Divisions within the Bush administration are starting to remind us of the movie, “Gladiator.”

As in the movie, the New York Times reports that two camps are emerging within the Bush administration. There are those around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his assistant Paul Wolfowitz, who want a more war-like policy. They want to overthrow Saddam Hussein and otherwise re-ignite Cold War/Clintonian belligerency.

Absurdly, the Times identifies this position as “ideologically conservative.” How can a policy originated and carried out by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson be so described? All these people favored big government at home and abroad. Last I checked, moreover, the Times attacked foreign-policy isolationism as intolerably right wing. Maybe it’s asking too much to expect philosophical consistency from a newspaper. But in that case, it should stop playing “let’s pretend.”

On the other side, meanwhile, stands Secretary of State Colin Powell and his colleagues, who are urging a relaxation of sanctions against Iraq and an outright repeal of most other sanctions. They are free traders, cautious about military intervention and generally aware that the world has changed since the Cold War and so should U.S. foreign policy. The U.S., they believe, needs to work toward fostering peace rather than settling scores.

What we need, this camp believes, is more of what George W. Bush calls “humility” in our dealings with the world. Powell wants discussions with North Korea, and trade with China and Russia. He wants no new wars, and seeks to foster peace with any country open to us. In other words, he wants to repudiate the legacy of Clintonian foreign policy, which was imperial in every respect.

George Bush’s closest adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has yet to take sides.

Who will win this battle? What are the stakes?

Consider the movie version. In Rome, like the U.S. today, there were two broad political camps: those who love the empire and want to see it expanded (portrayed by Commodus loyalists like Senator Falco), and those who want to restore the republic (like Senator Gracchus and General Maximus).

Commodus is a dictator who hopes to abolish all institutional restraints, starting with the Senate. He knows best the needs of his people, he claims, and the Senate is obstructionist. He pretends to want to be a patriot, but with his incessant spending, taxing (in a scene edited out), conniving, self-worshiping ceremonialism, and gladiatorial games, he is merely distracting the people while he rips them off.

Commodus’ goal is the consolidation of personal power, an impulse portrayed in the film as a pathology. He kills those who stand in his way. He is fighting not only against fiscal sanity and the republican form of government. He is battling the heart and soul of Rome itself, which at this stage is a mere imitation of its republican self.

The center of the opposition is Senator Gracchus, a born politician, not particularly principled but loyal to his calling as an aristocrat, and sympathetic to tradition (like Bush?). Noticing that the gladiator, former General Maximus, is extremely popular with the crowds and sure that Commodus is growing more despotic by the day, he seeks his help in tossing out Commodus.

But the senator has one worry: If Maximus is the victor in this struggle, will he announce himself as the new dictator. Maximus assures him that he will return power to the Senate to restore the republic, and then return to his farm, in imitation of the republican hero, Cincinnatus.

General Maximus and Senator Gracchus wait for that crucial moment when Commodus’ enemies outnumber his friends. As
Myles Kantor points out, it is at this point, having lost a majority of popular support, that a government can no longer carry on a policy of imperial exploitation and despotism. The ruler loses credibility. In the film, Commodus’ own Praetorian Guard refuses to save him during a fight in the Colosseum. The government falls.

The crucial question today is whether the weight of public opinion supports the despotic imperialism of Rumsfeld (Commodus) or the humane caution of Powell (Gracchus and/or Maximus). Actually, this is clearer than ever. Foreign policy played virtually no part in the election. Worried about impending recession and tending to domestic issues, the public has no taste for Rumsfeldian international maneuvers. Powell, meanwhile, is an enormously popular figure, which is the main source of his influence.

A senior administration official told the New York Times, “At some point the president is going to have to decide what foreign policy he wants, because he is not going to get consistent options on many issues.” But everything we know about Bush so far suggests that his heart is with Powell and those who want peace more than war. The trouble is that the war party has undue influence in Washington, as always.

Powell, a capable man, can fend for himself in these battles. But for the decisive victory against those who would prop up big government through imperial adventures, he needs Bush to weigh in right now.

A final note on the film itself. Rarely has the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture dealt so well with the subject of politics. Most strikingly, “Gladiator” contains no discernible political correctness, a major reason for its charm. “Titanic,” the 1999 winner, was laced with left-wing assaults on aristocracy, family, chastity and capitalism (it blamed the latter for the greed that allegedly sank the boat). “American Beauty,” last year’s victor, attempted to expose the suburbs as a cesspool of psycho-sexual pathology.

But in “Gladiator,” there are no sermons about diversity, no attacks on bourgeois values, and no casual Marxist claptrap. Instead, the film shows us the extent to which the ancient world is very much like our own in its underlying reality. The issues are the same always and everywhere: freedom from, or slavery under, government. Above all, it shows us how a regime, even one that uses welfare and warfare to lull the public into indifference, can lose power.

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