In 415 B.C., the Athenians tried to tip the balance of the 45-year-old Peloponnesian War by invading the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
The city was protected by a large inner harbor, accessible through a narrow strait. With superior ships, the Athenians entered the calm inner waters and quickly laid siege to the city. They expected the population to capitulate within a few months.
Drawing on reserves from the countryside and alliances with other cities, however, the people of Syracuse showed more resistance than expected. Meanwhile, the Athenians began to face their own problems of their own extended supply lines. Reinforcements finally arrived from Athens but before anyone had noticed, the Syracusans had occupied the narrow entrance to the harbor and fortified it. As Thucydides recounted later, “Without realizing it, the besiegers had become the besieged.”
The rest is history. Realizing too late that they were trapped, the Athenians could only fight their way out. Without waiting, the Syracusans attacked with their own ships, forcing the Athenians onto dry land. Marooned hundreds of miles from home, the entire expeditionary force was wiped out. The destruction marked the turning point of the Peloponnesian War. Within a decade, Spartan armies were camped on the Acropolis.
Now I’m not suggesting that Muslim militias will be camped on Capitol Hill any time soon. But there is a point to be made here. Our expeditionary force in Iraq is only one of a long, long line of distant forays in search of elusive goals, many of which have led to a disaster. Historians even have a name for it — “Imperial Overreach.”
WE ARE NOW OCCUPYING Iraq under the premise that the Iraqi people are yearning to create a peaceful, free-market democracy that will be a beacon of hope — an example of order and stability in an otherwise turbulent and hostile Middle East.
This is an illusion. But that shouldn’t surprise us. All wars begin with such illusions.
During the entire era of the Crusades, Western Europe lived with the illusion that it was seeking Prester John, a mythical Christian emperor on the other side of Araby who was waiting to link up with the Crusading armies. When we started the Spanish-American War, it was in part to rescue Evangelina Cisneros, a young woman who — according to the Hearst newspapers, at least — was being raped and tortured in a Havana jail. Napoleon thought he was liberating Russia when he arrived in Moscow. Some wars are worth pursuing, some not. We obviously shouldn’t have quit in the middle of World War II or the American Civil War, but that doesn’t mean every war is worth expanding. If we are really involved in a 100-year War on Terror — which we probably are — the question becomes: Do we want to expend everything we have right here and now?
The notion that we should get rid of Saddam Hussein was not a romantic illusion. Everyone except a few die-hard Baathists are happy to see him gone and the world is safer as a result.
The question now is whether we can seriously hope to create a democratic society in Iraq? Everything — absolutely everything — tells us that this is a romantic illusion.
The Weekly Standard, which has in many ways been leading the charge, ran a cover story just before the invasion, “Democracy in Iraq,” arguing that the Shi’ites were a latent democratic constituency — almost like some lost tribe of Americans — waiting to be liberated from the yoke of Saddam Hussein. This is wrong on two counts. First, we are not a democracy in any simple sense — as the last Presidential election should have convinced everyone. Instead, we are a “complex adaptive system” of checks and balances designed as much to slow the workings of democracy and protect minorities as to ensure that the majority gets its will. Outside a few highly educated elites, there is hardly any constituency in Iraq that appreciates this system. If anything, the Shi’ites are simply another majority waiting to impose their own yoke on the minority - the Sunni and probably the Kurds as well. These are the same Shi’ites, after all, who have run a theocracy in Iran for the last 25 years.
Nor is it at all certain that Iraqis are ready and willing to embrace a contemporary economy. Now that we’re in there, neoconservatives who cheered us on to victory are suddenly blinking their eyes.
“The immensity of the task in Iraq is really breathtaking,” writes Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, from Baghdad the other week:
Iraq is a large country, with the north as different from the south as Boston is from Birmingham. All at once, America and its allies are trying to modernize a primitive banking system, asses and exhume scores of mass graves, revive Iraqi agriculture, create a respectable press corps, recruit and train police and a new army, replace worn-out and antiquated infrastructure, establish regulatory agencies like an Iraqi version of the Federal Communication Commission [aren’t we getting a little ambitious here?], start a public broadcasting system, and persuade Iraqis they’re better off without heavily subsidized food, gasoline, and electricity. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Gee, that’s great Fred, but don’t you think somebody should have thought about all this before we decided to occupy the entire country?