Who is more powerful, the wind or the lion?

Image: Idriss Belhamadia
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By SALEM NASSER*

Allegory to understand the complex reality in the Middle East, in which the USA and Israel no longer enjoy undisputed capabilities

This is not the first time I find myself remembering a letter written by “Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers, Last of the Barbary Pirates” and sent to Theodore Roosevelt. The letter is fictional and appears in an epic 1975 film starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen.

Inspired by a true story, the script tells about a Moroccan Berber Chief who holds a Greek-American woman and her children as prisoners and demands the payment of a ransom by the Sultan of Morocco for their release; this puts him on a collision course with the US president.

The true story was the kidnapping of a Greek-American citizen, Mr. Perdicaris, and his stepson. This incident had a relevant influence on the presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt who, after having inherited the presidency from McKinley, was now running under his own name.

I do not recommend the film here nor do I invite you to watch it, despite considering it entertaining. I leave the decision up to you.

Nor do I intend to construct a critical assessment of the film. I will not try to determine how much it presents a favorable reading of imperialism or how intrinsically orientalist this cultural product is. These efforts may be worthwhile, but my purpose is more modest at this time.

I just want to play with some quotes and discuss the way they speak to my reading of current events and realities. The exchanges I have in mind take place when the film reaches its end.

First, as Roosevelt prepares to be introduced to his grizzly bear..., someone says in his ear: "The first reports are that we can do whatever we want in Morocco, sir... we can put whoever we want on the throne!" Then, in response to someone else's observation that “There is no doubt about the outcome of the election!”, Roosevelt responds: “Gentlemen, nothing in this world is certain, absolutely nothing: the fate of the nation will be decided by the American people in November ; and the fate of Morocco will be decided tomorrow, by me.”

Left alone, Roosevelt sits at the bear's feet and reads the letter that Raisuli had sent him: “You are like the wind and I like the lion. You form the storm. The sand burns my eyes and the ground is dry. I challenge you with my roar but you don't hear it. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must stay in my place. While you, like the wind, will never know yours.”

The first of the ideas I want to examine, briefly, is inspired by the film's argument: the rescue of an American lady and her children, through a show of military force, putting pressure on foreign governments, perfectly served the purpose of improving the political image internal message of a presidential candidate – and a serving president – ​​as it presented him as a savior of American citizens and a protector of their rights.

The second idea is this, which lit up in my mind one day and which now I can no longer remember where the inspiration came from: the freedom of some is based on the servitude of others.

Because, you see, the destiny of the American nation must be decided by its free citizens, in a so-called democratic system; but the fate of Morocco will be decided “tomorrow”, by the American president, one of the other ordinary tasks he must undertake. No democracy for Moroccans, no need for it.

But the idea that interests me most is the one contained in the image proposed by Raisuli in his letter, that of the wind and the lion. Who is more powerful, the wind or the lion?

If we talk about concrete reality, there should be no doubt: the wind can do what is not within the lion's power. But metaphors allow variations that escape the limits of the concrete.

In his letter, Raisuli uses the images of the wind and the lion to refer to the differences between him, as a mountain man, as a tribal leader, as a Berber, whose life depends on his relationship with the land, and Roosevelt, who would exercise his power over distant places, about which he knows little, but with the same lightness with which the wind would start a storm.

Raisuli, because he knew his place, knew who he was because of his connection to the land. Roosevelt, because he didn't know his place, couldn't know who he was. Would this be the consolation prize for the defeated: not having lost their identity, their soul?

One can also think of the comparison as concerning the relative power of nations and peoples, between the colonizer, who can project dominion over the geography of the entire globe, and the colonized, circumscribed and tied to his own piece of geography, but now unable to maintain possession of its own power when confronted with a much greater one: the lion roars but the wind doesn't even listen!

These seem to be the messages implied in the film or, at least, these may be the impressions one gets when watching it. Now, is the image of the imperial victory over the place still accurate? Or can the lion assert his power against the wind if conditions change?

For me, this question became central as I thought about the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and their consequences for American power... Of course, one can see parallels in the experience of Vietnam, for example, but I think the Effects on “wind” capabilities are now more profound.

In those two wars, the US won relatively easy initial victories, and over time could no longer sustain continued occupation due to low tolerance for high human and financial costs.

Now, as I write, the US and Israel are jointly experiencing the challenge of a war against Palestinian resistance in Gaza and a confrontation with Iran.

On the first of these fronts, a highly advanced military force, like Israel's, appears to have found the limits to its victories on the battlefield: it is very capable of killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, from a large distance, but as soon as he puts his boots on the ground for close combat, he bleeds more than he can handle.

On the second front, Iran presents itself as a much tougher opponent than Iraq and Afghanistan once were. And it has an arsenal of drones and missiles, the new big thing in military affairs and the old but renewed war asset. And technology is no longer the exclusive preserve of great imperial powers and their friends, and the same can be said about information collection and processing capabilities.

Both fronts tell us that now, if the wind wants to exert power in the lion's territory, it needs to be willing to bleed, profusely, and even then, most likely, it will be defeated and expelled. He will have to go blow somewhere else.

* Salem Nasser He is a professor at the Faculty of Law at FGV-SP. Author of, among other books, Global law: norms and their relationships (Alamedina) [https://amzn.to/3s3s64E]


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