The Dream Ticket

Marcus Tullius Cicero was the Barack Obama of ancient Rome. A well-educated senator in the late Roman Republic, he is considered by many to be the greatest orator in Roman history. Exceptionally eloquent and extremely persuasive, he was revered for his ability to win others to his side with his speeches on the senate floor and in the forum. He was an immensely popular defense lawyer, famously successful keeping his clients (usually the wealthy and powerful) from significant punishment. Cicero was nuanced and thoughtful in his positions: he vociferously defended the traditional Republic against the prospect of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, but hated the thought of civil war, and thus remained neutral before finally siding with Pompey in the end. His writing skills were excellent as well, but ultimately led to his execution by Mark Antony when he harshly criticized the latter in his philippics.

Cicero was not anti-war in general (Roman conquest was more or less expected), and even advocated executing captives rather than keeping them alive in prison or exile. Yet he opposed ostentatious display of victory, such as Pompey’s 2-day triumphal procession in 61 B.C. for his victory over Mithradates of Pontus. He was wary of any one man having too much military power or using the army too frequently, as Julius Caesar did for nearly a decade when he conquered Gaul and invaded Britain.

Yet Cicero was not averse to using the military, particularly for his own personal gain. When he was pro-consul (governor) of Cilicia, a province in what is now southern Turkey, he relished the prospect of an easy victory over the weak tribes of the region. As pro-consul, he had imperium over the province, meaning he had control over the military there and could wage war as he saw fit, for the Roman army was not controlled by central government. He feared neighboring Parthia (essentially Persia), which was a major rival to Roman power in the Middle East, and had no interest in starting a war with such a powerful foe. But taking on the weaker armies was a clear possibility. A colleague in the senate wrote this to him:

If we could only get the right balance right so that a war came along of just the right size for the strength of your forces and we achieved what was needed for glory and triumph without facing a really dangerous and serious clash – that would be the dream ticket.

Cicero apparently agreed with this sentiment, writing back several months later:

You say that it would suit you if only I could have just enough trouble to earn a sprig of laurel [worn by a triumphing general, possibly symbolizing a divine nature of sorts]; but you are afraid of the Parthians because you don’t have much confidence in my troops. Well, that is exactly what has happened.

And bragging of his forays into the sparsely populated mountain country:

Many were captured and slaughtered, the rest scattered. Their strongholds were taken by surprise attack and torched.

Cicero was a first class statesman, a patriotic man loyal to the true essence of Rome. He was not a military man and had little interest in foreign affairs. Unlike Pompey or Caesar or Mark Antony, he had no dreams of massive military campaigns and prolonged war. Nor did he have much interest in seeing Roman lives placed at risk. But he was not averse to relatively low-risk operations with a high probability of success. Such success was highly important if someone like Cicero wanted to build a lasting legacy in addition to advancing to the upper echelon of Roman politicians. Building an army and mobilizing it to attack a powerful foe like Parthia was out of the question; picking on far weaker forces was the way to go.

In thinking about current involvement of the United States in Lybia, along with Afghanistan and Iraq, I can’t help but think of the need for an easy victory over hapless opponents while avoiding a conflict with a tough rival. Many people today draw comparisons between ancient Rome and modern America: Rome was the overwhelming military and economic superpower of its day, involved in global trade and military intervention on multiple continents that was unthinkable by any other nation; many people who despise the U.S. make the comparison gleefully, anticipating an American collapse similar to what Rome experienced in the 5th century. So if the U.S. is Rome and Obama is Cicero, then a powerful military like China corresponds to Parthia and nations like Lybia, Iraq, and Afghanistan correspond to the Cicilian tribes that Cicero happily fought.

It is impossible to draw perfect parallels between the ancient world and modern times, but China’s relationship with the U.S. is similar in many ways to Parthia’s relationship with Rome. Rome was more powerfully economically and militarily, and had a more stable and popular government. In a full scale war the Romans would have had inevitable victory. Rome experienced victories deep in Parthian territory, along with losses that ceded the conquered lands back to the Parthians. They never fully subdued their opponents despite five centuries of unrest, but there was never any chance Parthia could invade and destroy Rome. Their rivalry was more for sphere of influence over Mesopotamia and Armenia. Similarly, China desperately wants regional influence over Asia and the Pacific without American involvement – they have no real desire (and no chance of victory) to attack the United States. Likewise, the U.S. has no intent of starting what would be a massive and costly war with the Chinese.

China is an oppressive, murderous, corrupt, immoral authoritarian regime. Sound familiar? We’ve heard those words used by at least 3 consecutive American presidents to validate military action against regimes led by Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and now Muammar Gaddafi in Lybia. Last week President Obama took to the airwaves to defend the controversial action in Libya, justifying it on almost purely moral grounds, using these terms as moral validation for the action: “brutal repression and humanitarian crisis,” “Gaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead,” “prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” “slaughter and mass graves.” All of this was more or less summed up in this paragraph:

There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security – responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

So President Obama’s philosophy – and it is hardly different from President Bush or President Clinton – is that America’s military should be used to stop mass murder and violent repression when it occurs around the world. On a philosophical level, I agree with this doctrine. America should intervene in places like Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan. We have the capability to save millions of lives of our fellow humans, and I think we should come to the aid of the oppressed. On that level I am in complete agreement with President Obama and our foreign policy in general.

But I disagree profoundly with two aspects of our foreign policy for the past 15 years: the astonishing inconsistency that can only be interpreted as cautious intervention at best and cowardice at worst, and the lack of adherence to Colin Powell’s “doctrine” that calls for military intervention only when it is applied full force to achieve fast, decisive, overwhelming victory. If there is a moral imperative to help the Libyan rebels as President Obama says, and I’m inclined to agree there is, then why are we not also helping the people of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, Syria, and yes, even China? If murderous repression is morally wrong, then the U.S. should intervene in all cases where it takes place. There is no difference between mass murder in Libya or the Sudan or Saudi Arabia or China. If we intervene in one place, we should be prepared to intervene in all of them.

China currently holds about 500,000 political prisoners – by far the most of any nation around the world. Every year China executes more people than the rest of the world combined (that we know of), most of them political dissidents. They rank 7th in per capita executions, which is impressive considering they have over a billion citizens. Confessions obtained by torture are common, and physical and psychiatric abuse are widespread in Chinese prisons. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners are currently being held without due process, many of them either political dissidents or ethnic minorities. Involuntary organ harvest from prisoners is thought to be common in China. And these are only the violent aspects of Chinese repression, never mind the lack of freedom of speech, religion, and regulations such as the one-child policy.

If we have a moral obligation to stop murder in Libya and Iraq, then why are we not mobilizing our forces for a full-scale invasion of China? Their murder and oppression is far worse than Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. So why aren’t we taking on the Chinese? Why are our naval fleets and ground bases centered around the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf instead of the South China Sea? Why are resources going to fight hapless regimes whose military strength is built on a scale that doesn’t even belong on the same spectrum as the American military? Why are we picking on Gadaffi but leaving the Saudi monarchs alone? Why is the Taliban being hunted and wiped out while the Chinese Communist Party operates with impunity?

In his address, President Obama gave absolutely no moral rationale for intervening in some places and not others. What he fails to recognize is that there is no integrity in selective intervention for moral causes. The FBI doesn’t selectively choose which mass murderers to pursue, because murder is always wrong and murderers must be brought to justice, however difficult. If our foreign policy is based on a similar moral structure, then we cannot selectively decide which murderous regimes must go. If we go after one we must go after them all. If we overthrow Gadaffi today we must go for China tomorrow.

Just as Cicero wanted no part of a war with Parthia, so President Obama wants no part of a war with China. You see, virtually of all of his criticisms of Gadaffi’s regime also apply to the Chinese Communist regime. If pressed directly (which he hasn’t been) about why we are fighting Libya and not China, President Obama would likely maintain that attacking China would lead to an enormous conflict, and he’s probably right. But what does it matter? If it’s morally right to overthrow Gadaffi then it’s morally right to overthrow the Chinese regime for their murder and oppression. If the only difference is degree of difficulty, then either we are weak and cowardly or we have no real moral compass.

I don’t mean to pick on President Obama. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were no different. Kosovo was hardly any different from Libya, either in terms of degree of oppression or ease of victory. Iraq and Afghanistan had marginally tougher military forces but were both defeated within hours. And the reasons for fighting in both places are still murky at best: are we really any safer from Al Qaeda or terrorism as a result of these wars? We may have helped the Iraqi and Afghan people throw off murderous regimes, but that brings us back to the question of moral consistency (or lack thereof). President Clinton wanted and got an easy victory in Kosovo. President Bush achieved easy military victories but completely mismanaged the aftermath in both nations. It is not only a problem of the current president’s policy, but of American foreign policy in general since the end of the first Gulf War.

If the U.S. lacks moral consistency in its foreign policy, it also lacks the will to fight war the way it should be fought. Colin Powell is correct that if we are going to use any military force at all, it should be used to achieve overwhelming and complete victory. Returning to ancient Rome, after the third in a series of bloody Punic Wars fought against Carthage, the Romans completely destroyed the city so that it would never rise to challenge them again. This prompted a rival British chieftan to say of Rome: “where they make a desert, they call it peace.” Romans valued “peace,” but to them peace was only achieved when Rome destroyed her enemies or made them accept peace on terms overwhelmingly favorable to the Romans; negotiating an even military truce was considered shameful.

As anachronistic as it may seem, that should be the way America approaches military endeavors today. If all other avenues are exhausted and it comes down to war – to taking other lives – the United States should make sure that we secure absolute victory. Otherwise the enterprise is a waste of human lives and national resources. If it is right to fight Gadaffi and oust him from power (as President Obama claims to want), the his regime should be completely destroyed. If the Taliban is worth fighting in Afghanistan, it should be utterly wiped out. Only by applying our full force and ensuring unambiguous victory do we honor those willing to fight and potentially die. Otherwise they die in vain.

President Obama claims that America has a moral interest in Libya, but is only willing to risk a few fighter missions and cruise missiles fired from hundreds of miles away. While there some ground troops involved, there seems to be no will to put any additional forces in place. It seems as though the American role will be one of support by way of intelligence and technical assistance to a NATO force. So I have to wonder why the United States is involved at all. If it is worth involving the military to stop Gaddafi, then force should be applied to the maximum extent to ensure a speedy and ultimately safer resolution to the conflict. Lobbing a few bombs and flying a few fighter sorties is meaningless. Either the U.S. should fight Gadaffi or we shouldn’t, but there is no room for dipping a tentative toe in the water when it comes to fighting a war.

Thus in my view the American involvement in Libya is just another example of a morally inconsistent and poorly conducted foreign intervention. I cannot see a way that it is morally right to fight Gadaffi and not China. The only difference between the two is degree of difficulty. And if the strength of opponent guides moral intervention to that degree, then it is hard to believe President Obama isn’t just like Cicero in wanting an easy and safe victory over a weak opponent. Furthermore, if America is going to apply its military might in Libya, it should be done to end the conflict as quickly and decisively as possible. U.S. action so far has been perhaps mildly effective, but Gaddafi is still in power, still fighting, and still killing his people. Morally we have accomplished nothing, and yet there seems to be no will to do anything further.

Until both Gaddafi’s regime and the Chinese Communist party no longer exist, the U.S. will have fulfilled no moral imperative. The alternative to becoming involved in every instance of widespread violent repression is to be involved in none of them. Personally I believe such isolationism  is morally wrong – just as wrong as ignoring the Holocaust. Thus we must be prepared to fight many wars and to fight them often. Europe’s most peaceful era was during the height of the Roman Empire. It may be that the world’s most peaceful era will be during the height of the American Empire. Perhaps that is the ultimate dream ticket.




Filed under Miscellany and Tomfoolery, Rome

2 responses to “The Dream Ticket

  1. Don-O

    OIL, OIL, OIL…that is the reason for the U.S. is involved in Libya and is not in the other places you listed. Actually, European countries that have oil interests in Libya got Obama to help them. China is not Muslim, is not in the region and has no oil. Other countries are not in the region, or have no oil, or have large Shia Muslim populations. War in Afghanistan was the direct result of 9/11. Iraq has oil as do the countries they invaded and threatened. So U.S. policy is logical and consistent from that perspective but has nothing to do with morality, although it should. The U.S. should be energy self-sufficient for financial and national security to avoid war and other involvement in the middle east. Only Clinton and Obama seemed to attempt safe air wars and both Bush wars were victories but you are right about the aftermath. Regan showed will and ability to go after Gaddafi without getting bogged down. The U.S. should maintain a presence around the world without entering local disputes. Europe and the Arab League have the people and money to deal with their own conflicts and should not have the U.S. to bail them out at a cost of life and money if they lack the will and leadership to do what they need to for themselves. We should not give southeast asia or Africa or anywhere else to China. They have their own problems and we should never need to have direct conflict with them if they know we are strong and have resolve in dealing with them. The U.S. should never use military force unless we are under direct and immediate threat and then , I agree with you, we should win decisively. Possibly we can establish a policy that enemies will understand in advance that we will eliminate their military if they threaten us. But since the U.S. is not imperilistic, which I agree with, I disagree with you about world peace resulting from and during an “American Empire”.

    • masonymelissa

      I agree with much of what you say. My point about an American Empire is that a very strong case can be made that the world would be a much better place in pretty much all respects under a benevolent empire, and the only nation that has any chance of forming such an empire is the US. Remember, the word “empire” was not thought of as a negative thing until very recently; for most of history empires have been viewed with ambivalence if not endearment. In my mind ultimate peace only comes through the absence of enemies. America’s enemies could probably be wiped out in a matter of years if not months. Establishing a global (benevolent) American empire would likely bring an era of peace and prosperity that as yet the world can hardly imagine.

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