An old Vulcan proverb advises us that only Sulla could march on Rome. This proverb may contradict another ancient proverb that claims that all roads lead to Rome. This seeming contradiction is resolved when you include little used roads, off the beaten track, the roads not taken. Sherlock Holmes once chided John A. Watson, M.D., saying, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Some roads to Rome are impossible, leading to the insurmountable. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix took a road that, while thought impossible, proved to be merely improbable.
Sulla, consul of Rome for the year 88 B.C., was in camp preparing to take his army east to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Two envoys arrived to tell him that his command had been taken away by the vote of one of the people’s assemblies in Rome. These envoys of the Roman people expected that Sulla would do the only thing possible: lie down there, obedient to their commands, as every Roman army commander before him had done. Unfortunately, what they thought was impossible was only improbable.
Sulla gathered his men, announced what the will of the Roman people was, and asked them what the will of the army was. Sulla’s soldiers answered by stoning the envoys of the Roman people to death, much to the surprise of the envoys of the people. Sulla’s soldiers then petitioned Sulla to take an impossible road, a road never taken, and lead them to Rome to reclaim his Mithridatic command. Sulla, much to the surprise of his own officers, who thought such a course impossible, decided to heed his men and march on Rome. His officers resigned en masse except a happy few. But the poor bloody legionaries of Sulla’s army eagerly began the march on Rome.
Envoys from Rome streamed towards Sulla’s army as it marched north.These envoys were shocked and grew increasingly shocked as they protested to Sulla that surely, surely it was impossible that he wanted to march a Roman army through the city limits and into Rome itself. The law forbade it. The unwritten constitution forbade it. The Republic forbade it. The gods forbade it.
Sulla responded to the effect of, “Go tell the Romans that I don’t lie here obedient to their commands. I’m coming to Rome and hell’s coming with me.” The tone of these envoys’ entreaties and the mood of the people of Rome grew increasingly hysterical as the improbable dawned on them: not only could a Roman army commander march an army on Rome, it was increasingly probable that Sulla would march armed Roman legionaries right into the heart of Rome itself to deal with his political enemies. Indeed, Sulla led his men across the sacred pomerium that divided the “public thing” (res publica) of sacred Roma herself from land that was merely the property of Rome. Sulla’s veteran legionaries easily dispatched the hastily gathered mob of gladiators and other ruffians that his political opponents had thrown together at the last moment in a futile attempt to stop them.
Sulla had revealed that the impossible was merely the improbable.
Sulla spent the rest of his life trying to disguise this state of improbability as a mere state of impossibility.
Every ambitious Roman on the make now had the shining star of Sulla’s example before them. Its light clearly revealed what was truly impossible and what was merely improbable. Rubicons could be crossed, die could be cast, and you could come, see, and conquer. The Republic was revealed as only a state of mindm no more real than unicorns or pixie dust if you had enough power to safely ignore it and not believe in it. Over the years, Sulla’s improbability became more and more probable. In the years and centuries ahead, it became not only probable but routine for Roman commanders to march their armies on Rome.
Sulla’s example illuminates an important distinction between what is possible and what is probable. Man is absolutely constrained by the impossible. He is only hindered by the improbable. Power is possibility. There is no power in the impossible. Politics, as the division of power, is the division of the possible and, therefore, the division of the probable.
Power encompasses four states of possibility:
- the truly impossible
- intrinsic or raw power, all that is possible in theory, however improbable
- available power, all the raw possibility that could be readily exploited
- elective power, the possibility that actually gets exploited
However, these boundaries are dynamic. They shift, sometimes suddenly and violently. Many changes in history happen when one man perceives that the line between the four has shifted in his favor. He hears the Lord of Hosts marching through history and, in the footfalls of almighty God, he hears that what was truly impossible has become intrinsically, if not readily, possible. What was available only in hypothetical rawness has become a real possibility that can be seized. Events are in continual ferment, with possibilities constantly boiling up or vanishing away. Politics is about perceiving and seizing such possibilities, converting them into concrete opportunities, and exploiting opportunity to shift the division of power in your favor.
Control, the shifting of uncertain possibility into certain opportunity, is usually a trial by attrition, a game of inches in which progress is measured in the accumulation of tiny asymmetries of power in your favor. However, sometimes history jumps. Change happens, for good or for ill, in miles or even light years instead of inches. A political realist is often nothing of the sort. His realism is merely a veneer disguising a romantic attachment to the political status quo. He mistakes the current division of power for permanence and transient political stability as eternity. He is deaf to the footfalls of God.
Nonstop, possibilities are building up a pile of opportunities, ripe for exploitation. Often this piling passes unnoticed by the Powers That Are in the dark reaches of the political marketplace. This accumulation may fall, drip by drip, into the hands of those who use it to increase their division of power inch by inch. However, in a Protean moment, the entire pile may fall into the hands of a special someone who uses it to change the division of power utterly and forever. The camp of Sulla saw such a moment in 88 B.C. The United States of America has seen two such moments in the past decade, one in the six months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and one in the six months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 13, 2008.
The men on the scene with the rifle, in the former case President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld, and in the latter case Bush (again), Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Benjamin S. Bernanke, President of the New York Federal Reserve and later Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner, President of the Council of Economic Advisors Lawrence J. Summers, and President Barack H. Obama, seized some of the potential for radical shifts in power but left other chips on the table. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were much more radical after September 11, 2001 than everyone after September 13, 2008 was, (with the partial exception of Benjamin S. Bernanke).
Assistant Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage was able to call up the government of Pakistan and threaten to bomb them back to the Stone Age if they didn’t assist the United States in taking down Pakistan’s Taliban clients in Afghanistan. The Protean nature of the moment, when fresh smoke was rising from the ashes of New York City, a wing of the Pentagon was clipped, and there seemed to be a swarthy jihadi behind every stray shadow, gave Armitage’s threat the force of a thunder-clap from heaven. The United States was in shock. The scope and target of its enraged population was in flux. A recalcitrant Pakistan was vulnerable.
It is both improbable and highly unnatural for an insular power to reach deep into the Eurasian heartland with military force. However, that unnatural improbability comes with a giant asterisk: the sample size of insular powers in modern times is limited to three political entities:
the Empire of Japan, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Northern Ireland, and the United States of America. And there is something deeply improbable and unnatural about the members of that sample.
Picture Charles Stuart. In 1641, he found himself the bankrupt king of a small archipelago off the coast of an obscure Eurasian peninsular backwater, a lord and master who couldn’t even muster the resources to subdue the rebellious Celtic fringes of his own domain. Could Charles Stuart have imagined that a mere century later, Robert Clive, a clerk drawn from the ranks of the English petty gentry, would lead what was not even an English army but an army raised by a mere English trading company in the conquest of large parts of India. If you’d told Charles Stuart that his son would inherit an obscure trading post in distant India through marriage to the daughter of the King of Portugal would lead his tiny island to contest the heartland of Scythia with Muscovy in a great game, you’d forgive Charles for having you carried off to Bethlem Royal Hospital as a dangerous madman.
Picture Iwakura Tomomi. In 1867, Iwakura found himself in a Japan that was not only in turmoil after the 300 year old Tokugawa shogunate had been toppled in favor of the Meiji Emperor, but had just found out that its power was dangerously inferior to the power of the gaijin from the distant West. So inferior that Japan would be fortunate to avoided becoming a colony of those gaijin, picked slowly to death, piece by piece, like neighboring China. Could Iwakura, as he led a Japanese delegation overseas to see the technological wonders of the West, have foreseen that within forty years Japan would defeat China. Within fifty it would conquer Korea after defeating the gaijin with their own technology. Within seventy it would conquer large swaths of China and find itself contesting the heartland of Mongolia with godless Muscovites. Within eighty, it would cause its insular predecessor so much grief that Britain would abandon its long own contest with Muscovy for the heartland.
Picture Alexander Hamilton. In 1805, as he lay dying at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr, could Hamilton have credibly groaned to his seconds, echoing Romulus, “Go, and tell the
Romans Americans that by heaven’s will my Rome America shall be capital of the world. Let them learn to be soldiers. Let them know, and teach their children, that no power on earth can stand against Roman American arms. He’d come close to saying it in Federalist 11:
I shall briefly observe, that our situation invites, and our interests prompt us, to aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs. The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe by her arms and by her negociations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America have successively felt her domination. The superiority, she has long maintained, has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority; and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America–that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed a while in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the controul of all trans-atlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!
Could even Hamilton, in his most expansive of visionary moments, have foreseen an America that within a century of his fatal duel would intervene in the rimlands of Eurasia. Within 140 years of Hamilton’s death, European greatness and the connection of the Old World to the New to the level found between master and possession. America would find itself waging a great game over the heartlands of Germania, Sarmatia, and even Bactria with godless Muscovy. It would be the insular power to end all insular powers, pretty much ended the insular power of its two modern predecessors in a four-year period from 1941-1945.
Based on this narrow sample, the modern period provides only this pale notion as a lesson to insular powers: no insular power has ever been removed from the heartland except by an insular power. In the Protean moment of 2001, recalcitrant Pakistan could have found itself Rajed, both by the full might of angry America and by the bulk of the Raj itself, the Republic of India. There would be no wickedness in ripping the Punjab from the Northwest Frontier or partitioning Baluchistan from Kashmir. The closest you would come to discovering that you had sinned in your efforts is when you found yourself in Sind. It is no sin to further tear what Louis “Chainsaw” Mountbatten has so rudely torn already. It was not impossible for the United States to have found itself in full occupation of a land route from Karachi up through the Khyber Pass and into Kabul.
The available power was there. The available possibility was there. But Pervez Musharraf wisely decided to play for time by acceding to Armitage’s ultimatum while making preparations for the day when American rage passed its culminating point and its elective power to destroy the Pakistani state was worn down by attrition to merely available power and probability or, better yet, merely raw power and raw probability. The time Mushareff played for came and what was possible in October 2001 became unthinkable in October of 2011.
But the unthinkable is not necessarily impossible. It is often only improbability and then improbable only because of your current state of mind. The fundamental strategic dilemma in Afghanistan, the reliance on a double-dealing Pakistani state who accedes enough to American demands to keep the aid money flowing while priming its extremist pipeline with enough jihadis to wear down American willpower, could be dismissed in a stroke. Seizing the Indian Ocean ports of Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan or the port of Chah Bahar in southeastern Iran and using them to anchor a land route from the sea into Afghanistan and points north. The land route from Chah Bahar has the advantage of passing through relatively flat desert terrain. Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires if you approach it from the south, the north, or the west. If you approach it from the west, its East Persia, as it’s been for most of its recorded history.
It is well within the intrinsic and available power of the United States to acquire its own mini-Raj in Baluchistan and open a passage to the furthest bowels of the Eurasian heartland. However, it is not in the elective power of the United States to do so. While the mini-Raj is not resource-constrained, it is choice-constrained. The political balance of power within the United States and without the United States make the choice of American Baluchistan impossible. However, they do not make that choice impossible for all time and under all circumstances, only improbable at this time and under these circumstances. Given a Protean moment complicit with Pakistan, the possibility of America’s own Baluchi mini-Raj becomes not only distinctly possible but distinctly probable.
Many observers will complain that America is fiscally constrained by its massive national and private debt, a burden made even worse by the second Protean moment of September 13, 2008. However, like the forces that prevent the creation of American Baluchistan, this constraint is an elective constraint, not an intrinsic or availability constraint. The United States is currently fiscally and monetarily constrained because it chooses to be fiscally and monetarily constrained. The available or raw power of the United States of America on September 30, 2011 is no more constrained by the debts of September 30, 2011 than the armies of France on September 2o, 1792 or the Grand Armee of October 14, 1806 were constrained by the debt owned by Louis XVI on May 5, 1789. Its elective power is and that only so long as the division of power within the United States enables it to be constrained. The men on the scene with the rifle on September 11, 2001 and September 13, 20o8 were fundamentally conservative. The pomerium and mos maiorum that electively constrains American interactions with itself and other political communities exercised more power over the minds of those men than the temptations that a Protean moment has offered to political actors. Well did John Maynard Keynes observe:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
But the possibilities of the crisis that were left untouched by the men of 2001 and the men of 2008 are still building. Their undergrowth was never decisively cleaned out in the aftermath of the Protean moments. They remain kindling, awaiting the even more explosive conflagration of the next Protean moment to burst into flames. In that Protean moment, the elective choices that seemed like hard constraints on power in a non-Protean moment will be revealed for what they truly are:
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
– Ecclesiastes 1:14
The bonfire of our particular vanity of vanities, stoked by the fuel of pent-up possibility, will beckon the man who finds himself on the scene with his rifle with its brightness and promise. At the conjunction of possibility and opportunity, the temptation for realist man to become unreal Protean man is strong. If he grasps the flame, the old mos maiorum can be swept away as the Protean man choses to join Sulla on his road less travelled, marching from Lucius Cornelius Sulla, rightfully elected consul for the year 88 B.C., towards Gaius Octavius Thurinus, reborn as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, princeps and imperator. The chains of imagination will be cast off and the human imagination will soar free of its constraints. It may find the real outer limits of its power at the crossing of the Berezina, the banks of the Marne, or within inches of the Volga at Stalingrad. Or it may find a new equilibrium, unstable by the antiquarian lights of the old mos maiorum but stable under new rules lit by a sinister new star of destiny.
Men of the moment will cling to the conventional truths of the moment, such as the quaint notion that the budgeting of a sovereign power is analogous to that of a household, that weak developing nations can be demanding creditors of such a power under any and all circumstances, that debt is an eternal commitment instead of an at will alliance of convenience, subject to review, and that dirty tribesmen armed with AK-47s can defeat the long reach of an insular yet continental empire. Whether the choice to run a nation on a household budget, be constrained by obligations to third-world nations, maintain a death grip on your bonds till death do you part, or fight in distant lands is right or wrong is a separate question from whether the alternatives to those choices are absolutely impossible.
The United States of America can make make any choice it wants to on those and other questions. But in making those choices it should be entirely clear on the difference of what it can do and what it may do, what is a necessity and what is a luxury, what is desirable and what is undesirable, and what is truly impossible to do and what is merely improbable to do.