My Turn: Shakespeare, Iraq and Sen. Biden

It's time for America to relinquish power, support a decentralized Iraq

Posted: Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I have had William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" on my mind a lot lately after seeing Theatre in the Rough's compelling production last month.

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Behind the play's simple plot, about a magician who finds redemption in forgiving his enemies and relinquishing his power, stands a complex political situation that has something to tell us about history, political action and, just maybe, about our predicament in Iraq.

Shakespeare's protagonist, Prospero, is the former Duke of Milan, whose rule 12 years earlier was usurped by his brother, Antonio. Because of Prospero's popularity, Antonio could depose him only by enlisting the aid of Alonso, the king of neighboring Naples. Alonso agrees to help, but on condition that Antonio subjugate Milan to Naples. So, in exchange for local rule, Antonio sacrifices Milan's political autonomy.

This is the political situation at the heart of the play: Milan has lost its independence. But the political arrangement projected by the play's happy ending does nothing to change it. Prospero regains his dukedom, but in the process betroths his daughter (the future duchess of Milan) to the future king of Naples. The marriage thus ensures Milan will never regain its independence. Instead, the political situation, like sex, will be legitimated by marriage.

Prospero upbraids the unwed couple for getting too amorous before the wedding, but what's the physical difference between sex before and after marriage? (I can hear some young wag out there retorting that the former is more fun.) Marriage just puts a "legal" face on sex, as on Milan's subjugation, and thus "legitimates" any offspring.

It's all about legitimacy. Prospero knows not to try vainly to undo history. Rather, he works to put a bad situation in a light that makes it seem right. The legitimacy conferred by the marriage is further promoted by Prospero's giving up his magic, a power that - and Shakespeare emphasizes this - represents another kind of illegitimate political control. Prospero sacrifices his control over the present to legitimate the past, so that what comes of it - the future - may bear some mark of rectitude.

Having ousted Saddam Hussein by war and occupation - actions whose illegitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis now threatens catastrophic results - how do we now legitimate our violent disruption of Iraqi society? How do we promote the rule of law and create a more auspicious future for Iraqis?

The rule of law requires all parties to acknowledge the legitimacy of that rule. Trying to impose it in Iraq by increasing our military presence - the rule by force that Iraqis rightly refuse to acknowledge - would be like trying to achieve abstinence by having more sex. It's more exciting maybe, but it's not going to get you there.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations have developed a plan that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can all perceive as legitimate. Their plan begins with a scheduled withdrawal of American troops by 2008. Like Prospero, we first have to relinquish what power, or illusion of power, we have over our enemies. Bush's proposal to send more troops will surely aggravate the problem.

In the Biden-Gelb plan, the time between now and the withdrawal of troops would see a major diplomatic effort to create a decentralized Iraq where Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds share the power (and the national oil profits) and other oil-rich Arab states help increase economic aid to Iraq (aid that would be dependent on minority rights and other social and economic equities). Equal power, equal profits and equal prosperity are all good indicators of "legitimacy."

I don't know what kind of president Biden would make. It's almost beside the point, except that as president he would have a better chance of effecting his plan. But Biden's campaign has one favorable sign. As yet, he isn't attended by the kind of hype surrounding Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Biden's not a sexy candidate for the media; he won't get much attention. But for an election that's about thoughtful solutions to substantial problems, rather than personalities and verbal gaffes - one we can all view as legitimate - maybe Biden deserves a chance.

• Jim Hale is a former Shakespeare professor who lives in Juneau.

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