An Epiphany of a Different Sort
As the New Year turned, it was striking how three ancient peoples -- the Chinese, the Persians, and the Jews -- were at the forefront of the news. As were, again, the Arabs -- the people whom the Greeks and Romans scorned as the saracenii -- the people-who-dwell-in-tents.
The news that an al Qaeda franchise is once again in control of Fallujah and Ramadi is only further proof that what we're seeing is the return of history or, to paraphrase Professor Walter Russell Mead, "The End of the End of History."
Mead's allusion, of course, is to Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. It was there -- and in a 1989 essay in Foreign Affairs -- that the Hegelian illusion was propagated that America's victory in the Cold War meant that capitalism and democracy were now the gold standard for the world. The telos had been reached -- and we were it.
Al Qaeda, the Arab Spring, and the Chinese Model have all since proven otherwise. Fukuyama himself, of course, recanted in a 2006 article.
And Fukuyama and Professor Mead are now colleagues at The American Interest.
Hubris, to the classical Greeks, was inevitably followed by nemesis. And, thus, what we're seeing are the resumption of old nationalist, ethnic, and religious conflicts -- as well as the reappearance of behaviors and styles of warfare. All have resonated only too much this Christmastime.
Who today, on the Feast of the Epiphany, can look upon Bashir Assad's slaughter of over 100,000 of his own Syrian people and not think of the New Testament's account (Matthew 2: 16-18) of King Herod's response to the news that the promised Messiah had been born in his jurisdiction?
In 2014, the sound of "Rachel weeping for her children -- and would not be comforted because they are no more" is heard not just in Rama and Bethlehem but all across the Middle East. The world the New Testament described is still only too visible. As a result, Matthew's text (and world) contain important hints for today's policymakers.
The learned and wily Magi who confounded Herod to visit Jesus in Bethlehem were, of course, Persians -- Magians, the priests of the Zoroastrian faith. Zoroastrianism -- like the fame of good Shiraz wine -- preceded the coming of Islam into Persia. With the arrival of the Arab armies in 651 A.D. bearing the green banner of the Prophet, the war between the Persians and the Arabs commenced. It has rarely stopped.
Today, Iran (Persia) and the Sons of the Prophet (Saudi Arabia) are confronting and killing each other (usually through proxy) in Lebanon, the Gulf States, Syria, and Palestine. Persia's drive in 2014 for the Mediterranean coast -- last a port to Persian warships 200 years before the birth of Julius Caesar -- and its threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons has driven the Saudis and the Israelis into common cause.
Last week, for example, it was announced that Riyadh was buying $3 billion in arms for the Lebanese Army from France. This return of French influence to the Levant is a return of history as well, France, because of the Crusades and the Crusader States, was made the colonial power in Lebanon and Syria by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. That, and other treaties, purported to clean up the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I -- and, instead gave birth to our current mess. Under the Ottomans, France had been the traditional protector of Christians in Arab Muslim lands.
It's because of this history that al Qaeda killers and other Islamists sometimes refer to Western soldiers as "Franks." France, you see, was (and is, in Arabic and Persian) "Frankistan."
The importance of the return of Persian influence to the shores of the Mediterranean cannot be understated. The Israelis understand it all too well. And Secretary of State John Kerry (who said Sunday there's a possible role for Iran in Syria) all too plainly understands it not all.
Of course, it was the Jews who experienced the Babylonian Capitivity. And it was the Jews who were freed from that Captivity by the Persian emperor, the Achaemenid Cyrus the Great, in 538 B.C. From Persia, they returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.
Israelis know that the Persian empire was the universal empire which preceded the Romans. And Persia as a civilization long predates the coming of Islam. Persian language, culture, and court rituals profoundly influenced empires, rulers and kingdoms from Constantinople to India.
Indeed, the word "stan," meaning "land of," is Persian.
The Romans were keenly aware of this history when they pushed into the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, the emperors made repeated attempts to match Alexander (who died, by the way, in Babylon) and conquer as far as the Indus River valley. Instead, they repeatedly broke their short swords on the indigestible lump of Persia.
It was Julian the Apostate, the relapsed pagan, who became the first Roman emperor to die on campaign between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But he would not be the last. The eagles of the legions, more than once, disappeared into the sands of Mesopotamia.
American policymakers could usefully remember this. What triggered the beginning of the collapse of the Roman empire was not invading German barbarians but the century-long match-up between Romans and Persians fought out across what's now Iraq.
Barack Obama and John Kerry, in particular, need to remember that it was the Persian emperor's tricking of his Roman counterpart at a peace conference which precipitated the beginning of the Roman retreat.
In 260, Valerian became the first Roman emperor to be captured by a foreign enemy. Invited to a peace conference by the Persian shah Shapur I, Valerian instead found himself taken prisoner. According to the chroniclers (whom Gibbon judged unreliable), the emperor died there.
"Next to Hannibal," says historian Michael Grant, "Shapur was the most dangerous enemy the Romans had to confront."
It was Shapur who reintroduced as his titles "King of Kings, Lord of Lords," taken from the Achaemenids of the First Persian Empire. Those titles, of course, feature in the Old Testament. These traditional titles of the Persian emperor are also the titles given to the promised Messiah. They echo in our ears every Christmas and Easter Season in the chorus of Handel's "Messiah."
And, to complete the circle, the royal title "King of Kings," that is, Shah-an-shah, was last used by one Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi was deposed as the Shah of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1979.
That revolution broke, not a Roman emperor, but an American president named Jimmy Carter.
The Romans, the Persians, and the Chinese were all, of course, aware are of each other. They also traded with each other. It was Shah Shahpur, however, who took the most outrageous gesture.
Shapur, it is written, added two additional royal thrones to his throne room. One for the Roman emperor. One for the Chinese emperor. In case either one ever came do him homage and make submission.
It is unknown whether the Emperor Valerian, when taken prisoner by Shapur, in 260 A.D., was forced to do so.
Shapur -- like the later Genghis Khan -- wanted the whole world. By contrast, the Chinese emperors did not. In the ancient Chinese worldview, outside the Middle Kingdom, there was nothing to see and nothing to learn. And mention of China will allow this meditation on the survival of ancient peoples and nations into our present world to end on a starkly modern note.
In 1976, three years after Richard Nixon's opening to Communist China, the famous "waterfront philosopher" Eric Hoffer made a prediction. It contains an important corrective which, if kept in mind, will help Americans and their leaders perceive China as the Chinese see themselves.
"China," Hoffer wrote, "was to the Far East what Greece and Rome combined were to the West. Like Greece in the West, China was the source of cultural life to its Far Eastern sphere -- to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Mongolia -- and like Rome, it served as a model for civil and military administration. Thus, the rebirth of China cannot be viewed merely as an instance of something that is going on at present in the underdeveloped part of the world. It is more as though Greece and Rome had come back to life, ready to dominate again the Mediterranean basin and Europe beyond the Alps." (Emphasis in original.)
It is this re-emergence of China and Persia as potential global players on the world stage -- not the latest outrage of the saraceni -- which truly mark America's Return to History.
As 2014 begins, let us remember the Romans and the Persians -- so we do not become them. And let us be willing to learn from the Chinese.
After all, they were here first.