The Decline and Fall of Robert Fisk


If you have been wondering whatever happened to Robert Fisk (I know you haven’t; this is just a rhetorical set-up), he is still alive and writing. His most recent effort published in the “Independent” is this wide ranging piece of analysis for people who know little about ancient history, by people who know little about ancient history:


My first reaction on seeing this was, hey, haven’t you spent your entire career hoping and wishing for the death of the American “empire”? Now that you say it’s actually happening, why aren’t you happy instead of decrying it? If Trump is the unwitting agent of this final fall, shouldn’t you be celebrating him for his historical role rather than castigating him for his many sins? Lastly, is there perhaps some realisation that does not dare to speak its name too loud that the death of the American empire might not be such a good thing considering what comes after?

My second reaction was, this headline makes no sense (albeit that would likely be a subeditor’s contribution to this mess). Upon braving through the whole op-ed it makes a bit more sense, but not enough to redeem Fisk’s latest. But to get there, let’s take it bit by painful bit:

In days gone by, I used to compare the Trump presidency with the Arab dictatorships. He took preposterous pleasure in the company of Egypt’s Sisi (60,000 political prisoners) and his inane ramblings had much in common with those of Muammar Gaddafi, who also “authored” a book he never wrote but whom Trump never met (albeit that Tony Blair and Gaddafi kissed each other on the cheek). But over the past week, I’ve begun to realise that the crackpot in the White House has much more in common with ancient Rome.

If this carefully thought-out comparison based on the preference for a military strongman over the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and having a book ghostwritten does not quite impress you (Obama bowed to the Saudi king and sent the mullahs in Tehran pallets of cash – what does that make him?) at least you now know the extent of the historical rigour and the depth of political analysis you can expect from the rest of the article. You have been warned.

My former classics professor once told me – when I melodramatically called him on my mobile phone from the original Roman forum during the US occupation of Iraq under George W Bush – that the Romans were a “manic” people, but that they would have been pretty unimpressed with the American handling of the Iraqi campaign.

That’s because they would have pacified the conquered province with no concern for the local casualties. And if the need arose in the future, they would have done it again. Ask the Jews, among many others.

He was right. But I am now convinced that there is something distinctly “manic” about the Trump presidency. The hatred, the threats, the fury, have much in common with both the Roman republic (Rome’s version of popular “democracy”) and the Roman empire, when quite a number of emperors showed themselves to be just as insane as Trump.
They have also much in common with just about every era of history and every corner of the world if you are as selective as Fisk. The Republic and the Empire, too, were quite different creatures, stretching over a period of just short of one thousand years, making those sorts of comparisons even more meaningless.

Cato the Censor, a dangerous man, would end each of his speeches in Rome with the words Carthago delenda est. “Carthage must be destroyed”. Is this not exactly the language of Trump? Did he not say that he could have Afghanistan “wiped off the face of the earth”, that he could “totally destroy” North Korea, that Iran “will be destroyed” if it attacks the US?

OMG, this is exactly like the rhetoric during a 120-year long existential struggle between two neighbouring powers for the control of the western Mediterranean; the struggle that included frequent and deadly invasions of each other’s territories and homelands (think Hannibal crossing the Alps to devastate Italy with his armies). Cato was actually pushing for war and what we could call the final solution to the Punic problem, whereas Trump is actually trying to scare off various rogue regimes from engaging in behaviour that threatens regional peace.

Cato got what he wanted. Carthage was indeed razed, its people sold into slavery, although its lands were not in fact sown with salt as English historians would later claim. So far, Trump has been more Cicero than Cato, Pompeo more Pliny than Pompey. So far.
This makes absolutely no sense. How is Trump more like an anti-Caesar champion of the Senate (after two millennia, still a byword for political oratory) than an anti-Carthage hardliner or Pompeo more like a naturalist than a general? (or a bureaucrat, if Fisk is talking about Pliny the Younger rather than his more famous uncle; in which case Pompeo is actually meant to be  Pliny) In any case, isn’t that commendable and actually goes against Fisk’s argument about deranged warmongers?

But the American retreat from Syria, its army’s greatest disgrace only ghosted over by its new role as Saudi Arabia’s mercenaries – for the new US military arrival in the kingdom is to be paid for by the regime which butchered Jamal Khashoggi – has dark echoes in antiquity.

Greater than its retreat from Vietnam? Go easy on the hyperbole, Robert. As for the new role, haven’t we been there thirty years ago, defending the Saudis from Saddam? I recall the joke from the era that Saudi Arabia is changing its national anthem to “Onward, Christian soldiers”. Coincidentally, the Saudis have been American allies since the Second World War, enjoying the benefit of America’s security umbrella ever since.

One of Rome’s most troublesome provinces was Cilicia. It was always changing hands. Its people allied themselves to Rome – and were then abandoned when legions left or taxes ran out. Cilicia, by extraordinary mischance, lay almost exactly along the western border of what is today the Turkish-Syrian (Kurdish) frontier.

Except that Cilicia was not one of Rome’s most troublesome provinces. It wasn’t always changing hands. Its people didn’t ally themselves with Rome – Cilicia was conquered as part of the successful campaign against piracy – and was not kept being abandoned. It remained a province of the Eastern (Byzantine) empire until conquered by the forces of Islam in the 8th century. Cilicia’s eastern border was about 200 kilometres from where the Syrian Kurds live today. Other than that, an uncanny similarity to the present. Oh, and the Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths were not three different peoples – Ostrogoths and Visigoths were two branches of the Goths (as their names suggest, the West and the East Goths).

There are still a few Roman ruins in that ancient province to remind its present-day armies of what – they should have surely realised – would be their fate. I doubt if there is a single US soldier in Syria – who must, of course, negotiate their own way out of that equally ancient country – who knows of this. Institutional memory, let alone historical memory, has long ago been erased by the internet.
Of the about one thousand American troops in Syria, I’m pretty sure that at least some know that Asia Minor was a part of the Roman Empire, and – unlike Fisk – know they are not in Turkey, which they would have to be to be in Cilicia and admire its Roman ruins. Ironically, there are other American soldiers in Cilicia – at the NATO air base of Incirlik, which happens to be a home to a few dozen of American nukes.

The Roman empire fell in bits. The senators, living in the political wreckage of the old Roman republic, knew that something was going wrong. The people understood their demise only in stages. The great Roman roads went unrepaired. The legions could not move so fast (even if they were still loyal to Rome). Then the imperial mail service from north Africa was impaired, even halted. The wheat for bread – often from what is today the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon – failed to arrive in Rome.

The decline of the Western Roman Empire took time – over two hundred years, with many ebbs and flows; the Eastern Roman Empire survived for another thousand years. Arguments about the decline of the United States as an economic, military and political power have been made for decades now, and won’t be resolved for decades more, talking as we are about long-term trends. Other than both the US and the Roman Empire being great powers of the day, any specific analogies are spurious, being separated in time by more than fifteen centuries. Some of the American roads might indeed be worse for wear but no one lacks bread – or email.

Amid popular unrest in Rome, where rival leaders could and did physically threaten each other, these matters often went unnoticed. Impeachment, alas, was not an option in the ancient world.

But the sword (or poison) could do its work. Political enemies would be accused of treachery. “Crucify them!” But is that not what Trump says of the American press, the Democrats or anyone who dares to confront him with his abominable lies and his assaults on American democracy?

Actually, it’s Trump’s enemies who are accusing him of treachery or treason, not the other way around. Also, this feels like nit-picking considering the train wreck of historical analogising that is Fisk’s article, but crucifixion was a punishment reserved for slaves and commoners, not “political enemies”.

No, I am not suggesting that the American empire will leave us quite like this. But last week’s deplorable abandonment of the Kurds, Trump’s wickedness in allowing the Turks – and their wretched “Arab” allies – to slaughter their way into northern Syria, will have the same effect as it did in antiquity. If you can no longer trust Rome, to which other empire do you turn?

Returning to my original point – Fisk has spent all of his working life trying to get the United States out of the Middle East and propagandising against American military interventions and “imperial” meddling in other countries’ affairs. To see him now advocating for a continuing American military presence against the wishes of the country’s government and being concerned about Trump’s America being isolationist and an unreliable ally is enough to make one’s head spin so much one might start hallucinating about being in ancient Rome.

Well, Putin’s, of course. Tyrant he may be – but at least he’s sane. And his legions stayed out of the war in Syria and saved the Assad regime. They cleared the highways of Isis mines – they restored the roads, sometimes (incredibly) what were once Roman roads – and they learned Arabic. Perhaps, indeed, Putin now plays the role of the later Roman empire of the east, the Christian one which survived in Constantinople/Byzantium/Istanbul for hundreds more years after the fall of Rome itself. All the Middle East is now his empire, every capital welcoming the emperor: Tehran, Cairo, Ankara, Damascus, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi.

“Stayed out of the war in Syria” or “saved the Assad regime” – pick one; they could not be – and indeed have not been – both correct. Putin’s legions, such as they were in Syria, very much fought on Assad’s side, though not against ISIS but the whole range of Assad’s other internal enemies – fighting ISIS was left to the Kurds and the Americans. The Russians in Syria, of course – and contrary to the commentariat’s short memories – are nothing new. Syria has been a Soviet ally in the Middle East throughout the Cold War, among other things hosting a Soviet naval base (still in operation with the Russians). The Baathist regime of Assad the father and the son has consistently been anti-Western and anti-Israel.
Here we finally come to the part about Putin being Caesar. That’s a Caesar, not (Julius) Caesar, and a Byzantine, rather than a Western Roman emperor. Again, there is absolutely nothing new about the situation. Russia has for centuries seen itself, partly on the account of its Orthodoxy, as the successor to the Byzantine, or the Eastern Roman Empire. Moscow was dreamed about as the “third Rome” (after the original Rome and then Constantinople). The title Tsar is even derived from Caesar (as is German Kaiser). Consequently, the Russian designs on the former Byzantine lands have been a feature of European diplomacy and power politics since the 18th century, leading to numerous conflicts with the Ottoman empire, including the Crimean war. The conclusion that Putin has somehow now succeeded where everyone else from Catherine the Great to Stalin has failed, however, is completely spurious and delusional. With the exception of Assad in Syria, who to a significant degree owes Russia his survival in the civil war, no other country in the region sees itself or has any intention of becoming a part of the Russian “empire”. Of the six capitals that Fisk mentions, Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are firm American allies; Ankara, while not a great friend, is still a member of NATO.  Tehran enjoys Russian support against the West precisely because it is a regional outlier, which as a Shia perhaps still eventually-to-be a nuclear power, scares the living daylight out of all the Mid East Sunnis. But the mullahs would no doubt be mystified (not least by your stupidity) if you asked them how it feels to be a province of the Russian empire.

More than 20 years ago, I was in Washington, seeking to find the missile-maker who manufactured the rocket which Israel fired into a civilian ambulance in southern Lebanon, killing all inside. And I was much struck at how Roman Washington looked. Its great palaces of state (save for the State Department itself, of course) were self-consciously modelled on Roman architecture.

Washington was not built as the capital of a physical empire – more a philosophical one, I suspect, in my kinder moments – but it looks (like Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London) as if the early Americans of the independence era realised it might one day be the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. Well, it was.

Glad you have discovered neo-classical architecture, Robert. It’s the architecture of the 19th century government, and not just for the great imperial powers but for pretty much every European country of that era. We are all legatees of ancient Rome.

But Trump has changed all that. To the despair of his few friends (of the non-”manic” kind) and the delight of his enemies, he has laid America low. The Syrians, whose history goes back far longer than America’s, have played their old political policy again: wait. And wait. And wait. And then drive into Manbij the moment the Americans leave. That’s what Rome’s enemies did when the empire’s frontiers crumbled in Germania and then in Gaul and then in the Balkans – of all places – and then in Palmyra and in what is today Syria.

So America is the Roman empire and its enemies around the world are the barbarians. But I’m confused if that’s good or bad. Though I know that when someone on the right makes similar arguments – such as the mass migration of “refugees” from the developing world into Europe is akin to the “mass wanderings of the peoples” of the 4th and 5th century AD, they are branded a racist and a bigot.

As for Washington’s noble architecture, it now takes its place alongside the old capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the fine Viennese buildings of state seem shamed by their majesty. The powerful and historical walls to study today are those of the Kremlin.

There you have it, people: Russia is the future of the world. Of course the left has been saying that for decades with admiration. I’m not quite sure what the sentiment is now. Continuing the Roman analogy, the Byzantines, after all, were the good guys, preserving the eastern variant of Roman civilisation right until the end of the Middle Ages. But here it seems like the new Rome should be fighting the new Constantinople. Even though the new Rome is bad.

What’s really “manic” in the Age of Trump, is the opposition. Since Orange Man Bad, pretty much everything opposite is now good. Even if until three years ago – like military interventions, wars in the Middle East, aggressive foreign policy, military alliances – it was bad. Trump truly is a miracle worker – he is now making Robert Fisk pine after the American empire.