08 January 2010

Barack Obama and the new centurions

Perpetual war—from the Romans to the British to the Americans, this has been the price of empire. There are always tribesmen out there on the fringes who resent the imposition, who fail to appreciate the benefits of civilization, and who often therefore misbehave and must be put down. Barack Obama now finds himself in this Orwellian dilemma. As much as he might like to create peace, he cannot. Empires corrupt their own leaders.

George W. Bush arrived in office with a limited interest in foreign affairs. He sought less involvement in "nation-building" and small-scale military engagements. However, the perils of empire soon overtook his agenda and turned him into a war president as they are now doing to Obama. He has rejected the term "war on terror" but in a speech this week he emphatically declared, "We are at war." And they most certainly are. Already the new commander-in-chief is involved in five wars: two overt in Iraq and Afghanistan, and three covert in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Five wars. The fringes are restless indeed.

One thing that is new in the American case is the reach of the tribesmen. In the case of previous empires, the imperialists might face danger on the frontier but they could always return to the homeland, be it Rome or London, and there find sanctuary. They could sleep peacefully in their beds at night. But the world has shrunk. With modern technology, the malcontents can gain access to the very heart of the empire. And that's what the Islamist extremists are doing. They are saying in effect, if you come into our house and do mischief, we will come into your house and do mischief. They have changed the rules, and now the imperialists live in fear.

And what of us? What is Canada's role in the empire? We must as always deal carefully with our elephantine neighbour. In our early history, we were a military lackey of the British empire and paid the horrific and pointless price of the First World War. We do not want to be led down that path again. Or are we already on it?

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