Palmyra, Syria

These days, it’s an almost irresistible temptation to believe that when the present incumbent finally rides his mountain bike off into the sunset in January, the world will be a better place merely by the fact of his absence. Amid the sinister twilight of the Bush years, such hopes are understandable. Looking at the blazing bodies of their comrades, used as torches to brighten up Nero’s royal banquets, the early Christians must certainly have rejoiced when he passed, little knowing that not so far over the horizon loomed Domitian and other emperors eager to add uplifting chapters to the Book of Martyrs.

Is it conceivable that Obama or Clinton or McCain could be as bad or worse than Bush?

Out in the desert some 200 miles east of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, the old oasis city of Palmyra looks at a glance like Las Vegas’s future–a couple of thousand years after the water finally ran out, and all that’s been excavated are some columns and broken statues from Caesars Palace, maybe the campanile from the Venetian Hotel and the sphinx in front of the Luxor Hotel south down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Early in the second century opportunity knocked for the Palmyrenes and they seized their chance. A shift in the political situation suddenly made Palmyra the safest route between Rome and Parthia for the desert caravans carrying textiles, spices and oils along the old Silk Road from China. The Emperor Trajan finished off Petra as an independent trade entrepôt, and that made him “good” in the eyes of Palmyrenes, just as he became very “bad” in the eyes of the merchants of Petra.

For nearly 300 years the good times rolled as Palmyra taxed the trade shipments. There’s a carved stele from 134 ad recording Palmyra’s specific excise duties on the silk, dyes, perfumes, ivory, precious stones, jade, slaves, prostitutes and gold coming through. Palmyra flourished. Stone for the new tetrapylon on Main Street? Let’s ship pink granite columns in from Aswan! Cemeteries? Stow the clan in a big tower that everyone can see on the way into town. The super-rich gladly ponied up the hefty fee for mummification. Palmyra’s special contribution to column design seems to have been a projecting ledge about halfway up where the tycoon paying for the column could put a nice bust of himself. Many of the statues were pre-carved on an island in the Sea of Marmara, shipped across the desert on ox carts like everything else and then chiseled into final resemblance on site. Bountiful were the animal sacrifices in the Temple of Bel, a vast complex personally rehabbed at staggering expense by Palmyra’s precursor to Donald Trump, Male Agrippa, who also footed the bill for a visit by the Emperor Hadrian.

Then, as quick as the ascent, came collapse. The power vacuum in Rome, seized to her advantage by Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia, had suddenly filled. The political situation changed farther east, in Persia. Was there anything specifically and personally “bad” about the Emperor Aurelian, who sacked Palmyra in 272? Not really, though the Palmyrenes no doubt thought so. He was just pushing ahead with the empire’s long-term policies.

The day I was in Palmyra the Emperor Bush II was in the Knesset giving his speech, a slab of rhetoric so ripe in its homage to Israel that the New York Times reprimanded him editorially for bad taste. In its immediate aftermath I had an opportunity to ask a member of the Syrian cabinet, Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, whether she thought the installation of a new US President in January would diminish the forebodings she had just been outlining with great passion–from the continuing human catastrophe in Iraq, to the horrors of Israel’s siege of Gaza, to the obvious US intent to provoke another terrible civil war in Lebanon. (For the record, Dr. Shaaban does not think a war with Iran is likely.) She didn’t hesitate to answer me by saying she envisaged no change if a candidate such as Barack Obama settles into the Oval Office.

The continuous policy of the United States is to divide and rule, she said–has been and will be for the foreseeable future–to fan schism and internecine bloodletting in the region, to set Arab against Arab, whether they be the communities of Lebanon or the Shia and Sunni in Iraq. Syria is paying a stiff price for the human catastrophe in Iraq, hosting nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees (Dr. Shaaban’s estimate), which is placing a huge drain on the country’s social services, as the US government is gleefully aware. While Dr. Shaaban was ridiculing Bush’s speech–a universal reaction among those I met–one member of the Times‘s extensive stable of neoconservative columnists, David Brooks, was fretting that a statement Obama had made after Bush’s Knesset speech did indeed constitute “appeasement,” indicating he had drifted off into “Noam Chomskyland.” Obama’s sin had been to say that “it’s time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus,” focusing on electoral reform, an end to a corrupt patronage system and the promotion of an equitable economy.

So anguished was Brooks by these dread prospects that he phoned Obama, who promptly furnished answers resoundingly mollifying the columnist’s suspicions. According to Brooks, Obama confided to him that “in some ways he’d be tougher than the Bush Administration,” doing more, to take one specific example, to arm the Lebanese military. (This schedules a bloodbath in Lebanon in Year One or Two of the Obama administration.) Obama’s bottom line to Brooks was straight-up Caesarism: “The [US] generals are light-years ahead of the civilians. They are trying to get the job done rather than look tough.”

Let our prayers be for incompetent emperors who talk tough but screw up.