The Spectacle Blog

Thinking about Iraq…and Thucydides

By on 11.15.13 | 1:32PM

I read with great interest Matt Purple’s discussion of our international obligations, post-Iraq. It’s a matter I’ve spent a great deal of time considering, and his thoroughness does the topic justice. He concludes by calling for a “new conservative foreign policy—pragmatic, prudent, realistic, tough but careful, promoting peace through strength instead of rushing headlong into battle." I absolutely agree, with one reservation...but I'll save my qualms with the "peace through strength" maxim for another column.

In the meantime, I’d humbly suggest a vital primer—one with which Matt is no doubt familiar. Other policy-makers should consider dusting it off their shelves.

Political scientists and policy-makers have depended upon Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War as the first true history of inter-state affairs and a dedicated attempt to communicate the fundamental, if anarchic, structure of international relations. While The History of the Peloponnesian War (note: citations correspond to the Penguin Classic printing) was required reading for those who studied or practiced American foreign policy during the Cold War it remains a vital, if cautionary, tale for modern states that would overstep their bounds. To this day, it’s endures as a classic tome for those who wish to learn from the past and plan for the present—so as to ensure a safer tomorrow.

The history is familiar. Athens, at the helm of a Greek coalition, fought off a massive Persian invasion and earned an ascendant position in the region. One might imagine an ancient Athenian scholar positing “Attica’s unipolar moment.” From this perch, the city-state flourished and her alliances blossomed, earning tribute in money and triremes. However, the Delian League came to be recognized as an empire rather than a coalition of willing partners. In this sense, Athens' climb to pre-eminence came at a price, as her successes threatened Sparta, her rival Greek power, and the freedom of her allies. Ultimately, her power fostered a dangerous sense of hubris. The city-state, withered by plague and misfortune, entered into a long and costly war and eventually admitted defeat in 404 BC. While she remained a hub of culture (Plato and Aristotle were still on the intellectual horizon), Athens would never enjoy the military dominance it had in the Aegean.

Thucydides acknowledged several universal truths that provided a historical architecture for the theory of realism. By his account, the Athenians demonstrated the age-old aphorism that “might makes right,” during the Melian dialogue, stating plainly that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Cold War scholars took a great deal of inspiration from Thucydides’ account. Using Athens’ rivalry with Sparta as a historical model for the bipolarity of the USSR-U.S. relationship, the obvious parallels turned The History of the Peloponnesian War into an approachable metaphor given tensions between bipolar superpowers and smaller states caught in their proverbial wake.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, American neoconservatives celebrated their “unipolar moment,” that suddenly liberated the last-superpower-standing from any and all treaties, agreements, and norms that might have previously constrained its actions. Unfortunately, might-makes-right unilateralism is every bit as hazardous a foreign policy directive in the unipolar world. Over the past decade, the United States's misadventures abroad mirror both the strategy and the sorrow found in Thucydides.

Care to expand lessons learned to Matt’s discussion of Iraq and present-day policy?

Consider the justification for war. The logic of the Corinthian speech to the Spartans exhorted them to engage in a preventive war. By their words: “Allies, you must see that we have arrived at the moment of necessity and that our advice is best: you should vote for war. Have no fear of immediate danger; but keep your hearts set on the wider peace that flows from danger. War gives us a more secure peace, you see, while staying out of war allows us no comparable security”. (Thucydides, 30-31) President Bush echoed this judgment as he closed his speech announcing the 2003 Iraqi invasion, by stating “…the dangers to this country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail”.

Beyond the overarching logic of preventive war, debate surrounding the nuts and bolts of the Iraq invasion is unsettlingly reminiscent of the heated discussion in Athens in regards to the Sicilian campaign. Following Alcibiades – the most vocal in support of the expedition – and his perspective on the campaign, the ease of the matter was similarly overstated, as was the war in Iraq, here in the United States. Thucydides quotes Alcibiades as stating “[the invasion] will be easier, since we will have a great deal many foreigners who will take our side through hatred of Syracuse, and there will be nothing to hinder us at home if you make the right decision”. (Thucydides, 119) This statement is evocative of Paul Wolfowitz’s belief that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nominal head of Shi’a Islam, had offered the first pro-American fatwa shortly after the invasion. Both Paul Wolfowitz and Alcibiades were sadly mistakes – their logic skewed by wishful thinking.

And so it goes for short-sighted superpowers who insist on “rushing headlong into battle.”

Two millennia, notwithstanding…

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