The stage is set for tragedy


‘ALL THE WORLD’S a stage,” observes Jacques in “As You Like It.” “And all the men and women merely players.”

No sphere of human life is more theatrical than politics. And seldom has the world’s political stage seemed more Shakespearean than it does today -- in “The Tragedy of King George.” To judge by the number of bodies that currently litter it, we appear to be nearing the end of Act V. By the concluding scenes of Shakespeare’s greatest political tragedies -- “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar,” “King Lear” and “Macbeth” -- nearly all the principal characters lie dead. So it is with King George, the tale of an unworldly fellow who ascends the throne of a great empire, responds heroically to an unprovoked attack, then wreaks havoc by turning from retaliation to preemption.

The latest corpse to slump lifeless beneath the proscenium arch is that of Paul Wolfowitz, who last week finally announced that he would resign as president of the World Bank. Another central character -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- has taken the political equivalent of slow-acting poison.


Think back to 2003, to the invasion of Iraq. One after another, the politicians who most strongly supported the decision have been ousted from office.

As in “Julius Caesar,” the fault is not in the central characters’ stars but in themselves. President Bush’s dominant character traits -- his decisiveness and tenacity -- at first appeared to be strengths. But once he had been convinced by his advisors that the attacks of 9/11 furnished a pretext for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, these became weaknesses.

As in “Macbeth,” King George was soon “in blood, steeped in so far” that turning back seemed no more attractive than wading onward. Remember, the corpses that litter this stage can already be counted in the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands.

And, as in “King Lear,” the whole catastrophe has stemmed from a fatal confusion at the outset between the true and the false, enemies and friends. Lear succumbs to the flattery of the ugly sisters, Regan and Goneril, and casts out the blunt but honest Cordelia (not to mention the straight-talking Kent).

The mistaken identity in the tragedy of King George was that of the real enemy in the post-9/11 war on terror. It is almost certain that the hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. The chief architect of the plot, Osama bin Laden, also was a Saudi. Contrast this list of countries with the “axis of evil” identified by Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Bush was right to target Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 because the Taliban regime was sheltering Al Qaeda’s leadership. But the decision to overthrow Hussein was one of history’s great non sequiturs.

The real enemy in the global war on terror is not the “axis of evil” but the “axis of allies.” Today, the countries most likely to produce another 9/11 are not Iran, much less North Korea, but countries long regarded as (after Israel) America’s most reliable allies in the greater Middle East. Step forward, Saudi Arabia (almost certainly still the biggest source of funding for radical Islamists) and Pakistan (definitely their one-stop shop for nuclear weaponry).

There is, in short, a twist in this tale. Before the curtain can fall on “The Tragedy of King George,” we need at least three more scenes to decide the fates of three crucial characters: the only principals left standing aside from King George himself.

First, we need a scene in Israel. Since the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s popularity has been in free fall. His current approval rating is about 2%, by comparison with which King George is a pop idol. Somehow, Olmert is clinging to political life. But he surely cannot last much longer. What happens next will be crucial; if Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power, the probability of a military confrontation with Iran goes above 50%. Remember, Netanyahu compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler. “It is the year 1938”, he recently declared, “and Iran is Germany.”

Then we need a scene in Saudi Arabia. Here the key figure is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who, as Saudi ambassador to the United States, was one of the leading advocates of the invasion of Iraq. Since October 2005 he has been in Riyadh as secretary-general of the National Security Council, where he is said to be lobbying hard for another attack: This time -- you guessed it -- on Iran.

Finally, the action needs to shift eastward to Pakistan, where it is the future of President Pervez Musharraf that hangs in the balance. After eight years of military dictatorship, Pakistan’s democratic forces are stirring. But watch out -- these include the Islamist coalition known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal.

You thought this play was nearly over. But Act V has only just begun. With war looming between Iran and Israel, and Pakistan on the brink of an upheaval that could well end with Islamists in power, the worst bloodshed has yet to come.