Why America Is Like Imperial Spain (Part I)
When it comes to the United States’ Afghan foray, why is it instructive to recall Don Quixote's futile quest?
January 13, 2011
1. A mighty empire pricked a people far away. They bled — and rebelled.
The Spain of Quixote was in 1568 a world empire — and the king’s holdings covered the globe. Its fleets and armies seemed to be everywhere. So, too, is the United States today. With 700 overseas bases, its military personnel are equally omnipresent.
Spanish world authority in the 16th century and that of the United States today are at the core challenged not by “peer competitors” — but by marginal non-state communities at the very rim of civilization itself. How did this happen?
Spain for its part faced insurgents in a place that had only recently become part of its realm, such as the northern provinces of the Netherlands. Areas like Friesland had always been fractious, and no big state had ever succeeded in taming them. Sound familiar?
The Netherlands had for so long been a menagerie of principalities with only the loosest governance. Spain took over and began to make something new — the essence of nation building. In addition, the Spanish effort was determinedly focused on a “whole of government” solution, with their Catholic Church franchise prefiguring the U.S. State Department’s heavy involvement in Afghanistan today.
But part of Spain’s nation building was also about making sure good governance had modern values. To the King of Spain, no Calvinist “Taliban” was civilized. He believed they must submit or die.
And die they did — as the king’s governor, the Duke of Alba, hanged and burned these heretics right and left. He did not use Predator drones and Reapers against the “bad guys,” but both his objectives and the outcome of his sanctions are eerily the same, if not as clean, as our light American death-touch today. The Duke of Alba was the David Petraeus of his day, as both are men of letters. Their elite sensibilities are the same, as is their helplessness before the passions of those they fight.
The Dutch and Walloons, Catholic and Calvinist alike, reviled Spain’s contemptuous counterinsurgency. The more Alba burned and hanged, the harder the insurgents fought back. Every town had its own militia — the very same reaction we faced in Iraq after 2003. Heretic communities began to think of themselves differently. No longer unquestioning subjects of the King of Spain, they created their own identity. They fought against foreign occupation — and from a motley people emerged a truly unifying purpose.
Worse yet, these were no ordinary armed insurgents — but also terrorists. Spain’s rulers called them heretics, destroyers of civilized life and sensibility. In the eyes of cosmopolitan Catholic civilization, the Calvinists were the Taliban of their day.
Like Spain in the Netherlands, we hijacked Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to deliver an army there 20 years after — also in the name of counterinsurgency.
2. The empire speaks: “Bring it on!”
Heretics were called out by the upholder of all that is civilized, the commander-in-chief himself, who lived and prayed in the greatest building in the world — El Escorial, the command center of Spain’s world power and position. It was the 16th century’s Pentagon, White House and Washington Cathedral — all melded into one wondrous building. Don Quixote never tilted at imperial windmills like these!
He — Spain’s POTUS — said, “You are either with us or against us. Bring it on.” The Dutch Taliban — now called Sea Beggars — were informed that they may accept civilized values, or they would be forced to submit. Or die.
As war resumed, the targeted killing escalated. In the Netherlands of the 1570s, this meant the sacking of captured towns. Like the Duke of Alba, we tried this too. Recall our sacking of Fallujah, where we left only one out of five buildings standing, leaving thousands of civilians dead in the rubble.
Now, we have moved onto the “cleaner” killing fields of targeted drone strikes. The result is still the same — as it was for Spain: In Dutch “Taliban” provinces, hunkered down and holding out, Alba’s indiscriminate murder of innocents only inflamed and intensified a passion and commitment to never give in — to fight to the end.
3. Surge! Victory but for terror sanctuaries!
So what did Spain’s commander-in-chief decider decide from his strategic perch in El Escorial? Surge. And surge again. And the surges worked. These were the 16th century’s “metrics” of success: Towns were taken back by the handful, and Dutch Taliban were again pressed close upon the sea. But the taking of towns meant less and less. Occupying embittered and enraged citizens while fighters fled only to strike another day — this was the depressing routine for the Spanish, fighting a war literally for nothing.
In the initial phase of Spain’s 16th century take on “The Long War” (to 1576), heretics were almost thrown into the sea, with Spain exulting while sucking air at the ragged edge of triumph (as we were after Tora Bora). But the piratical insurgents escaped across the Channel like Taliban taking refuge in Pakistan. However, instead of hiding in the mountains, the Beggars had the sanctuary of the sea — in England, no friend of Spain. The world power, distracted by other enemies, as we were after 2002, could only invade so many.
4. Evil others mean the specter of a wider war.
Other powers were watching and waiting. For 16th century Spain, it was France and the Ottomans — its two greatest rivals. Today in the 21st century, we Americans have China, Russia and Iran.
The Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Sultan even sent aid to the Dutch revolt. Why? Because the Islamic superpower of that era, the Ottoman Caliphate, saw the Dutch Taliban as kindred spirits. And how receptive were eager Calvinists for this lifeline! Sea Beggars even struck commemorative coins declaring “Better Turk than Papist!” Had not those heretics slaughtered monks and trashed the glories of sacred art across Europe?
Devilish terror took root in good Spanish Catholic hearts: “What can men do against such reckless hate?” To the rulers of Western Civilization, Calvinism was nothing less than imminent Euro-Islam. Like America threatened by the Ground Zero Mosque, Spain felt it must unleash its world power to halt an imminent threat to civilization.
But going further, the Sultan even offered troops to Dutch Taliban. How that would have changed the landscape of European history! But think also: France for 50 years had had the very tightest strategic alliance with the Sultan — united in their Hapsburg enmity. They were united by their hatred for Spain. How vulnerable was the superpower, especially when counterinsurgency only ate away at Spain’s power and authority.
But soon Spain’s Global War on Terror was sucked into bigger great power competition. The Dutch Taliban became part of the world struggle — in 1616, 4,000 Dutch Taliban landed in Venice to fight Hapsburgs in their own neighborhood. Insurgency had gone global.
Are not Saudi princes today still funding Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia? Do we not chafe at the quiet support of Iran or even China? If not yet in Spain’s strategic hole, would not our competition love to take a page from the Ottomans and French!
Editor’s Note: Part II of this feature will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.
Part of Spain's nation building was also about making sure good governance had modern values. To the King of Spain, no Calvinist "Taliban" was civilized.
Spanish world authority in the 16th century and that of the United States today are at the core challenged not by "peer competitors" — but by marginal non-state communities.
Like America threatened by the Ground Zero Mosque, Spain felt it must unleash its world power to halt an imminent threat to civilization.
Like Spain in the Netherlands, we hijacked Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to deliver an army there 20 years after.
Spain's POTUS said, "You are either with us or against us. Bring it on."