Stoking the Fire

Mark Perry

Bitterlemons, February 8, 2007

Before Judas’ betrayal, the Lydian historian Pausanius tells us, there was Antenor’s ancient treason. Antenor was the soldier who convinced King Priam to open his city’s gates before his departed enemy. Antenor’s honey-tongued words of assurance have come down to us through the epics: of how a wooden horse was wheeled through Troy’s streets and garlanded with flowers in celebration of the Trojan victory. And how, while Priam slept, Greek warriors issued from the beast’s belly to slay Troy’s men, women and children. History tells us that not even Antenor, history’s first turncoat, was allowed to live. The Greeks broke their oath to spare him and his family, putting everyone to the sword. Only a few Trojans survived, repeating for our edification the lesson of Antenor’s betrayal: beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The reason such epics become classics, repeated through the ages, is because they speak to us even today. They become a part of our lore, their truths passed through the generations. They are inevitably stored as verbal nuggets and told to our children as parables. In the West we smile wryly at the great trick played by the Greeks on the Trojans, and shake our heads knowingly. “A tiger never changes its stripes,” we say. Scholars who spend their lives studying these things warn us of another truth: that classics become classics not simply because the truths they tell are universal, but because they are never truly learned. Betrayal is the mother’s milk of war. Every nation has its Antenor, every enemy clothes its hatred as a gift.

We Americans immodestly celebrate and tirelessly extol what we view as our own gift to the world. Democracy, the right of every people to determine their own leaders through free, fair and open elections, is (we say) a uniquely American export. Democracy is more important than the latest American fashion, more lasting than any Hollywood movie, more satisfying than a Big Mac. The liturgy of this particular faith has been a lodestone of American policy, from Washington to Wilson, from John Kennedy to Jimmy Carter. George Bush embraced this heritage, in May of 2005, when he characterized the 60 years of American engagement in the Arab world as 60 years of failure. To end this failure, Bush said, all that need be done is for the Arab world to accept our gift. Hold elections, he said. We Americans, he graciously added, might not always like the results, but we would accept them.

It was in the immediate aftermath of this surprisingly accurate and (as we suspect, Bush himself would now grudgingly admit) unfortunate statement that American diplomats urged the strong and meek alike to accept the gift of democracy as the panacea for our and your troubles. But nowhere was the gift expressed with greater urgency than among those territories occupied by Israel, where a free, fair and open election was promoted as a necessary precursor to statehood — as the right-as-rain path to peace. To reinforce our commitment, the American government forwarded millions of dollars to Fateh candidates, reinforced this flood of dollars with battalions of media advisors, party publicists and campaign experts. The results — the election of Hamas candidates into a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council and the appointment of a Hamas prime minister — were not what we expected, as Condoleezza Rice herself humbly admitted.

One year later, we — Americans as well as Palestinians — are struggling to understand the meaning of this election. American policymakers initially adjudged the vote not as a Hamas victory, but as a Fateh defeat. This standard rhetoric now finds its echo in Iraq, where victory might have been won if only (in turn), the Syrians, or the Maliki government or (now) the Iranians had cooperated. When that explanation proved hollow — it is not our fault, you see, but yours — we deployed an army of experts to lecture on the need for you to start from the ground up. Slowly. The Arab world is not ready for democracy, we say, because you (alas) have not built the foundations of a civil society. This ignores a salient moment in our own history, of course. It is what white racists once said to African-Americans: “you’re not smart enough to vote.” Sensing the futile injustice in this rhetoric we finally, inevitably, conditioned our acceptance of your democracy on three conditions: that you recognize your occupier, that you disarm, and that you adhere to all prior agreements that you made with those who indifferently honored them.

The price exacted on Palestinians by these conditions is now narrated every day. It is not simply that the world is haunted by images of stateless families in increasingly impoverished circumstances. It is that our gift of democracy is conditional. Our gift, brought groaning through your gates, has sprung open to reveal not peace — but piles of uniforms and caches of arms. And there too, standing nearby, a Palestinian Antenor, shoveling them out, with the sickly smile of the betrayer playing on his countenance. Deep injustice would be done if I were to compare the price that my society, American society, must pay for this craven injustice: it is not, after all, my children who are starving, who are sacrificing themselves in a fight for the future.

Even so, imagine my humiliation at this moment for my recognition of the truth that my nation must inevitably face. That given the choice of which was more important — democracy or arming those Antenors who burn your universities — my country chose to stoke the fire.

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