Amidst all the debate about contracts in Iraq, there remains the continuing ham-handedness in Bush Administration foreign policy. It comes down to the fact that, when standing astride the world, a great nation cannot be a bully. I’d only point to the example of Rome, where warring with most of the cities of Italy led to the first sack of the city by the Gauls because Rome was left to stand virtually alone against the horde. In the midst of that series of wars, Roman tribune and former dictator Furius Camillus provided a striking example of how acts of generosity in the midst of strife can be more powerful than any aggression.
Camillus, according to Livy, had taken up a siege of the city of Falerii, when a schoolmaster who taught the sons of the leading citizens of Falerii betrayed the city and turned the boys over to Camillus:
He had, he said, given Falerii into the hands of the Romans, since those boys, whose fathers were at the head of affairs in the city, were now placed in their power. On hearing this Camillus replied, `You, villain, have not come with your villainous offer to a nation or a commander like yourself. Between us and the Faliscans there is no fellowship based on a formal compact as between man and man, but the fellowship which is based on natural instincts exists between us, and will continue to do so. There are rights of war as there are rights of peace, and we have learnt to wage our wars with justice no less than with courage. We do not use our weapons against those of an age which is spared even in the capture of cities, but against those who are armed as we are, and who without any injury or provocation from us attacked the Roman camp at Veii. These men you, as far as you could, have vanquished by an unprecedented act of villainy; I shall vanquish them as I vanquished Veii, by Roman arts, by courage and strategy and force of arms.’ He then ordered him to be stripped and his hands tied behind his back, and delivered him up to the boys to be taken back to Falerii, and gave them rods with which to scourge the traitor into the city.
The citizens of Falerii, seeing that Camillus would not take advantage of treachery to capture hostages, surrendered and the city was taken without bloodshed. Machiavelli, in his Discourses, wrote of Camillus that “This authentic incident affords us an excellent example of how a humane and kindly act sometimes makes a much greater impression than an act of ferocity or violence; and how districts and cities into which neither arms nor the accoutrements of war, nor any other kind of human force would have been able to obtain entry, it has been possible to enter by displaying common humanity and kindness, continence or generosity.”
Now, back to today: The question is raised constantly whether the United States should fight the war on terrorism or whether it wants to (particularly by neo-con ideologues who claim anyone who criticizes any action in the War on Terror is acting traitorously). Meanwhile, the United States spends time claiming that it wasn’t responsible for the felling of a wall during a military attack that killed six children in Afghanistan, as though the wall would have fallen if the U.S. Army hadn’t been firing artillery at or near the building. We have to recognize that we are judged in detail by the world, as well as in general — and debate about the details of our actions among citizens of the United States is patriotic and good.
Our President has failed to exercise any discretion in his diplomacy, repeatedly offending people and countries for small differences of opinion or for differences in the remote past in diplomatic time, when a few acts of honor that set aside immediate U.S. interests in favor of the interests of other people would tip the scales dramatically in favor of the United States’ goal of a peaceful world. Saying that President Bush is an awful statesman is patriotic, because President Bush is not the United States, only its temporarily elected executive officer.
We need more acts of compassion and humanity and fewer acts of force and strength by the President to complement the many heroic acts of humanity by American soldiers in the field if we are going to lead the world to peace.