Friday, July 07, 2006

Empires Fall Slowly

(Author's Note: The title of this post is the English translation of
אימפריות נופלות לאט
"Imperiot Noflot Le'at," by Hemi Rodner and Dan Thorn. Thanks to Nave Weiss for his help with my original translation of the song, Hebrew lyrics here. )

I just read an essay by Tony Judt called "The Country that Wouldn't Grow Up" on Aron's Israel Peace Weblog. One passage in particular from Judt's essay stood out for me:
But whereas Israel has no choice but to look to America - it has no other friends, at best only the conditional affection of the enemies of its enemies, such as India - the United States is a great power; and great powers have interests that sooner or later transcend the local obsessions of even the closest of their client states and satellites.

I find Judt's use of "client states and satellites" interesting. I wonder which he considers Israel to be. I am certain that Canada is a US satellite, and I have remarked before (although not in this venue) on the existence of virtually identical proverbs regarding Canada's, Australia's, and Israel's relationship to the US, namely:

When the United States sneezes, Canada gets a cold;
...Australia gets covered in mucus; and
...Israel gets pneumonia.

(The latter I collected from an editorial writer in Haaretz.) If anything, Israel may be an unusual combination of satellite and client state, dependent on US foreign aid but also economically dependent in ways that make it susceptible to every passing fever and grippe of the US economy.

I suspect this rankles the Israeli collective subconscious somewhat, actually, in the way Judt describes as "[t]he contradictions of Israeli self-presentation." On the one hand, Israel is a satellite-client state of the US (contrary to much of the conventional wisdom in the US, both on the political left and right, which most Israelis find laughable), but on the other hand, it has some tacit or explicit dreams of empire of its own.

When I read Judt's essay, I thought immediately of Rodner and Thorn's song, a beautiful rock ballad with a simple literal narrative of a boy studying the history of the rise and fall of empires while his father comes home to tell his family that his salary has been cut in half. Around the time I first heard the song, I was beginning to read the Israeli press regularly, and the newspapers were full of stories of Israeli civil servants going unpaid for literally months at a time. It's not hard to see the parable in the song, of overextended empires collapsing because they can no longer afford the blood and treasure required to keep the empire functioning (and the civil servants paid, dare I say).

I think the key passage, both in terms of the song and Judt's essay is the lead-in to the chorus:

And in the pages of the past
People are finished in one moment
Empires fall...
Fall slowly...

ובתוך הדפים של הזמן שאבד
אנשים נגמרים ברגע אחד
אימפריות נופלות

In his final paragraph, Judt makes the compelling argument that in order for Israel to truly "grow up," it needs to get out of the (aspirational) empire business. As Judt points out, Israel has done a very good job indeed of making enemies, and it can't trust its fortunes to being under the protective wing of the United States. As Judt mentions passim, this wouldn't be the first time questions of sovereignty in the area were settled by a foreign power -- in 63 CE, after the Third Mithridatic War, the two sons of the then-recently-deceased Queen Alexandra petitioned (possibly in quotes) Rome for help with settling the succession question. In return, the Romans wound up assimilating Judea and Galilee as client states of the Roman Empire. Lesson to most of the countries of the world -- never ask the local superpower to solve your domestic disputes, because you won't like the solution.

The peculiar fallacy that drives this assumption seems to work from both sides -- Israel's government assumes that the US will act in Israel's interests, not in its own (which is demonstrably false), and, within the US, even the usual suspects in the "Israel lobby" act oftentimes more in a way that's congruent with US interests than Israeli interests at base. However, the extremely hawkish, right-wing faction purporting to act in Israel's interests within the US doesn't actually have to live with the consequenses of their policies on the ground in Israel (being safely ensconced in Washington DC for the most part), so they're free to be as extreme and ideological as they would like, often with disastrous consequenses for both countries.

All of this comes, of course, in the wake of the Israeli government's massive and brutal overreaction to the Gilad Shalit abduction, which, in turn, was ostensibly provoked by the IDF shelling a beach in Gaza and killing a family of beach-going Palestinians. So long as each side keeps pouring more anger, more blood, and more treasure into the sand, the empire will continue to fall. The great US empire, the Rome of today, is looking none too stable either, for that matter. As the old slogan goes, guns or butter -- empires or would-be empires must choose eventually.

It's hard to say what will be in the pages of the past when our future is somebody's yesterday...


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