January 13, 2003
Caesar's Paradox

On the razor-lined stage of world politics, the real paradox of national power is it can only occasionally be used directly, increased only by not using it. Without question the most successful states, the ones that lasted centuries instead of decades, were created by those willing to spread their power to the largest number of people as possible. The haves by their very nature fear the have-nots, but it is only by enabling them, empowering them, and most importantly of all just leaving them the hell alone, that the powerful have any hope of succeeding with any consistency.

It seems almost self-evidently obvious that the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. Our economy's gross domestic product is larger than the next three countries combined. We can haul other country’s entire air forces around in our cargo airplanes. We haven't lost a capital ship to enemy action in more than fifty years. Our special forces can be any place in the world in a matter of hours, entire armies can be moved in a matter of months. If a country really pisses us off we can turn it into a glowing plate of glass in a matter of minutes.

Yet everywhere we turn it seems we can't actually do anything. Our European allies think we're a bigger threat to world stability than a guy who shelled his own villages with nerve gas just because they annoyed him. A nation in Asia not much bigger than Alabama, which lost millions of people to starvation last year, claims they'll unleash a "rain of fire and doom" on us if we don't give them the food and fuel and promises not to invade they demand. Countries which make trillions of dollars selling us a product that would otherwise be useless black goo funnel that cash to nutjobs so crazy they can convince college-educated fathers to fly airplanes into buildings.

What's going on? Why can't we do something about these things? We've got all this power, all this wealth, all this glittering, snarling violence at the tips of our fingers. What good is it if we can't use it?

There was a time when I was a boy that I thought shooting turtles off logs was great fun. Now, before you get all hot and bothered let me make clear that my marksmanship was such that I turned more turtles to God from fright than I ever personally put in line for reincarnation.

At any rate, one fine, hot summer day my dad, my brother, and I were prowling the bayous near our deer camp looking to pop some caps into a few unwary turtles' behinds when we came across the mother load. By being very quiet and very cautious (no mean feat for ten and eight year old boys) we had crept up to a bog filled with dead trees so thick with sunning turtles they looked like slumbering beetles in the shimmering distance.

"Now, before I give you this gun," my dad quietly said to us, "I want to ask you just how many turtles you think you can shoot over there."

"Three!" I whispered emphatically.

"SIX!” my younger brother chimed in with defiance, always looking to one-up me in a competition

"Nope, you're both wrong. There's only one turtle out there you're going to get to shoot at."

We couldn't believe it. There were dozens of turtles out there in the sun, gray-black nailheads hammered into the dried, dead wood sticking out of the smelly brown water. How could we not miss?

In truth, I don't remember if Jeff (who's turn it was to shoot that time) managed to plink one into turtle heaven or not, but I never will forget what happened next. At the crack of the rifle every single one of those turtles immediately went into the water, with a sound like scattering a sack full of pennies into a swimming pool, clearly audible from our hiding place thirty yards away.

Before my brother even looked up from the rifle, that pond was empty, with sun-glittered ripples being the only evidence turtles had ever been there at all.

It's not just efficiency that makes the US take the long and winding road to our goals instead of using the laser-straight trajectory of a speeding bullet. Sometimes even nations must sleep.

There's a spot in the ruined forum of Rome that to this day has fresh flowers laid upon it. On that very spot, so tradition holds, a group of weak, argumentative, and greedy old men united in fear and loathing to murder the most powerful man the world had ever seen.

Julius Caesar’s mistake was not to trust the senate, not to ignore the "ides of March", not even to walk into a crowded room without a proper bodyguard. Caesar’s mistake was in demonstrating his power openly in gaudy triumphs, naked power grabs, and ostentatious displays of wealth. It was assuming that because he could command the cheers of thousands, he didn't need to win the hearts of the few dozen people required to make his empire a functioning whole.

His adopted nephew Octavian, whom the world would later know as Augustus, did not make this same mistake. It was true that he commanded the deadliest, most effective army on the planet, could and at times did order the execution of individuals with little more than a flick of a finger, but at root Augustus was just one man. He needed these cranky old bastards to run his burgeoning empire.

So the most powerful man in Rome, and therefore the world, sat in the senate just like the rest of the senators, was berated, wheedled, complimented, lobbied, and debated by them, almost as if nothing had changed at all. Oh, everyone knew it had, these were Romans after all, the world’s best hard-nosed realists. But by allowing these men their petty political games, by accepting (within limits) their need to express their independence, and by carefully cultivating and ensuring their continuing wealth and power, he built an empire whose like would not be equaled for more than a thousand years.

Only the hopelessly naive would think such hands-off policies would be all that is ever required (which is why such things are advocated so loudly by the media and various leftist elites). History is replete with examples of short-lived, poorly run empires that were nevertheless quite capable of dismantling nations unwilling or unable to defend themselves and their interests. However, it's only a little less naive to think that just because you're the biggest, scariest kid on the block you'll always be able to pummel people into seeing it your way.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, in spite of their cynical, self-serving bleats about oppression and injustice, America really does care what they think. Can you imagine the French reacting at all to the news that the rest of the world hates them? Can you picture Kim Jong Il changing his country's policies one iota in response to a press release from Britain? Can any one of you honestly see King Fayyed allowing the Saudi Arabian press to cover Italian protests over his country's "barbaric" practices?

We do. We do all of that and more. It actually hurts our feelings when we hear that one nation or another doesn't like us, even mean nasty ones run by short guys in funny glasses. We hold benefits, send cash, and risk international stability over tiny islands and nations buried so deep in mountains it's a wonder their own residents can find them with a map. We've even given up huge, sparkling military bases because democratically elected legislatures refused to renew our lease... billions of dollars of military might removed over a sheet of paper.

It's not "SAUDI ARABIA" or "LIBYA" or "CUBA" stamped on ton upon ton of free food being sent to, and at times even refused by, Africa. Turkish immigrants worry about being deported from the United States. They worry about being burned alive as they sleep in Europe. A South Korean may worry about getting run over by an American teenager in any army truck. A North Korean worries about his whole family starving just because they don't say "Death to America" loud enough when the wrong person is listening.

We're not saints. Half the time we don't seem to like ourselves very damned much. But anybody that says we're the primary threat to world peace today needs to have their head examined.

Posted by scott at January 13, 2003 08:18 PM

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Well ALRIGHT this puts into perspective what I have never, ever understood - just why can't we do anything. I do think Geo. W. missed a golden opportunity right after 9/11 when the whole world would have stood back and not said a world over anything we decided to do and just where the HELL is Ben Laudin? I still can't stand our current in power government. It is still "the economy stupid".

Posted by: Pat Johnson on January 14, 2003 01:03 PM
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