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Saddam: Latter-day Jugurtha?

Once upon a time, a ruthless, clever despot I came to power in a desert land by murdering his rival for the throne. He sought the allegiance of a great imperial power, which had once given him military training. He soon displeased his imperial ally by invading a neighboring territory that he claimed as his own. As a result, his imperial overlords branded him a public enemy and dispatched military forces to his desert country to hunt him down. After a war lasting many years, in which the rebel potentate demonstrated greater elusiveness than battlefield savvy, he was betrayed and arrested. He was brought in chains to the enemy capital overseas and publicly humiliated, and he died in prison a broken man.

So lived and died Jugurtha, king of the North African nation of Numidia, and one of Rome's many rivals in the twilight years between the end of the Punic Wars in 146 B.C. and Rome's decent into civil war and Caesarism about a century later. Jugurtha was the adopted son of the Numidian king Micipsa, whose father, Masinissa, had been an ally of Rome in the protracted struggle with the Carthaginians. When Jugurtha got embroiled in a dynastic struggle with Micipsa's two natural sons, Jugurtha had one son murdered. The remaining son, Adherbal, and Jugurtha both appealed to Rome for arbitration. The Roman Senate ordered the Numidian kingdom to be divided between the two. However, Jugurtha's forces soon invaded Adherbal's territory, and Rome intervened with military force.

Jugurtha proved to be a wily adversary. After a years-long stalemate with Roman forces under Metellus, he eventually faced a far more militarily competent adversary in Marius. Marius took the war to Jugurtha, winning engagement after engagement and driving him farther and father into the desert. Another up-and-coming Roman military leader, Sulla, finally arranged to have Jugurtha betrayed into Roman hands, leaving the Romans the undisputed masters of North Africa.

The Jugurthine war, which lasted about seven years, provided more drama than danger to the Roman state. Yet this seemingly inconsequential war set in motion a devastating chain of events that no Roman could have foreseen. Marius and Sulla, the heroes of the conflict, were both propelled to great popularity by their military exploits. They soon became bitter rivals, and their respective followings crystallized into two great, irreconcilable factions. Out of this rivalry crone a devastating civil war that ended with the apocalyptic defeat of the Marian army at the very gates of Rome, and the dictatorship and bloody purges of Sulla, the Roman republic's first despot.

Despite the domestic turbulence, Rome continued to devote considerable energy to other overseas enemies like Jugurtha that threatened an ever-wider sphere of Roman interests, from the Cilician pirates to Mithridates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor. These wars spawned a new generation of Roman military leaders, emboldened by the precedent of Marius and Sulla: men like Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, who cultivated cults of personality among me men under their command, and then used their loyal military followings to intimidate political leadership.

Inevitably, the old Roman mode of government became inadequate to meet the demands of empire, and the ambitious new general-statesmen stepped into the power vacuum. In the end, the republic was swept away in the fires of civil war, and Julius Caesar--the very prototype of the amoral, charismatic, ruthless dictator--came to power.

Two millennia later, history appears to be repeating itself. After years of conflict against a former American cat's paw, the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, our forces have finally cornered and captured him. Like Jugurtha of old, he was never much of a threat to us, but he provided a pretext for expanding both U.S. and UN military power overseas. Besides Saddam, a host of other second-rate foreign enemies have drawn American military ire in recent years, from Somalia to Serbia. Still ahead lie other vistas for interventionism, from Syria to the Far East, and the prospect of war without end--a condition the Romans endured almost from the inception of their republic.

The problem with war is that its fortunes are fickle, its outcome foreseeable by few. Who could have imagined in 1914 that world war would bring Bolshevism to power in Russia, and set the stage for the rise of Nazi Germany? Who would have anticipated back in 1952 that, more than a half-century after the supposed end of the Korean War, we would be poised to fight a nuclear war with a still-menacing Communist North Korea?

War unsettles nations, stirs up passions, and triggers events whose far-reaching consequences cannot be predicted. Wars are fomented and harnessed by people and organizations that exploit the camouflage of conflict to enlarge the powers of government. In our day, war is the most potent instrument in the tool kit of those who labor to build up a global imperium.

Like the ancient Romans, we cannot foresee where our growing appetite for overseas conflict will take us. No one can predict what Sullas, Pompeys and Caesars may arise or how long America's transition from republic to imperial ruin may take. But it will come to pass, unless we change our course.
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Title Annotation:The Last Word
Author:Bonta, Steve
Publication:The New American
Date:Jan 12, 2004
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