US President George W. Bush is working hard to achieve a wholesale transformation of Iraq and the Middle East into something more stable, productive and democratic, or so American officials tell us.
Bush enjoys reading American history, but he would do well to check out some historical narratives from our own region, especially if he is sending over 20,000 more Americans to Iraq. He would especially benefit from reading about another Western leader who towered over the world and similarly tried to rearrange the Middle East – the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Bush, like Diocletian, who ruled from 245 to 312, speaks in the sweeping vocabulary of those who think in terms of fundamental rearrangements, describing his challenges as the defining battle of a generation. He acts with equal boldness, on the same grand scale. In the late 4th Century, Diocletian ordered a major military and administrative reorganization of Rome’s eastern frontier provinces, centered – not coincidentally – on Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Diocletian undertook a major program of building forts and highways throughout the Arabian provinces, after he had imposed a humiliating treaty on his defeated Sassanian, or Persian, foes. Around the same time the Sassanians also launched a significant fortifications program, in order – no surprise – to protect themselves against their militarily powerful Roman neighbors.
For three centuries to follow, Rome and Persia fought intermittent wars separated by brief periods of uneasy peace, temporary conquest and subjugation, and occasional mutual exhaustion. By the early 7th Century, Rome and Persia were both battered by their perpetual wars, domestic civil strife and border clashes with third parties, and were unable to resist the militant Arabs who emerged from Arabia under the banner of the new religion called Islam.
In 636, at Yarmouq in Jordan and Qadisiyya in modern Iraq, the Arabs defeated both the Byzantine Romans and the Persians. The Middle Eastern lands of eastern Rome and Persia were eventually conquered and united in the new Islamic realm. The Roman and Persian forts of can still be seen today, tourist sites mainly attesting to the futility of military conquest. The new strategy for Iraq announced by Bush on Wednesday night will continue to generate great debate for some time to come. We will soon see if his is a feasible, rational approach to the dilemmas that Washington has largely created for itself in this region, or if it proves to be a new form of imperial self-assertion. It would only add to the already rich debate on this issue a cautionary note on imperial tendencies and dangers. One of the historic developments during Diocletian’s rule was the expanded role and status of the imperial court, and the explicit linking of the emperor’s rule with the realm of the gods. Diocletian even declared himself the son of Jupiter – becoming increasingly detached from the day-to-day affairs of ordinary people and more focused on implementing the divine will on earth, including in Mesopotamia.
People in his presence had to prostrate themselves. Diocletian emasculated the republican institutions of Rome, turning the fabled Senate into little more than a local council, thus removing most political checks and balances and opening the way to autocratic governance.
His persecution of Christians almost certainly prompted the faith to spread more rapidly. Some of this may be relevant to events today, or it may just be intrinsically fascinating, as stories of tragic mortals usually are. George W. Bush speaks of Iraq and the Arab world in the language of imperial disdain, and acts with an exaggerated sense of divine proximity, emboldened by a fearlessness anchored in military might and certitude of the nobility of his mission.
Yet he makes repeated mistakes – as he admitted this week while changing policy – and the consequences of his policy in the Middle East appear to bring about the opposite of his stated intentions: more terrorism, less stable states, the spread of Islamism, weaker central governments, and more intense anti-Americanism. This is a very unusual combination of confidence and confusion that we do not normally find, say, in domestic politics or local neighborhood relationships. This is the unique manifestation of the deadly allure of imperium – the sense that one has the absolute power to rule over distant, foreign lands and people who are considered vital for the well-being of one’s nation or state. What Bush sees as a sensible surge seems to many in the Middle East as a more familiar scourge of imperial history.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR