
MOYERS: You are debating these issues in Britain. We're not debating these. How do you explain that?
SCHAMA: No I…
MOYERS: There's an absence of…
FERGUSON: No, this is precisely what Tony Blair should have been saying this week. He should have been saying not, "We were right about WMD" and soaking up the applause like a pet poodle at a pet show. It seems to me what he should have been saying is, "Look, we've begun something here in Iraq, but how are we going to finish it? Are you in earnest about nation building, Mr. Bush? And if you are not, when are you going to get serious?"
SCHAMA: He needed to be, you know, half the bride at the altar and half the gadfly. We need a bit more gadflies buzzing around cause you know what happens to our kids really depends on the answer to this question. However the answer is actually given.
MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that Tony Blair is relentlessly under siege from the British press and the American press isn't engaging these issues. They do not challenge the President. Let me show you an excerpt from the press conference Mr. Bush had just before the United States went to war.
REPORTER: Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the U.N., how is your faith guiding you?
BUSH: I appreciate that question a lot. My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength.
I pray for peace, April. I pray for peace.
FERGUSON: If she had asked that question in a room full of British reporters, you would have heard people shout, "Pass the sick bag!" at the top of their voices.
SCHAMA: Laughter. And you could not have asked that. And, I don't know... American press wake up! A bunch of patsies. Jeez. You know what… you need to go back to the 19th Century, some of those fierce election campaigns. And, boy, you find a bunch of unsparing bruisers really.
MOYERS: But how do you…
SCHAMA: There's a great sense of which it's somehow, you know, you're doing some damage to our troops in the field. Or you're wounding the flag. You're doing something awful to the body of America if you start to cut up rough. But jeez, God, the right wing in this country has no problems about cutting up rough at all.
MOYERS: So how do you explain the suspension of critical analysis in most of American politics in media today?
FERGUSON: I don't think there's enough competition between the newspapers in this country. One of the things that is very striking to me as a relative newcomer to the U.S., is the extraordinary dominance of a small number of broadsheet newspapers. And the small number of influential broadcasters.
But they don't compete with one another in the way that, for example, the broadsheet papers in London do. Ferociously for a very volatile readership. And they compete, partly by looking for scoops. And the best scoops of all are scoops that show the Prime Minister has misled the House of Commons.
Now there isn't the same competition here. And the NEW YORK TIMES, of course, embodies the problem. It's a complacent institution that grew so complacent it almost self-destructed by dropping journalistic standards through the floor.
SCHAMA: It's a kind of a church. You know the whole business of actually, you know spending page after page on the misdemeanors and crimes of one of its own staff was like, you know the story of the de-frocking of a cardinal or something. I don't want to know. Get on with your business.
FERGUSON: All of this was going on in the midst of a major political crisis in the Middle East and indeed in the world. Extraordinary.
MOYERS: Well, things…
FERGUSON: Is that solipsistic or what?
MOYERS: When I realized that THE ECONOMIST is very popular here and that THE GUARDIAN is coming and expecting a good reception a very outspoken newspaper in London I listen to you two fellows. I see the Prime Minister yesterday in the Congress of the United States. And I think who did win the war in 1776?
FERGUSON: Well, of course the answer is, that we did, 'cause very quickly we turned defeat into victory by creating something called the special relationship. A relationship which allowed Britain to pursue, consistently pursue objectives like the colonization of Iraq with American support.
I mean to anybody watching events of this year from the British imperial perspective, they had a distinctly familiar look to them. It was in 1917 that a British General arrived in Baghdad and pronounced, "We come not as conquerors, but as liberators".
So when an American President says much the same thing in 2003, you have to feel that we won. Yes, we won. We won this war.
SCHAMA: Bill, we are the matrix. Get used to it.
MOYERS: Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
SCHAMA: And thank you Bill.