It’s a familiar and very tired analogy, of course. From the moment that America became top nation in the middle of the last century, people have been racing to be contemporary Gibbons, chronicling the decline and fall even as it was supposedly happening. Not the least of the objections to their efforts is that Rome’s domination of the known world lasted about 500 years, and survived more than the odd thrashing or two at the hands of barbarian tribes. In modern America, it’s always the same. Every lost battle or turbulent day on the foreign exchanges and the obituary writers are sharpening their pencils.
The bigger objection is that America is not much of an empire after all. No one pays tribute, no one declares allegiance to Caesar, and what kind of empire is it that owes its foreign subjects a couple of trillion dollars? Still, as Gibbon himself noted in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.” Which brings us back neatly to General Petraeus and the Iraq war.
The antiwar crowd’s efforts to depreciate America’s efforts in the Middle East hit a new low on the first day of the long-awaited congressional testimony, when MoveOn.org, the self-appointed leftwing base of the Democratic Party, took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times that called the commander “General Betray Us” and accused him of lying about the progress of the surge. As stunts go, it was as startlingly offensive as it was politically self-defeating.
Not many Americans – not even those who oppose the war – like the idea of calling their generals traitors. They have a vaguely disconcerting sense that they know where that leads – and it’s not Rome but a rather shorter-lived empire of the 20th century that springs to mind.
Well, for the next twenty minutes while anyone still remembers. Okay, 20 minutes is too unkind. Friday afternoon doesn’t start for another 75 minutes.
It is helpful to think about Iraq this way. Imagine if the US had never been there; and that this sectarian strife had broken out in any case – as, one day it surely would, given the hatreds engendered by a thousand years of Muslim history and the efforts of Saddam Hussein.
…many of us surely would think we should do something about it – as we did in the Balkans more than a decade ago – and as, infamously, we failed to do in Africa at the same time. And we would know that, for all our high ideals and our soaring rhetoric, there would be only one country with the historical commitment to make massive sacrifices in the defence of the lives and liberty of others, the leadership to mobilise efforts to relieve the suffering and, above all, the economic and military wherewithal to make it happen.
That’s the only really workable analogy between the US and Rome. When Rome fell, the world went dark for the best part of a millennium. America may not be an empire. But whatever it is, for the sake of humanity, pray it lasts at least as long as Rome.