Uncertainties at the fringes of empire

It''s never been easy governing an empire. So many cultures, and so many problems of communication across distances, languages, and local efforts to evade dictates from the center.

Cyrus, the Persian emperor of the 6th century BCE, has an esteemed place in Jewish tradition, and helped to define the way of running an empire. He let the Jews of Babylon he conquered return home and reconstruct their Holy Temple.

Give the locals as much freedom as the needs of the empire could tolerate became the established norm. 

We all know that the Jews exceeded what Rome (which came after Greece that came after Persia) was able to tolerate, and the rest is history.

The American empire is where we currently are. Few of my American correspondents seem to have the intellectual distance from their local media to understand what I occasionally write about.

Nonetheless, I''ll try once again. No doubt I''m influenced here in the Peloponnese by all the ruins of what in its day was an empire no less extensive than what the US has today. Now the many ruins are beyond the capacity of the Greek government to restore and maintain.

The American empire is different in details (they all are) but similar in its dominance, distance from its far flung sense of what are its responsibilities, and unable to understand and to control all that it wishes.

It claims enlightenment at home, but that is little different from the claims of the Greeks, Romans, and British. Think of the American underclass and illegal immigrants as similar to the peons of the Greeks and Romans, and what Dickens described for 19th century Britain. The American poor may not be as miserable, objectively, as those earlier examples, but they are hardly closer to contemporaries who enjoy the opulence at the center of empire.

The US prefers pressure and influence overseas more than dictate, but can use a heavy hand when it feels the need.

For the sake of domestic consumption, it claims more success than it achieves, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has allies who recognize the benefits from its good will, like the countries of Western Europe and Israel, and bow in some degree to its demands rather than suffer what might be a very cold shoulder or even worse.

At times American ignorance of what exists and what is likely to result from their actions in their great sphere of influence is pathetic and destructive. However, the deaths of people foreign in culture and religion (equivalent to what the British called the wogs) do not amount to much in American politics. 

Israeli Jews derive from a long history of being underlings. In Jewish tradition none of the masters may have been as praiseworthy as Cyrus, but the Jews have done at times well and at times badly under their most recent masters headquartered in London and Washington. 

Jews'' three millennia of dependence has helped to generate a culture that is nuanced and disputatious, so some of us will put the emphasis on what was accomplished or what has been suffered under our most recent overlords, up to and including Barack Obama.

Israelis do not stand along with the Nobel Committee in its cheers for his Cairo speech. The arrogance and foolishness of preaching democracy to Egyptians in their capital was little different from George W. Bush''s aspirations to bring democracy to Iraq via the American military. With all the academic, think tank, and official expertise at the beck and call of the White House, the nonsense that occasionally comes from on high is worthy of wonderment.

So far many fewer Egyptians than Iraqis have died as a result of American initiatives. Insofar as Syria might also have begun its chaotic revolution at least partly in response to American aspirations, some 70,000 deaths and several hundred thousand refugees belong somewhere in the record of imperial accomplishments.

It''s the task of tiny Israel to accommodate itself to the American empire without jumping in agreement to every idea that comes out of Washington.  

Barack Obama''s recent visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Amman was nothing less than an imperial procession. Israel closed the entire road from the airport to Jerusalem for the convenience of his enormous entourage, even thought the President himself flew by an American helicopter brought to Israel for the purpose, along with numerous other items of heavy military capacity and who knows how many people for the protection and convenience of the President and those who accompanied him. Israeli media dealt with little else in the days preceding and during the time of the visit.

Us commoners do not know much about what was accomplished. The visit did manage to smooth things over between two of America''s dependents (Israel and Turkey) who had a nasty spell over an issue that was a long way from the imperial center but important to both those US allies. Washington explained its pressure as connected to the problem of Syria, important to Turkey, Israel and the US. Whether efforts of the three will actually advance a reasonable turn of events in Syria appears unlikely, but who are we to judge what those more worthy think they are doing? 

Likewise, we must forget any thoughts of certainty about who will do what with respect to Iran''s nuclear ambitions, and the mantra about a Palestinian state.

Life has always been uncertain on the fringes of empire. Jews may have learned more than most how to get the best and avoid the worst, but we''ve been at it for the better part of 3,000 years.