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Memo to Trump: Can’t We Learn from the Roman Model?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

While the world is focused on the upcoming meeting between President Trump and dictator, Kim Jung Un, attention on what Iran, North Korea’s closest ally, is doing is absent from the front-page news coverage.  Count me among those who were appalled by the eight years of the Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement model peddled around the globe by the Obama administration. President Trump, we are greatly heartened by your total reversal of such a failed approach to foreign policy. But can we please have a more serious and consistent approach to the Middle East and especially now in Syria?


 Time is running out before a much larger Middle East conflict begins in Syria, starting with an outbreak in hostilities between Iran, its clients, and Israel. Yes, the civil war in Syria is winding down with most of the ISIS-held territory liberated.  Kudos to you and your national security team. You quietly removed the Obama restrictive rules of engagement.  And our military with its coalition partners got the job done.  

But Iran’s elite fighting force, its Revolutionary Guard Corps, have switched their primary mission from preventing the collapse the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to that of preparing for an attack on Israel.  Mr. President, my suggestion is, before we abandon Syria, we should consider the Roman model which allowed a single ancient city state to forge a vast “empire of the willing.” In my book, Lessons from Fallen Civilizations, Vol. 2, I write:

By the time Scipio defeated the Carthaginians in Spain (219 BC), he was able to

implement what became a highly evolved form of diplomacy which historians now refer to as “Roman patronage.” Rome’s patron/client system was the glue that initially tied the various city states in Italy to their Roman overlords, but eventually tied all its conquered peoples together. It was a system for assimilating new subjects very rapidly and eliciting from them almost instant loyalty. The importance of the system defies exaggeration when we stop to consider that, minus the strength of Rome’s Italian confederation, Hannibal would have surely destroyed Rome.”


The Roman patronage system worked as follows - a commanding Roman general became the patron of a newly conquered people. He became their advocate upon his return to Rome. As their patron, he would use his power to advocate for them to ensure that they would get equal protection under Roman law, opportunities to share in the burgeoning wealth of the empire, and ultimately full citizenship. As their patron, he would advocate for his provincials’ public works projects such as the construction of roads, new ports facilities, military fortifications, and aqueducts. These projects produced wealth for his client provincials, lots of well-paying jobs, and a new phenomenon - a rapidly-expanding middle class. 

When chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons can now be miniaturized and made portable, waiting until we are attacked is a national security posture whose time is past. So, as we contemplate what must be done with respect to Syria and future rogue terrorist-harboring states, there are certainly lessons we can derive from the Romans’ astounding ability to convert conquered peoples into loyal citizens. While it is true that the past is not an exact road map for the future, it is the most important navigation aid we have. 

In looking at the recent past, conquering the hostile rogue regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq and then announcing a date certain for our departure was a recipe for failure.  Obama tragically managed to lose almost all the gains the American military had fought so valiantly to win in both theaters.    


A recent report by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reveals that the Taliban and its ISIS allies control 15% of the country’s districts and climbing while the military and police force has shrunk by 10% over the past year. Massive suicide bombings in the capital city of Kabul are a constant and becoming more frequent.  The US has spent $78 billion there since the invasion in 2001 and we are losing America’s longest war.  Can a new 9/11 attack be plotted there?  Yes.  

In Iraq, the American military removed the evil regime of Saddam Hussein from power, and by the time it left office in 2008, the Bush Administration had stabilized the country.  Sadly, due to the election of Barack Hussein Obama, all US troops were out of the country by October of 2011.  This fulfilled an Obama campaign pledge to end the “dumb war” but opened the way for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and various other jihadi forces fighting in Syria to swarm across the border in 2014 and take over two thirds of the country, naming their new Caliphate the Islamic State (IS). 

With the election of Donald Trump, our coalition forces have again liberated Iraq from the evil occupation of ISIS. But part of that coalition were Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces. The tragedy is that our military, under Trump, fought again in Iraq, but this time, alongside Iranian forces which, in the second Iraq war, manufactured and set roadside explosives that killed and maimed hundreds of American soldiers.   Moreover, the US now has far less influence in Iraq than does Iran. The lives of 4,500 soldiers killed in Iraq were mostly squandered by Obama. Can a new 9/11 attack be plotted there?   Yes.  


 So, Mr. President, as you suggested, should we get out of Syria?  No. The Iranians are poised to bring by land vast amounts of war material such as tanks, more rockets, and chemical weapons to Southern Syria, right next to Israel’s border. Netanyahu has already signaled that this is an intolerable situation. There are Israelis bombing missions directed at Syrian locations going on now. The possibility of an expanded war is too great. America needs to stay to interdict those military convoys and to create safe zones for our allies, the Syrian-based freedom fighters and for those Syrian refugees who wish to return.   We need to stay and create a safe zone as we successfully did for the Kurds in Northern Iraq at the end of the first Iraq war.  

So, Mr. President, how would you respond to those who say we can’t afford another foreign war and another indefinite occupation? Using the Roman model as our guide, wouldn’t it make more sense for the US to call the new Syrian Safe Zone a protectorate where local government officials are elected by their peers but where the senior-most official is either a US, NATO or coalition military commander? The position could be something similar to the role General MacArthur assumed in 1945 Japan. Would it not make sense that he oversee protecting the new safe zone from foreign threats, training and staffing local police forces, preventing sectarian violence and insuring that the rights of all citizens, Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and other minorities are protected?


And most importantly, wouldn’t it be advantageous to the US if he would oversee standing up and protecting new for-profit enterprises, as did the Romans?

As you have made the creation of jobs your signature issue, safety and stability could be followed by the introduction of multinational companies who would bring in their own senior managers but would also hire local workers to staff new energy, farming, medical companies, public utilities, etc. This could be done with the proviso that some of the tax revenue would flow back to the country where these multinationals are headquartered but some would stay inside the protectorate.  New profit sharing revenues would then flow back to the US treasury to pay for our occupation and protection of the Syrian sage zone.

The Roman model worked extraordinarily well for approximately four centuries. By the first century AD, the average first-century Roman citizen had obtained a level of affluence far above the peasant tribal warrior who lived outside the Empire. Roman patronage became the engine that produced a level of middle class affluence for the empire’s citizenry that was not eclipsed in the West until the middle of the twentieth century. It was this system that enabled a single city state to command the allegiance of such a vast and diverse realm. Moreover, an American version of that Roman model is still working in South Korea and Japan today.


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