Victims of success

America’s invasion of Iraq, in the first pre-emptive war of our era, is a clear historic moment. It is also a moment of great acrimony in the international community. But the Americans should be comforted by the fact that much of the opposition they have faced shows that they are victims of their own success. No rational person and no serious country wanted to leave the international system of law and security that the United States established after it made the world safe in 1945. Apart from maintaining stability, that system also empowered smaller nations to speak and act with self-confidence, as equal members of a well-ordered society. And that is what they have been doing. America’s greatness (which has not ended but is changing) was that it led by example, by understanding that it had the most to gain from a world in which democracies and open markets worked to the benefit of itself and its friends, and also of people in the world’s unseen places. Washington would, of course, intervene in the affairs of others when it feared things were getting out of hand (depending very much on the administration in power at the time), but, in general, it relied on the understanding that people who were free to choose their politics and economic well-being would be well disposed toward America. After 1945, America and the Soviet Union presented the world’s polar opposites. By 1989, the world had voted. America was triumphant and the Soviet Union was extinct. America now was not just «the only superpower.» It was absolute power. Unfortunately, some of the heirs of those farsighted and prudent individuals who had created the international system believed that it was theirs to break. This has taken us back to the way things were before the United Nations and NATO, to a time of endlessly coalescing «coalitions of the willing» against the enemy of the moment. The success of the post-World War II system has created another, unforeseeable problem. President Bush has been persuaded by some of his advisers that what worked after 1945 in dealing with former enemy states could be exploited at will – anywhere, anytime. According to this messianic vision, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (indeed a black mark in a bleak part of the world) is supposed to turn into the Germany or Japan of the Middle East. This could work, in that Iraq has a talented and educated population which could make the most of an opportunity to pursue its own happiness – if the whole place does not collapse into a civil war based along the differences of race, religion and historical disputes, all of which are abundant in biblical quantities in Iraq. The second great risk is that peace such as after World War II resulted from the exhaustion of the vanquished and their understanding that they had nothing more to lose and everything to gain from an arrangement guaranteed by a magnanimous victor. Soon we will know whether the Bush team was right to predict that the Iraqis would see US troops as liberators, or whether the Iraqis will see themselves as a people under occupation. Even if the Americans are seen as liberators and the invasion is relatively bloodless, they will still be an occupying force. This will test them profoundly: They will either behave as they did in Germany and Japan, or they will rule with an iron hand in the more restive Iraq order to minimize problems, which, in this age of satellite television, will have no shortage of instigators. The prospective rulers of Iraq have read their Machiavelli, especially the observation on the pre-emptive tactics of the Romans. «They never, to avoid a war, allowed troubles to continue unchecked, because they knew there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others,» Machiavelli wrote. Sound familiar? A few pages later, he explains that Alexander the Great’s heirs were able to rule comfortably over great parts of central Asia – of which modern Iraq is just a part – because Alexander killed the Persian King Darius and Darius was the absolute ruler of Persia, with everyone else his servant. There was no nobility, in other words, to foster trouble when a foreign regime took the king’s place. Saddam’s one-man reign of terror would augur well for the Americans, then, but they are sure to face something Alexander and his heirs did not – an opposition movement (both within and without Iraq) whose members are bitterly divided and yet united by a singular sense of entitlement. These barons in the wings will become a great headache, perhaps forcing the Americans to act more harshly than international television would forgive. As Ariel Sharon seems to be a kind of role model for Bush, one can only wonder if the vision of an Iraq at peace with itself and the world will stand up to reality when the first demonstrations by ingrate Iraqis are held. One can also wonder if the Americans truly understand what it will mean to occupy a foreign country, to be responsible for everything – good and bad – that happens in it. And what happens if instead of turning out like Germany and Japan, Iraq turns into another failed vision – like Liberia, a half-baked solution to a problem that had to be solved in another way? Will that be the legacy that the greatest power the world has known will leave in the Middle East, the cradle of civilization? This part of the world is full of the graveyards of imperial folly. For every Alexander there are countless failures. We need only remember the hubristic campaign by the Persian King Cambyses to destroy the oracle at Siwa, in the great desert of western Egypt, in 525 BC, because it had irritated him with a pronouncement. Herodotus tells of a huge sandstorm that swallowed this army of 50,000 as if it had never existed. Then there is the campaign of the Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus to sack Parthia in 53 BC. So outraged were some Romans that Crassus was riding out to wage war on a nation that had done nothing to deserve this, that one of the tribunes, Ateius, called down a terrible curse on him. Still, Crassus went, driven by desire for greater wealth and glory. With a huge force of seven legions (about 40,000 troops and cavalry) he marched into the dry wastes of Mesopotamia. At Carrhae (Haran in today’s southeastern Turkey), repeatedly betrayed by bad advice, bad judgment and disoriented, the army was wiped out by the Parthian general Surena. Twenty thousand died and 10,000 were taken prisoner. All for nothing. Crassus was the third most powerful man in Rome before he began his foolhardy venture. He, Pompey and Julius Caesar formed the triumvirate that led to Julius Caesar’s becoming emperor. He had no reason to risk and lose an army in pursuit of nothing but his own greater glory. Ironically, he is best known to us as the unscrupulous Roman general played by Laurence Olivier who crucifies Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) in the film about the revolutionary slave. Those with a vindictive streak will be pleased to hear that Crassus’ head was cut off by the Parthians and sent to their king, where a troupe of actors used it as a prop in the scene from Euripides’ «Bacchae» where Agave carries the head of the son she has decapitated. (Crassus the play, in other words, preceded Spartacus the novel by the recently departed Howard Fast and the subsequent film, by some 2,000 years.) The world has changed today. Cambyses’ lost army and Crassus’ disastrous campaign can serve only as metaphors, as grave entertainment. Even fierce sandstorms such as the one that dogged American troops as they waited for the order to invade Iraq on Wednesday are nothing more than a nuisance. With the training and technology that the Americans possess, they are in no danger of being swallowed by sandstorms or losing their way. But perhaps the greatest lessons are to be learned in the dogged practicality of one of the most successful powers the world has known. Sparta was the dominant military force in the ancient Greek world until about the early 4th century, when both militaristic Sparta and the infinitely flashier Athens collapsed, exhausted by their 30-year war against each other. In many ways, the Americans are like the Spartans. They are the strongest military force in the world because they have worked hard to be that. The Spartans intervened in other city states’ affairs to bring to power governments that they wanted, usually those who opposed tyrants because they prided themselves on never having been ruled by tyrants. Also, like the Americans, the Spartans worked very hard to cultivate alliances with other powers. Through outwardly clubby relations with other countries, America managed to bring down the Soviet Union and open up the world to business. For the Spartans, the top priority was to ensure peace and stability in the broader region and to have their allies rush to their assistance when the Helot population over which they ruled, and which greatly outnumbered them, would rise in revolt. The Americans no longer have a slave population to fear at home. But the same technology that is the Americans’ most prized weapon is also their biggest problem. As events have shown, people do not need to be the Americans’ subjects to be dangerous to them at home. The Americans are the world’s mightiest power, and that means that everyone with a complaint will want to hurt them, and, thanks to modern means, will be able to do so. With helots everywhere, the Americans would be wise to cultivate their diplomacy quickly, to not be blinded by their technological achievements, and to keep their eye on history. In 506 BC, the Spartan King Cleomenes summoned Sparta’s allies and told them that he was preparing a war against Athens to restore the tyrant Hippias who was a friend of Sparta’s. The allies, happy with the tradition that their alliance opposed tyrants, refused to change their policy and accept the war. So, Sparta abandoned this plan. It was no weaker for this. In fact, its greatest achievements were still to come. But perhaps the greatest achievement of all was its management of its alliance.