Getting Tied Down in Syria

Gulliver's Travels

The Middle East becomes more worrisome by the day with the recent massacre of Muslim Brotherhood followers, and my comparison last week of the situation to Moliere’s Tartuffe seems increasingly apt. Deposed president Mohamed Morsi really did repay the trust of the Egyptian electorate with Tartuffe-like greed and ingratitude. But the Egypitan military, which at first seemed to take on the role of Louis XIV in the play as it deposed Morsi, then proved as problematic as Louis XIV was in real life by opening fire on protesters. I don’t see things ending well.

While we are on the subject of Middle East chaos, blogger Andrew Sullivan posted the above illustration in a post on Syria. Given Sullivan’s fear that the United States will get drawn into a Syrian civil war, his allusion to Gulliver’s Travels is right on target. (Incidentally, Sullivan applied the same literary allusion in September 2009 to Afghanistan.)

The United States in this application is Gulliver, a well-meaning but gullible giant who wants to stay above the fray, even as the Lilliputians strive to pull him into their quarrels. Swift meant for the Big-endians and the Small-endians (so named for their fight over which end of the egg should be broken first) to stand in for the Catholics and the Protestants, but they could just as easily be Sunnis and Shiites. Whereas, in Gulliver’s Travels, Blefescu/France is supporting Lilliputian Big-endians/English Catholics, so in Syria we see Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah supporting Syrian Shiites while Qatar sends arms to support Syrian Sunnis. Cute though the Lilliputians and Blefescuans may seem from afar, Swift makes clear just how murderous they can be:

Now, the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the emperor of Blefuscu’s court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war has been carried on between the two empires for six-and-thirty moons, with various success; during which time we have lost forty capital ships, and a much a greater number of smaller vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best seamen and soldiers; and the damage received by the enemy is reckoned to be somewhat greater than ours. 

Gulliver injects himself into the fray when Blefescu threatens to invade Lilliput, and he captures the entire Blefescuan fleet. It appears to be a just cause, like that of the Syrian rebels that John McCain wants America to support now that Lebanon’s Hezbollah is sending in fighters. But McCain should note what happens following Gulliver’s intervention. Rather than being eternally grateful, Lilliput turns on Gulliver when he refuses to obliterate Blefescu altogether. Hero at one moment, he is regarded a traitor the next.

We can note likewise that the Afghani Taliban weren’t terribly grateful to the United States for our aid in the war against the Soviet Union. And Saddam Hussein didn’t send us flowers for helping him fight Iran.

What Andrew Sullivan fears is giant United States getting tied down in the Middle East, as Gulliver is tied down by the Lilliputians. Sullivan could add that, even when released, Gulliver is psychologically tied down by the Lilliputians, giving their concerns far more credence than they are worth.

In the end, Gulliver essentially says “a plague on both your houses” to the Lilliputians and Blefuscuans and leaves their shores. Sullivan is rooting for the United States to do something similar.

Additional note – I add one caveat to Sullivan’s sense that America is a gentle but naive giant. It can be a self serving characterization, as I learned during the Vietnam War when many saw the United States this way. Better to be gullible than murderous. Of course, it was easier for Americans to have this view of themselves than it was for the Vietnamese or, today, for the innocent victims of drone strikes.

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