To Be [Engaged], or Not To Be [Engaged]? That is the [$100,000] Question


The Middle East is once again on fire. Once again, Iraq hangs in the balance. The conflict in Syria, which has been metastasizing for years, has now spilled over into the broader region and is threatening to tear Iraq apart. Which is bad enough. But even worse, it took approximately three nanoseconds before the Washington blame game began. On the one hand, some argue that this mess is the Bush administration’s responsibility, as he ordered the initial invasion of Iraq and failed to meaningfully plan for and resource post-combat stability operations. On the other, some believe that the lion’s share of the blame rests with President Barack Obama for having withdrawn from Iraq in a less-than-responsible manner, and for having failed to address the Syria situation earlier.

Given Shakespeare’s genius, it doesn’t take much to draw parallels between any given situation and any of the Bard’s plays. But in this instance, it seems that “Hamlet” can serve as a particularly useful prism through which the contemporary situation in the Middle East, and American foreign policy in the run up to current events, can be creatively explored.

The play starts off with the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore castle in Denmark. The ghost (which, of course, brings to mind the shadowy world of intelligence) intimates to his son (also named Hamlet) that his brother Claudius, in order to shack up with Queen Gertrude and assume the throne, murdered him. While enraged by this information, Hamlet subsequently decides against immediately taking his revenge. Over the duration of the remainder of the (four-hour long) play, Hamlet schemes to develop more proof of Claudius’ guilt while simultaneously resorting to subterfuge in order to mask his own intention to avenge his father. Court intrigues and schemes multiply as Claudius and Hamlet respectively attempt to outmaneuver each other. And, like most other plays written by the Bard, a whole lot of people die as the story unfolds, including eventually Hamlet himself.

One of the most commonly leveled criticisms of Hamlet as a character is that he’s indecisive. Confronted with intelligence regarding the real nature of his father’s untimely demise, he resists his initial impulses to react. Instead, he waits to amass an airtight case and for circumstances to line up perfectly before intervening and killing his uncle/stepfather. Ultimately, Hamlet chooses to adopt a “wait-and-see” approach, assuming in the process that time is on his side.

Which, for better or worse, seems to have been the Obama administration’s approach vis-à-vis Syria. Certainly the conflict metastasized early on, as the Assad regime brutally repressed pro-democracy protestors who were, at least initially, motivated by the Arab Spring. Yet even when confronted by overwhelming evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and despite Obama’s declaration that doing so constituted a “red line,” the administration failed to act decisively. Instead, Obama chose to amass more evidence that a chemical attack had taken place. But at the time, this was understandable. Russia was unlikely to support any action against the Assad regime without an airtight case, and after the intelligence failures in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the burden of proof was that much higher. Not to mention the fact that Obama didn’t want to make a bad situation worse.

So what is the effect of this type of procrastination? Back to Shakespeare. Would the events have unfolded in such a tragic manner if Hamlet had simply killed the king in the first place? Who’s to say? Hamlet arguably had good reasons for prevaricating, not the least of which being that the testimony of a ghost is probably not solid grounds for regicide. Where Hamlet truly slipped up, however, was failing to comprehend the impact his decision to wait and see would have on those who surrounded him. Indeed, six people die before Hamlet exacts his revenge on the king: Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes all tragically oblivious to the true nature of the game in which they were embroiled.

Which calls to mind the question as to whether the United States properly comprehended the implications of its wait-and-see policies for those in the region most impacted by unfolding events. If the United States is serious about advancing human rights and promoting democracy, why didn’t it more robustly support less radical anti-Assad forces in the first place? Furthermore, while estimates vary, upwards of 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the war. An ordinary Syrian is unlikely to grasp the nuances of U.N. Security Council deliberations or the intricacies of what constitutes “red line” enforcement. They’re probably more bewildered as to why the international community, and the United States in particular, has allowed Syria to burn, as Assad remains in power and ISIL grows in strength. Which is bad enough, especially given that the United States seeks to maintain its global leadership; it’s hard to be a leader if the tail is seen to be wagging the dog. Furthermore, this U.S. reticence has caused allies in the region (if not globally) to question the credibility of American security assurances going forward. Indecisiveness has broad and far-reaching consequences; in this instance, the consequences are measured in the cost of both lives and alliances.

Looking forward, at its core, there is a fundamental question that America and its allies are asking: Should the international community, and particularly the United States, intervene or should it retrench and let the actors and nations in the region sort this out for themselves? In other words, is retreating into isolationism a viable strategy?

These questions call to mind the most famous soliloquy in Hamlet, if not of all the Bard’s plays:

To be, or not to be – that is the question;

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep –

No more – and by a sleep we say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. Tis’ a consummation

devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –

To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.

Essentially, confronted with the knowledge of his father’s murder, and the responsibility of avenging him, Hamlet wonders whether it would be more advantageous for him to simply remove himself from the equation by committing suicide. And given that formulating and executing U.S. foreign policy has proven to be a fairly thankless task over the past decade (if not longer), it is hardly surprising that the impulse towards U.S. retrenchment and isolationism has become stronger. Metaphorically speaking, therefore, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy might also be read as, “to be engaged, or not to be engaged” in the international system. Yet on this point, Shakespeare appears to argue for continued involvement and concerns about the consequences of removing himself ultimately stay Hamlet’s hand “’gainst self-slaughter.” Similarly, what would be the real consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the world? Would it actually result in a system that we would be in favor of? And indeed, is such a course of action even remotely possible?

Yet as this internal drama plays out in the court of Denmark, larger events are taking place that threaten the very viability of the Danish state. Twenty years prior to the beginning of the play, King Hamlet had waged war with Norway and seized considerable amounts of territory in the process. With the death of the warlike king, the heir to the Norwegian throne, Fortinbras, begins to agitate to get his territories back. The challenge Fortinbras represents is, at first, dismissed. Yet over the course of the play, Fortinbras grows in strength unnoticed and in the final scene, Fortinbras is in the Danish court and poised to assume the throne. Hamlet, King Claudius and the rest of the court are so wrapped up in their own internal politics and schemes that they fail to comprehend the existential threat to their own kingdom.

Which makes all of the blame game antics that we’re seeing in the press that much more worrying. The thing that was “rotten in the state of Denmark” wasn’t necessarily the regicide itself; it was the endless intrigues that created blind spots to developments outside Elsinore. The characters were so busy destroying each other that they failed to respond to the threat Fortinbras represented. Yes, Bush 43 made a mistake going into Iraq in the first place. And yes, Obama could have managed his policy towards the Middle East a bit more effectively. But as we’ve traded barbs over which policy decisions were most disastrous, ISIL has become a serious threat, not only to Middle Eastern geopolitics, but also to U.S. and European homeland security.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. The question now is what to do about the situation. Perhaps we should spend more time focused on developing solutions rather than recriminations. And if Shakespeare is any guide on these matters, we should be wary of analysis paralysis; fortune may indeed favor the bold.

What are your thoughts?

PS: Next up will be Macbeth. Also, if you’re interested in submitting to Art of War — either a stand-alone piece or a response — please feel free to shoot me an email:


David Seddon is a London-based actor who, among other things, recently played Horatio in BBC Radio 4’s production of Hamlet. Kathleen J. McInnis is the editor of the Art of War series. The views expressed are their own.

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