Sunday, May 04, 2003

I just read an interesting article on the MSNBC news web site.

Powell: U.S. watching Syria closely:


May 4 — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday the Bush administration would be carefully watching Syria’s “performance” in response to demands that it stop supporting anti-Israeli guerrillas and heed American plans for the Middle East after the war in Iraq. After meeting Saturday with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Powell reported that the country has begun forcing groups the Bush administration considers terrorist organizations to close their offices in Damascus, but more is needed.

We're walking a tightrope here. Of course we have to use our demonstrated willingness to invade other countries to try and put a stop to terrorism - and interference in our efforts to rebuild the country we just invaded. On the other hand, many say that one of the motives for the invasion was to try and get nations in the region to take our willingness to use force more seriously. Now suppose we make a demand, and it seems pretty obvious to us that Syria will accede, but things look very different from the Syrian perspective. Perhaps they don't have full control over that long border, but can't admit it for fear of looking weak. Or perhaps the group we demand they crack down on is more popular than the Syrian government itself. Or maybe they're just plain crazy. Or maybe they believe that fear of world opinion will still prevent us from invading country after country.

Suppose we don't realize whichever one it is, and make our demands more and more insistent, assuming that they will give in when the threat is imminent. According to the new rules, we are practically forced to invade them. The people who said that even if the military build-up to attacking Iraq was a mistake we still couldn't back down for fear of losing respect were mostly the ones who didn't think it was a mistake in the first place - but many did say it. Either we must have a strong principle forbidding us to invade and occupy nations even when they are doing things that make us very angry and we have threatened them if they don't stop, or we must very rarely make threats even though we are capable of carrying them out, or we will end up occupying more and more nations as time goes on.

There are many who don't see a problem with the last alternative. Steven Den Beste of USS Clueless has suggested Iraq and Syria will be enough, but I wonder which nations will interfere in our efforts to rebuild Syria, as well as how that would be financed. If someone interferes with our efforts to rebuild Syria, it would be hand to meekly accept it. Once we have made demands on the meddler with at least the implicit threat of force, if they do not comply we must decide whether we can afford to occassionally be seen as bluffing or not.

This problem is far from unique to us. One of the things I learned from the book Pax Britannica is that this was part of the motivation for some of Great Britain's conquest's. Each conquest of a nation interfering with the management of an already occupied nation left them with more territory and an apparently stronger position - yet also with forces spread more thinly and more new neighbors who might well pose dangers.

It's been longer since I read about the Roman empire, yet I seem to recall something similar. They might well disarm a defeated enemy, in which case they had to defend the occupied nation, or make surrendering to Rome suicidal. Unlike later empires, theirs was economically profitable for a long time. In those days land was much more nearly the equivilant of wealth than it is today, and they were successful from an economic point of view. Early squabbling between rich and poor was settled - the rich got richer, the poor got bread and circuses. I don't think empire could be profitable today, especially if we continue to refuse to head off rebellion by slaughtering the civilian population of repeated troublemakers.

I still need to read more about Athens and other empires (see the comment on my previous post), but a pattern seems to be forming. History never repeats itself exactly, but some problems seem to keep cropping up until faced squarely. The most successful nations today do not seem to be those with the best farmland or most valuable natural resources, but those with advanced technological manufacturing capabilities. If this makes empire less rather than more viable, perhaps empire has become a long term liability rather than an asset. If so it is an ironical one, since only economic and technological success can build an army suffiently advanced to be in danger of the trap of empire. The more liberty under law, property rights, and protection from violence a nation offers it's own people, the more it is in danger of falling into the trap of empire.

This seems a cliff democracies batter themselves against again and again. If the global brain is involved in the question of it's own survival, this is part of it. Of course we haven't bashed our head on it yet - but dubya's popularity has risen, although it remains yet to be seen whether his conquest has made us stronger or weaker.

I realize this post has some ideas in common with the previous one, yet since this issue may be the whole fate of our civilization it's worth thinking about. I'm going to do a little work on my sidebar soon, but I wanted to say this today.

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