I listened to Wesley Clark in Henniker, New Hampshire at the start of the weekend and heard between the lines the classic warning of a first-class warrior against the folly of limitless empire:
“Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt.”
The words are not Clark’s, or mine. They are the reflections of the Emperor Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138), among the last of the great Roman chiefs, as recounted by the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar in the brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian (1954). To approach Wesley Clark’s thinking about Rumsfeld and Bush blundering into Iraq, I suggest: read Hadrian on the subject of his predecessor Trajan in the very same Mesopotamia 19 centuries ago.
“Everything had gone according to his plans,” Hadrian writes of Trajan/Rumsfeld: “The joy of plunging into this adventure, so long delayed, restored a kind of youth to this man…”
And of Trajan/Bush: “This fascination, to which the elderly emperor was yielding as if entranced, had lured Alexander before him. That prince had almost made a reality of these same dreams, and had died because of them at thirty. But the gravest danger in these mighty projects lay still more in their apparent soundness; as always, practical reasons abounded for justification of the absurd, and for being carried away by the impossible.”
Hadrian had made his fighting name in gruesome warfare with Dacians and Sarmatians (in what is now Croatia). He subdued the region of the Danube, and also fortified a Roman wall across England that stands to this day. But as Emperor he was a studious reformer who commissioned roads, bridges, aqueducts and temples. He restored the provinces and rebuilt ruined cities in Asia. He abandoned conquest for another goal entirely: to make Rome eternal and universal–or global, as we say today; and the first step was to stand back from Trajan’s overreaching in Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria. “Rome is no longer confined to Rome,” declare the Memoirs: “henceforth she must identify herself with half the globe, or must perish…
“I promised myself to save this Rome of mine from the petrification of a Thebes, a Babylon, or a Tyre. She would no longer be bound by her body of stone, but would compose for herself from the words State, citizenry, and republic a surer immortality.”
For Rome it could not be a project mainly of arms: “Over separate nations and races,” Hadrian concluded, “with their accidents of geography and history and the disparate demands of their ancestors or their gods, we should have superposed for ever a unity of human conduct and the empiricism of sober experience, but should have done so without destruction of what had preceded us. Rome would be perpetuating herself in the least of the towns where magistrates strive to demand just weight from the merchants, to clean and light the streets, to combat disorder, slackness, superstititon and injustice, and to give broader and fairer interpretation to the laws. She would endure to the end of the last city built by man.”
Hadrian set the context in which I heard Clark, another very quick tough military mind who speaks his experience and his curiosity about the world fluidly, with (to my ears) a very striking mix of caution and confidence.
On the Bush record, since the first tax cut which Clark admits he celebrated in March, 2001. Question: what’s changed? Answer: “Everything’s changed since then. This administration has taken us into a reckless war. It’s got an economic policy that is nothing but tax cuts… They’ve made us poor. They haven’t brought jobs.”
On Africa, AIDS, and Liberia: “AIDS is a special case. AIDS is a national security problem. It’s destroying countries and societies in Africa. We have to put resources into AIDS education and AIDS treatment. It’s right to do it, but it’s also in America’s self-interest to do it, because that kind of human misery is a destructive force unleashed in Africa. We have the power to fix it…
“We could have stopped the fighting in Liberia when we first started talking about intervening. I don’t know what the hesitation was… We dillied, we dallied… We chewed out the survey team commander because he gave a report that was more detailed and more prescriptive than the Pentagon wanted to hear. I guess they only wanted to hear, you know, what the dimensions of the airfield were… I would have done Liberia, and I would have done it sooner and with a larger force.”
On the Arab-Israeli conflict: “I’d give it my personal attention. It’s a first-order priority of the United States. I look at what this administration has done: how this President ducked the problem for two years; how even today his roadmap has very little personal engagement, personal connection. And I think of the terrible loss of life, the waste of human life, the conflict, the hatred. One thing I’ve learned is–in my work in the Balkans and visits elsewhere around the globe: you very seldom solve political problems by killing people; you intensify them. The killing needs to stop.”
On the United States’ standing in the world: “I think we have to be more respectful of other nations. Obviously we’re going to protect our interests. We’re not going to allow our workers to be exploited. We’re not going to allow nations to threaten the United States and we’re not going to allow them to host terrorists. But: we’re also not going to bully and push and lecture… There are some people in the the current administration who apparently believed that there was a window of opportunity in which the United States, without the Soviet Union, was free to use its military power and could ‘clean up the mess,’ so to speak, by using its military power… I think it’s a total misreading of the world… I think we have to recognize that the President of the United States is more than an American political leader. He is a symbolic leader for much of the world, and people look to him to set standards, to treat others with respect, to reach out beyond the borders of this country.”
And finally, dear bloggers, I got in a question about the Clark campaign’s Web presence, now facing consolidation and criticism (his phrase was “transformation and improvement”) back in Little Rock. “We’re going to knock their socks off with the Web,” he said. And about his blog: “Of course I will see it and I will write on it.”
Blogs are not the least of the modern details Hadrian didn’t deal with. Listen here.