On Going Roman

"They have made a desolation, and they call it peace."
Much in the way of criticism of the United States comes in the form of accusations of  imperialism. According to this view, echoed by everyone from Harold Pinter to Noam Chomsky to the Arab press, the U.S. has for decades run roughshod over the globe, in defiance of agreements and civilized norms. Enforcing its policies unilaterally and always for its own benefit, the U.S. has effectively colonized huge swathes of the planet, if not through direct military action, then by economic exploitation or diplomatic chicanery. No one dares raise a hand against this; any show of independence is met by cruise missiles at the very least, if not armored divisions or carrier battle groups. Today it's Iraq, tomorrow... who knows? America is the third-millennial Rome, brutal, implacable, infinitely corrupt.

Domestically, this takes the form of hegemonism, with the U.S. viewed as the primal source of global iniquity. Internationally, it's a major component of anti-Americanism, in which the U.S. is taken as the embodiment of an overpowering modernity, in whatever form - economic, political, cultural -- the onlooker finds most threatening. In such a context, anything and everything can be labeled "imperialist", from military bases to McDonald's fast-food joints to tourism. Intent and results are meaningless; all U.S. actions are evil, since all are viewed through the lens of imperialist activity.
It's difficult to match any of this with the actual record. The America that takes on the dirty jobs, the jobs no one else will touch - Serbia, Kuwait, Somalia - the country that comes to the rescue when disaster strikes, as with the Indian Ocean tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake, either goes unmentioned or has its actions attributed to somebody else (as in Kofi Annan's taking credit for tsunami relief operations in his farewell speech).

Regarding defiance, within certain limits crossed only by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein (and not yet by Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-Il), it comprises one of the safer bets for any ambitious third-world demagogue, as Chavez and Morales plainly reveal. It's a solid career move -- there is no danger of any comeback (as long as you don't actually act on your rhetoric), and you gain plenty of sympathy and support from the international left, including its American branch. The myth of the U.S. as Rome has proven useful on all sorts of levels.

But the world's anti-Americans should take care that their fantasies don't catch up with them. Myths have a way of coming true. If believed in long enough, and hard enough, and by enough people, they can come to pass, if only by limiting the possible responses of the subject in question. Tell someone they're an oppressor often enough, and they may become an oppressor, out of spite, or anger, or simple weariness. Useful the Roman stereotype may be, but it can prove very dangerous.

How did Rome get that way in the first place? The Rome we know is seen through the lens of the later, corrupt empire -- brutal, heartless, and tyrannical. We see the Romans as dour, arrogant, living off the intellectual capital of older civilizations, slowly falling victim to their own worst impulses. But was Rome always like that? Did Rome start out that way? Was Rome ever young?

It must have been at one time. Rome was once a republic, and must have possessed a republic's virtues. How could it ever have accomplished so much otherwise?

So what happened to change things? Wars, in a word - Rome's early history is that of a state with its back to the wall, sacked by the Goths, at constant sword's point from neighboring states. Livy's histories are a chronicle of endless strife -- wars with the Etruscans,  the Social Wars, at last the Punic Wars. And with each conflict, another layer of republican virtue was scraped off. At some point, perhaps during the Second Punic War, with Italy all but under occupation by Hannibal's forces for a decade, it effectively vanished, destroyed not only by the fear and strain of constant struggle, but what the Romans felt compelled to do in response. Consider that terrible image of Scipio gazing on the blazing ruins of Carthage and seeing Rome itself in the flames.

That's what they lived with, that's what made them what they were. It was part of the price they paid for survival as a state and  society, a price that eventually bankrupted them, that utterly sapped their will to go on. There must have been something in the Roman soul that welcomed the barbarians when they came.

The U.S. has never paid that high a price. The wars fought on our soil were limited by distance and the country's immense interior spaces. The Indians, skilled warriors though they were, offered no overwhelming threat after the 17th century. Neither the French nor the British were able to field massive armies in their North American wars. The sole major bloodletting since the colonial epoch was the Civil War, which ended, thanks to the sheer quality of the men involved,  in such a way that it strengthened the country rather than weakened it. Few regions are more patriotic than the South (or, for that matter, few ethnic groups than most Indians). Our other wars were fought overseas, often (as in the Spanish-American War and WW I) at our discretion. The U.S. has never feared for its existence the way the Romans did - not even during the Cold War.

But that may have changed.  9/11 represented an event unseen since 1814 - willful destruction of American lives on American soil. That threat still exists, constantly hanging over us. If anything, it's magnified - when the Jihadis return, they will return with weapons of mass destruction, of one kind or another. Soon Americans may well see what we were spared for centuries by geography and distance - casualties to match or exceed those suffered by European and Asian nations in their many wars.

What effect might this have on the American character? It's hard to say. America is still a young nation, retaining much of its resilience and vigor. But there have been signs that the national spirit is being stretched.

There's a sense of weariness at international ingratitude, irresponsibility, and hostility. It has not gone unnoticed that sympathy for the U.S. effectively evaporated within days of 9/11, that support for necessary responses has been grudging and hedged with conditions, that, time and again, Western states have been caught under the table with corrupt UN officials and even the terrorists themselves, that, with a few notable exceptions such as India and Japan, our sole dependable allies against a universal threat have been our cousins, Great Britain and Australia.

The classic U.S. response to such provocations has been isolationism. When betrayed in the international sphere, we go home and mind our own business. But that's no longer a viable option. In this millennium, we can't isolate our troubles overseas. If we turn our back, they'll come right after us.

There have been rumblings, comments on the Net, voices on talk radio, arguing another alternative. That we owe the rest of the world nothing. That an effective response to terror is simply to start vaporizing cities, beginning with Tehran and working our way down until attacks cease. That, quite simply, the United States should transform itself into Rome.

There's something to be said for taking on the role of a third-millennial Rome. Antiochus IV Ephiphanes, Seleucid ruler of Syria, long had his eye on Egypt. Finally, in 169 B.C., he crossed the Sinai with a conquering army.

He took everything but Alexandria, and then decided to move against the city. The Romans had no legions in the area. But they did have an official, G. Poppilius Laenas, an older gentleman of the equestrian class, Rome's ancient nobility. He met the Syrian army as it reached the city and was shortly speaking to the king himself, telling him that the Senate of Rome forbade him to remain, and to take his army back home.  
"I'll think about it," Antiochus told the envoy, "And I'll have an answer tomorrow."

Leanas then took his walking stick (some accounts call it a "staff", in an attempt to make it more convincing, but it was a walking stick), and drew a circle around Antiochus.

"Sonny," he said. "You'll answer me before you step out of that circle."

Antiochus gave his answer, and the next day the army was on its way back to Syria.

It would be pleasant to wield that kind of power, to draw a circle around Assad, or Ahmadinejad, or Kim, and demand the correct answer. But how many Carthages would have to burn before we gained it? How much would it cost? Hiroshima and Nagasaki failed to impress for long. Would it take a dozen Hiroshimas? A hundred?  

And what price would we pay? Part of it would be abandoning forever our vision of what the U.S. is and could be. No longer the City on the Hill, no longer the last best hope, the nation that has for so long pioneered a new method of wielding power. Did the Romans themselves have such a vision? Did aged senators lie awake nights recalling an ancient dream washed away in the blood of innumerable imperial victims? We don't know. That's lost to us.

But we had better know this: if the U.S. ever does take on the trappings of imperium, if we, out of despair or terror, turn to Roman methods, then, like Scipio, we will be witnessing our own fate in the cities we set ablaze.

Fate is by definition unavoidable. Nations are often forced into roles they might not have chosen, the way Britain found itself an empire "in a fit of absentmindedness". For now, we - the Americans, despised and envied across the world -- still stumble along, doing the best we can, taking our licks and looking for solutions while living up to our image of ourselves. But the criticsshould be wary of screaming too loud, of conspiring too well, of undermining us too thoroughly. Because if they succeed, if they do get what they insist they want, then the result may well be something they never conceived, and it will be their desolation, and our peace.

J.R. Dunn is a frequnet conrtibutor to American Thinker.
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