I’ve just finished reading Livy on the Romans’ war with Hannibal, including his accounts of the speeches by Roman or enemy commanders to their troops or to each other or those by supplicants addressing the Senate on behalf of their defeated cities. What’s striking is how similar these speeches are to the UN oratory recorded yesterday. In each case, Livy’s speakers line up careful arguments to buttress their respective cases, edit history shamelessly, trumpet their own good intentions and boast about representing civilization and decency, denounce the perfidy of their counterparts, and absolutely never admit to having nasty ulterior motives, such as imperial conquest, plunder and long-term tribute—which are what’s really behind most of the conflicts.
Now let’s examine Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s speech side by side with Obama’s. The equivalent of modern Iran back in the days that Livy describes (cerca 200 BCE) would be a minor regional power on the outskirts of what was quickly becoming the Roman Empire, something like Bithynia in present-day Turkey or a redoubt in Gaul still beyond the reach of Julius Caesar (who showed up 150 years later). It would be a polity with long-standing hostility to Roman encroachment but relatively vulnerable and nervous about its neighbors, most of whom would love to subdue them.
Rouhani, like the Bithynian kings, knows that he is in a weak position militarily and wants to avoid war. But he also wants not to cede too much nor accept Roman domination. His discourse, then, includes glowing descriptions of humanity’s search and hope for peace in an atmosphere of, as he repeats, ‘fear’. There are many observable dangers he enumerates (and recall that his audience is the leadership of the entire world): fear of war, of ‘deadly confrontation’, of poverty, of resource destruction and, of course, fear of ‘neglect of morality’. He praises dialogue over conflict, moderation over extremism, and celebrates his own country as a cozy model of democracy, wisely omitting any mention of the election before his own, which probably was won by a candidate unacceptable to the clerical oligarchy.
Nonetheless, it’s an effectively soothing speech in which Rouhani draws in all countries as sharing in the ‘vulnerability’ that the current state of international relations has created. He calls it a ‘global and indivisible phenomenon’, which is a way of saying, ‘Don’t think an attack on us will be a free ride for everyone else’.
Rouhani, as the weaker player, encourages his listeners to value equality among nations and eschew the use of force:
At this sensitive juncture in the history of global relations, the age of zero-sum games is over, even though a few actors still tend to rely on archaic and deeply ineffective ways and means to preserve their old superiority and domination. Militarism and the recourse to violent and military means to subjugate others are failed examples of the perpetuation of old ways in new circumstances. . . . there is no guarantee that the era of quiet among big powers will remain immune from such violent discourses, practices and actions. The catastrophic impact of violent and extremist narratives should not – in fact, must not – be underestimated.
In a section that could be extracted directly from Livy, Rouhani complains that the idea of a ‘civilized center and uncivilized peripheries’ is discriminatory and propagandistic and provides cover for the inflation of the ‘Iranian threat’, which he says,
. . . has been employed as an excuse to justify a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades. The arming of the Saddam Hussein regime with chemical weapons and supporting the Taliban and Al-Qaida are just two examples of such catastrophes.
Yeah, how about those two examples? Kinda hard to deny that they were not good outcomes, even for the ‘civilized’ central power. The far-flung kingdoms that would eventually fall under the grip of Rome argued in a similar vein—not that it preserved their freedom.
Rouhani winds up his discourse with an expression of support for the ‘ballot box’ as the only way to resolve conflicts and a reminder that military threats against Iran have been a constant. He even signs off with a reference to the Christian psalms and the Torah in a nod to ‘tolerance’, one of his favorite themes throughout. (No atheists, however.)
Now, let’s look at Obama’s perorations, which lasted over twice as long (5500 words v/s 2600 by Rouhani—the man is long-winded). He immediately starts the discussion on a different footing and uses a completely different principle: not the equality of nations nor the need to find peaceful resolution of conflicts, but how to ‘enforce rules of behavior’. We’ll hear more about ‘enforcement’ later.
First, however, Obama has to dispatch some uncomfortable details, the quicker the better. So we hear about the winding down of America’s most recent wars (no mention of UN permission to wage them, BTW), the ‘limited’ use of drones that we’re now making sure only hit bad meanies (‘near certainty of no civilian casualties’), and yet another promise to close Guantánamo.
Obama also said he’s ‘begun to review’ how snooping on people like Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff should be handled in the future—a virtual confession that only the Snowden revelations would have changed that habit.
With those embarassments out of the way, Obama can get back to more comfortable territory: Syria. This situation permits him, as the representative of the military power, to argue that peaceful conflict resolution is all well and good, but it can’t work all the time. Ergo, sometimes we are just simply forced to use all these weapons—but for strictly civilizing and humanitarian purposes.
This rhetorical sleight of hand relies heavily on the standard cant usage of the term ‘international community’, as if there were such a thing. This phrase pops up when the hegemonic power wants to pretend not to be acting in its own naked self-interest but as part of a large coalition of right-minded folks. At the sound of this phrase, put your wallet in a locked drawer and place your head between your knees.
Obama quickly insists that ‘the international community’ must now act rather than ‘standing callously by’ when children are gassed to death. Killjoy historians may recall that this was not U.S. policy when Saddam Hussein used gas against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians—but he was our guy then and ‘standing callously by’ was therefore okay. When the imperial power has to strike, Livy-like historians will always step up to provide the rhetorical juice.
So now we are back to the enforcement that Obama mentioned in his first paragraph: the Syrians are official bad guys, so someone has to act. To the surprise of all, Obama volunteers America to be that someone.
What follows is the most disingenuous section of Obama’s speech.
. . . my preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue. And in the past several weeks, the United States, Russia and our allies have reached an agreement to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control and then to destroy them.
Blocked by lack of support for military action, Obama is now reduced to insisting that the Assad regime has to go one way or another. The rest of the speech, covering two topics for another 3000 words, quickly loses any remaining credibility as it pretends to be about some fantastical Israeli-Palestinian deal that no one in that room could possibly have taken seriously, including Obama himself. That makes his comments about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions rather hard to take seriously as well.
Obama winds up at long last with a quick reiteration of his enforcement principle, i.e., ‘meaningful sanctions for those who break the rules’, not including us (see, Invasion of Iraq). Then there’s that old ‘international community’ again, which in certain moments, may ‘need to acknowledge that the multilateral use of military force may be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.’
Or as Scipio Africanus might have said, ‘We had to destroy Carthage in order to save it’.