Barbarians at the Gate?

The contemporary situation in global politics has no precedent since the age of the later Roman emperors. It is not just the military domination of the world by a single nation. Nor is it even the awesome reach of its power, for example, having an air command center in Saudi Arabia able to deliver B-52 strikes on a mountaintop in Afghanistan within nineteen minutes of receiving target coordinates from Special Forces on the ground. Nor is it just the punishment inflicted on al-Qaeda. Even if Osama bin Laden lives to fight another day, he and his clique will no longer be under the illusion, created by the American retreat from Somalia in 1993, that the empire lacks the stomach for a fight.

The Roman parallels are evident—Robert Kaplan often mentions them in his new book—with the difference that the Romans were untroubled by their imperial destiny, while the Americans have had an empire since Teddy Roosevelt yet persist in believing they do not. But the real parallel with late Rome is that overwhelming military superiority does not translate into security. Mastery of the known world does not confer peace of mind.

America has now felt the tremor of dread that the ancient world must have known when Rome was first sacked. Then and now an imperial people has come awake to the menace of the barbarians. Just beyond the zone of stable democratic states, which took the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as its headquarters, there are the border zones, like Afghanistan, where barbarians rule and from where, thanks to modern technology, they can inflict devastating damage on centers of power far away. Retribution has been visited on the barbarians, and more will follow, but the American military knows it has begun a campaign without an obvious end in sight. The most carefree and confident empire in history now grimly confronts the question of whether it can escape Rome’s ultimate fate.

The likelihood that Osama bin Laden managed to escape airborne Armageddon in Tora Bora only illustrates how elusive any final victory against the barbarians will prove to be. Further pacification operations, covert or overt, are being planned for the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan. Al-Qaeda’s attempts to launder financial assets have been traced to the Lebanese business circles that control the export of diamonds from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and the Congo. There are likely to be cells to root out in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Barbarism is not new. Neither is fanaticism. What is new is that the barbarians have exploited a global ideology—Islam—that gives them an apparently bottomless supply of recruits and allies in a global war. They have also exploited global civil society and its values—mobility and freedom, as well as its technologies—to take war to the heart of the empire.

While the apocalyptic nihilists who carried out the attack of September 11 were barbarians in the strict moral sense of the term, it is …

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