Richard Reeves

The United States Decline and Fall?

LOS ANGELES -- It has become fashionable on both the left and the right to compare the United States to ancient Rome. Decline and fall: We are a militaristic power trying to make everyone else in the known world submit to our way, or we are an irreligious, hedonistic bunch going the way of all flesh. Or maybe both.

Not true, according to two interesting recent books.

Thomas F. Madden, a professor of ancient history at St. Louis University, begins his book, "Empires of Trust," by denouncing "political screeds that yank bloody bits of Roman history out of context in order to make hackneyed partisan points." Then he adds: "The Rome that fell, it should be remembered, was over two thousand years old. We should be so lucky. No, the young United States has nothing at all in common with the aged imperial Rome, but it has important things in common with the youthful Roman Republic."

Rome actually fell three times, argues Madden. In 27 B.C., the Roman Republic, the regime he compares with the United States, evolved into the one-man rule of an emperor in Italy and beyond. That Roman Empire was overrun by barbarians in A.D. 476. But the eastern empire with its capital in Constantinople, continued to thrive into the Middle Ages, finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

It is that Eastern Roman Empire, also called Byzantium, that is the focus of "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire," by the often controversial national security intellectual Edward Luttwak. While Madden sees the Roman Republic and the United States as empires of trust -- nations with allies, some once conquered, who trust them as military and economic powers -- Luttwak advocates that the "American Empire" would do well to emulate the strategies of Byzantium.

"Economic crisis, mounting national debt, excessive foreign commitments," says Luttwak, speaking of the middle period of Roman emperors, "this is no way to run an empire. America ... has never been Rome, and to adopt its strategies now -- in ruthless expansion of empire by domination of foreign peoples, and a bone-crushing brand of total war -- would only hasten America's decline."

Luttwak, who says he has studied Byzantine documents and other writings for two decades, advises Americans to learn seven lessons from Byzantium. They are:

"1. Avoid war by every possible means ... but always act as if war might start at anytime. ... Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times.

"2. Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously.

"3. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles.

"4. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare -- lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies.

"5. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace.

"6. Subversion is the cheapest path to victory. So cheap, in fact, as compared with the risks and costs of battle that it must always be attempted. ... Remember: Even religious fanatics can be bribed.

"7. When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy's strength."

As for Madden, he concludes with a rush of optimism:

"America is a young country and an even younger empire. ... Americans remain optimistic about the future and confident in their abilities. They have reason to be. ... Americans have almost secured their horizon. That is what an Empire of Trust is driven to do. We may not be able to see the end of America's road, but its direction seems clear enough. And, for both Americans and the world, it is a good road to follow."

Thanks, we needed that. There is some confusion and contradiction in what Madden and Luttwak have to say, but clearly they believe the sky is not falling yet. Thoughts and reflections like theirs might even cause a president to take his time in making decisions about trying to exercise great and lethal power beyond the horizon.

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