Monday, July 19, 2004

Jus Fetiales

By ancient Roman law, the state was forbidden to engage in aggressive war. A college of 20 priests, the fetiales, had to establish in each case that some king or other had offended the senate and people before war could properly begin by casting a bloody spear into the territory of the enemy or, when that wasn’t convenient, from the Temple of Bellona to the ager hostilis. Amazingly, this scrupulosity did not prevent Rome from expanding from a hilltop refuge for horse thieves to the greatest empire the History Channel has ever known and thus demonstrated once and for all that counterpunchers can be champs. The Etruscans, Samnites, Carthaginians, Greeks, Macedonians, Illyrians, Spaniards, Gauls, Thracians, Egyptians, Numidians, Arabs, Persians, and Britons probably had a different take on things, but all Roman wars were officially defensive.

Granted the durable success of Roman hypocrisy, Bush may be right in invoking in his doctrine of Preventative War an American version of the Jus Fetiales. If, on the other hand, we really don’t have the resources or the will to enforce universal empire, we might be better off with attitudes that suit a powerful but not all-powerful nation in its dealings with other nations. It used to be possible for a country to assert its interests in an international dispute without claiming that its foreign policy echoed the obvious principles of Natural Law if not the will of Almighty God. Before the first Gulf war, for example, Bush the First could and should have informed Hussein that the United States had a vital interest in the independence of Kuwait, an interest that didn’t have to be defended theologically but would be defended with guns and bombs. We didn’t need to represent ourselves as Pure and Good in every way in order to act decently. Indeed, absent the interminable rhetoric about how wonderful we are, other countries and their people would probably find it easier to accommodate our wishes. Even being recognized as a non-equal is an improvement on not being recognized at all except as a law-breaker.

They finally got Bush to stop talking about crusades, but his policy is remains “Love me, love my Sun God,” an interminable exercise in self-righteousness and national egotism. Unfortunately, Bush the Second didn’t invent American highhandedness; and the notion that we are always and obviously the offended party has been intoned on many previous occasions by the journalists who make up the local Fetial College. Too bad. I think we’d be less dangerous if we didn’t always have to be right.

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