Saturday, January 08, 2005

Suppliants: Aeschylus, foreign policy and tsunami relief

Proximity to the sea opens people to a number of disasters, not all of them of the natural variety. The first dramatic tragedy begins with the ocean: In Aeschylus's Suppliants, fifty women arrive with their father Danaus at the seaport of Argos. These women, the infamous Danaids, ask the king of Argos to protect them from the fifty sons of Aegyptus, but initially he seems reluctant to offer the city's assistance.

The women promptly accuse the king and his city of apathy and cruelty. They believe strongly, almost fanatically, that justice is on their side (although the king finds their claim potentially dubious), and they state that if their request for asylum is denied, Zeus will wreak havoc:

Have heed of him who looketh from on high,
The guard of woeful mortals, whosoe'er
Unto their fellows cry,
And find no pity, find no justice there.
Abiding in his wrath, the suppliants' lord
Doth smite, unmoved by cries, unbent by prayerful word.

These words must sound familiar to anyone who's read a newspaper over the past several days: They might serve as the model for all the left-wing boilerplate criticisms of America, made after tsunamis recently struck Indonesia. Columnists and leaders have claimed that America has been slow to respond and stingy with aid. President Bush waited three days to proffer his sympathies to the nation, and the initial promise of $35 million in aid seemed embarrassingly small. Surely we, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, had an obligation to lead relief efforts (as, it turns out, we were doing). After all, we spent billions of dollars this summer, when our shores were hit by hurricanes. Yet so far our government has pledged only a few hundred million to the beleaguered tsunami victims. Perhaps, said some, America is basically indifferent to the plight of others, especially if they happen to be brownish Muslims on the other side of the world.

Whatever his faults, Aeschylus's beleaguered statesman knows how to respond to such criticism, including veiled threats of divine retribution. Even though the man desires to grant the suppliants' request -- and would promptly do so, if he were simply acting on his own -- he realizes that as a leader in charge of the city's resources, he has other interests to consider and other people to consult:

Not at my private hearth ye sit and sue;
And if the city bear a common stain,
Be it the common toil to cleanse the same:
Therefore no pledge, no promise will I give,
Ere counsel with the commonwealth be held.

The Danaids don't comprehend this statement, which sets up a major conflict in The Suppliants. The suppliant women argue from the perspective of authoritarian government, where everything depends on the word of one man, while the king supports an embyronic republican principle, in which people are given power to determine the actions of their government.

He does this, in part, because he suspects the decision may come with a hefty price:

Already I have vowed it, to do nought
Save after counsel with my people taken,
King though I be; that never in after time,
If ill fate chance, my people then may say,
"In aid of strangers thou the State hast slain."

Aeschylus's audience well knew that the people of Argos would soon make this very claim. Even though the people agree to shelter the suppliants, the offer of protection fails; Aegyptus takes the city and force the Danaids to marry his sons; and in a final, horrifying climax, all but one of the women murder their husbands on the wedding night. The Suppliants doesn't cover this part of the story, however. It's the first installment in an Oresteia-type trilogy, and the other plays in the series are no longer extant. From our contemporary perspective, what matters most isn't the consequence of the king's decision, but the reason behind it. Since the king knows that an official offer of protection will affect the citizens of his polis, he rules that they should have a say in the matter.

This then-radical notion of democratic self-determination may make Argos a weak king, but he's still a good role model for our own George W. Bush. As with Argos, Bush's decisions regarding foreign policy -- including tsunami relief -- have an obvious effect on the American people as well. With a national debt stretched almost to the breaking point, an overtaxed military, and a budget freighted with entitlements, it's obvious that every resource devoted to Indonesia must come from somewhere. Even when such expenditures are, like tsunami relief, in the interests of justice and humanity, elected representatives of the people should still have an opportunity to vote on them. Since they haven't yet had the chance, the aid our government has provided so far is in violation of our basic governmental principles. In keeping with Aeschylus's king, perhaps our government should be even stingier with our aid to the tsunami victims -- at least until Congress can set boundaries on what we offer and how much.

Then again, Bush has a pattern of bypassing the vital process of Congressional approval, most notably in the current Iraqi conflict. Now the action against Hussein was justifiable on two well-documented grounds -- Hussein's support of global terrorism and his obstruction of UN weapons inspections-- and Congress might have authorized a declaration of war on those terms alone. The case that Hussein might possess weapons of mass destruction was always the weakest and most speculative of Bush's many arguments for the conflict, but an analysis of Bush's speeches prior to the conflict indicates that it wasn't the only reason he gave, or even the primary one. But even though the action was justifiable, the procedure behind it was not. By evading the process of an actual Congressional vote until the conflict was already begun, Bush opened himself to the very charge that haunts Aeschylus's tragic statesman: "In aiding others, thou the State has slain."

Whatever else we may say about the king of Argos, we know he has not acted capriciously: He ensures that the citizens share the responsibility of making vital decisions, just as they share in the consequences of those decisions. In contrast, our own President seems not to consult Congress in a foreign-policy matter until the deed is done. Perhaps he could learn a thing or two from Aechylus, that most political of ancient Greek dramatists.

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