Something that never ceases to amaze is how things rarely change, at least on the grandest of scales. It's a clich? among clich?s but history does repeat itself.
An American president who takes unilateral military action against a rogue entity after failing to convince the European powers to sign on to a "coalition of the willing"? An American-led invasion of Arab territory with a slightly force eventually prevailing? Sneers across "old Europe" and badly damaged trans-Atlantic relations?
Never mind George W and Iraq. I'm talking here about President Thomas Jefferson in the early years of the 19th century. At that time, American merchant shipping on the Mediterranean Sea was in constant danger of being burnt to the waterline by the pirates of North Africa, the so-called Barbary Coast. US sailors were taken as slaves, something that offended the white elite of the day, most of whom, including Jefferson kept legions of abducted Africans to enrich them on their cotton plantations.
Britannia ruled the waves in those days, and was at war with France. But London, Paris and other European capitals were paying off the Barbary pirates to both ignore their merchant shipping and to enter into dubious alliances against each other in the latest version of perpetual Continental war.
Ever the idealist, Jefferson rejected this as immoral and short-termist and suggested European maritime powers join him in dealing with the pirates. With a superior sniff, Europe declined and Jefferson ordered first the Navy, then the US marines into action. In 1804, an American marine lieutenant lead a 600-mile march from Alexandria in Egypt to what is now Libya. "To the shores of Tripoli" is the famous phrase in the Marine Corps theme song. Thus began for America a long and frequently troubled history of involvement in the various crises of the Islamic world. By the way, the US intervention eventually succeeded-in 1815-but the pirates soon came back to plunder ships that flew the Stars and Stripes.
Then there's the deeply troubling situation in Serbia. The Balkans are living proof of the importance of history. Events there recycle themselves with nasty regularity. Yet outside powers rarely learn from past folly. Who cannot read about the assassination of Zoran Djindic, the pro-Western Prime Minister of Serbia, redolent as it is of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the spark that touched off World War I. It's not so much that another European conflagration on that scale looms now; it's that Serbia was where the West last attempted to impose liberal democracy on an apparently unwilling society, a people to whom the past is more important than the future.
There's not much to compare between Gavial Prinzip, the Serbian nationalist whose "shot heard round the world" killed Archduke Ferdinand, and the gangsters who evidently murdered Prime Minister Djindic, but both spurn what is widely assumed to be reality, and the modern age. Both yearn for the battlefields of the past. Both take individual actions that plunge whole societies into turmoil. Nothing since 1914 has lessened the Balkans' propensity to set off larger fires.
Finally, in a doom-laden week, I look with eerie feelings of vicarious deja vu on the latest mystery disease that's spreading panic outward from East Asia. As I write, there are at least 100 cases and several deaths being blamed on a new flu from Hong Kong or Shanghai. Long haul jet aircrafts have helped spread this as far afield as Canada, Slovenia and Germany. There is no cure. Yet I can't help but wonder if the real disease isn't good old Orientialism, the belief that exotica, mystery and horror all come from east of Suez, as Rudyard Kipling might have put it. In this case, the latter, a horrible disease, the latest in a long line of flu's from the east. In fact the world's worst influenza outbreak of all time, between 1918 and 1920, came from Spain, not quite the Orient but in those days a country of almost feudal health and social standards. An Orient for the times, if you will.
As George W Bush, Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar of newly modern Spain face down the Babylonian Barbary pirate, Saddam Hussein, spare a moment for history, and think on how little has changed. Even if the "coalition of the willing" ignores the past at their peril.