Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Thucydides and us

It’s hard to avoid thinking about our current conflicts when teaching Thucydides, as I do every fall. I wrote explicitly about it once and implicitly another time (no link, but if you want a copy of the essay, shoot me an email). Victor Davis Hanson can, of course, write much more authoritatively on this subject than I can, and Paul Johnson is the kind of reviewer he deserves.

Here’s one provocative thought (mine, not Johnson’s or Hanson’s), which I advance very tentatively and with great trepidation (I’m not sure how much I believe it myself): Perikles urges the Athenians to accept the challenge of the Spartans and their allies, and recommends that they cautiously wage a long war of attrition. Such a strategy requires that Athens rein in the dynamism that seems to be its leading civic feature. And it requires the authoritative leadership of someone like Perikles.

But Thucydides notes that Perikles (predictably) didn’t live long enough to see his policy bear fruit, and that (predictably) his successors lacked his stature, self-restraint, and capacity for identifying his good with the city’s good. Hence there were blunders, among them (allegedly and most famously) the Sicilian Expedition. Of course, Thucydides notes that the problem with the expedition was not its object, but rather the way in which Athenian domestic politics affected and afflicted its execution.

From these considerations, two thoughts follow. First, Perikles’ caution was actually imprudent and incautious, since the policy he recommended was one that only he could execute, which in turn required that he live a preternaturally long life. Second, if the war was necessary (a big "if," of course, albeit apparently not to Thucydides or Perikles), a bold stroke early (like the Sicilian Expedition) could so have altered the military balance that Athens could have prevailed against its Peloponnesian adversaries. Unlike his successors, Perikles had the stature to manage matters at home so as to avoid the distractions that ultimately doomed the expedition.

And now for the contemporary application. The GWOT has been advertised since its inception as a long-term struggle. Almost everyone who still supports George W. Bush admires his resolve in waging that war. The question that has to be on everyone’s mind is whether GWB’s successors will be as serious about it. I can think of a few who might be, but of many who surely wouldn’t be. Under the circumstances, isn’t the Iraq war the rough (very rough) equivalent of the Sicilian Expedition, albeit for different reasons than the ones usually cited (e.g., evidence of imperial overweening, a distraction from the main conflict, and so on)? One could present it as the kind of bold and risky stroke that, if successful (a big "if," to be sure), so changes the constellation of forces that the long-term disciplined struggle (hard for any democracy under any circumstances) becomes somewhat easier to manage (I hesitate to say "less necessary").

In other words, if one of the lessons of Thucydides is that a dynamic global democracy cannot consistently or easily pursue a disciplined policy, then a leader who has the opportunity to change the constellation of forces so as to render consistency and self-discipline somewhat less crucial ought to do so. A democracy that has global responsibilities, concerns, and interests must be bold. Or else it should draw in its horns altogether, and put itself at the mercy of forces it has willed to be beyond its control, whether they are or not. No one should expect that those forces be anything other than merciless, regardless of the benignity of our aspect.

Any thoughts?

Discussions - 14 Comments

OK, lets hear that again in American.

Do you mean that we sould have AND SHOULD DO NOTHING?

It seems to me that we had a string of presidents after WW2 that had the strength to carry on until Kennedy was assinated and that crook LBJ was thrust into a position he could have never achieved at the ballot box.
Americans become very soft when things are good, but our history has shown that we have risen to every adversity and have overcome it. The scummy islamists thought that Clinton was the prototype for American leaders, their butts are still glowing from that mistake.

So what is your proposal fo going forward?

One of my best teaching experiences is Thucydides, which is about 1/3 to 1/2 of my seminar, Law and Justice in International Relations. The students love it. Teaching directly about the Iraq war, its legality and justice, is very difficult, given the passions that are evoked. Through Thucydides, the students were able to engage each other on their underlying intuitions and beliefs about war and peace in a vocabulary that allowed students with totally opposed perspectives to talk about the issue in a comfortable and respectful manner. My only regret is that it is impossible to teach the whole book. Having expressed disagreements with my old teacher Cliff Orwin a number of times on this blog (whether over Anne Norton or the immortality of the soul), I wholeheartedly have to express my gratitude for his classes on Thucydides, which made as deep an impression on me as any lectures I have ever attended in my life. Without having had that experience, I think I wouldn’t have tried to teach Thucydides myself, and certainly wouldn’t have had what is among my real successes as a classroom teacher.

As for the "lessons" of Thucydides, some of those you mention have come up in my seminars; I myself have hesitant to propose "lessons" as opposed to drawing out possible meanings or implications of various statements by Thucydides and the speakers of the speeches. I find that this forces the students to think harder. And I’m always impressed with the "lessons" they come up with.

Since my current project on Strauss involves a very significant amount of discussion of his reading of Thucydides, I’m now in the course of clarifying my own views on what Thucydides himself taught.

So far I can discern at least four levels of lessons or judgments, perhaps more accurately, by Thucydides:

1) the judgment on the "project" of (Greek) civilization, of Hellas, the project implied by progress from the earliest times to the full bloom of that civilization. To what extent did the nature of this "progress" and the civilization it wrought generate the "greatest" war?

2) The judgement on the internal regimes of Sparta and Athens and their suitability to war, peace, and empire in the world of Hellenic civilization

3) The judgement on the individual statesmen and generals, the wisdom and humanity of their individual choices as leaders under constraints that they cannot alter;

4) The judgement on peoples and human beings generally, their legal relations, justice and injustice in war and peace, and the effects of "necessity", of power relations on law,justice, and goodness.

In the first instance, to understand Thucydides, I believe that we have to keep each of these layers of judgment seperate. We shouldn’t too quickly associate for example a misjudgment of some Athenian general or politician with some intrinsic flaw in the Athenian regime.

But once we discern Thucydides’ verdicts at each of these levels, then we need to go on and consider the relationship between the verdicts at different levels, to distill his "lessons" for eternity.

If I understand your post correctly, you are arguing that Thucydides teaches us that, because democracies have a difficult time sustaining popular support for an effort over a long period of time, if a leader of a democracy is presented with an opportunity to accelerate victory by acting aggressively, he should do so...and that this is what Bush in effect is doing in Iraq and his program of promoting democratic change in the Middle East. I like the theory...Reagan’s approach to the Soviets in the Cold War (another long term commitment) shows the value of a leader’s willingness to challenge the enemy directly. Some might argue that Vietnam illustrates what happens when an aggressive policy cannot be sustained over the time required to bring about success, and this suggests that, as a corollary to the Thucydides proposition, one might add that the cause at issue must be perceived by the population as being so critical that the leader can sustain popular support over a long term period. Because it was difficult to see the relationship between Vietnam and national security, LBJ could not sustain popular support for his conduct of the war, and this erosion of support was promoted by the Media’s constant negativism. The Media seems to be following a similar pattern regarding Iraq, and also appears to be having some success in communicating the messages that the Iraq conflict has nothing to do with the GWOT, that it is making our enemies stronger, etc. Unlike Vietnam, however, the Media must either separate Iraq from the GWOT, or (if they do admit a connection betweenIraq and the GWOT) ignore the fact that the US was attacked directly on 9/11. I think that 9/11 will give Bush and his successors some breathing room regarding the GWOT and therefoe the time to successfully complete the mission....or, at least, that is my fervent hope.

I like Thucydides so I thought I would share some thoughts about the matter. They will be random.

Athens may have lost the war because of unsteadiness in foreign affairs (I do not think this is why they lost the war, see below), but they could have done alright without Pericles if Alcibiades had been in tune with the customs and mores of the Athenians. He was to be the primary general for the Siclian expedition, but then the Herme were mutalited, and he was called back home. This left Nicias in charge, but Nicias did not even want to be there. This lack of enthusiasm for the expedition showed itself in his lack of iniative, he could not even retreat in a timely manner. Although Thucydides bemoans the fate that befell him, he probably deserved it.

If Alcibiades’ personal behavior had not made him a prime suspect concerning the Herme he would not have been called back, and he would not have had to flee to the Spartans. There can be no doubt that he restored the Spartans’ confidence with his planning, etc. Furthermore, Alcibiades was the only one who could take Pericles’ place, he had the family, the connections, and the intellectcual firepower to do it, but his character made the people unwilling to obey him. Scandel prevents effective leadership.

Finally, I do not think anything in Athens’ foreign affairs caused it to lose. If the Spartans would not have sold out the Greek colonies to the Persians they never would have had a fleet that was powerful enough to defeat the Athenians. The Athenians could not win a war against Persia and Sparta. Persia helped the Spartans because they wanted Asia minor (what they had lost after the War with Persia due to Athens’ energy), and they wanted to wear down the Greeks so they would not recapture the colonies after the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans’ lack of experience and intelligence in foreign affairs were attractive to the Persians because they could easily control them. The Persians would much rather try to control the Spartans than the Athenians. Furthermore, the Spartans’ domineering attitude towards allies (and general lack of iniative) made it more likely that fewer States would seek them out for help after the war was over, or if they did ask them for help, the Spartans would delay until help was no longer needed.

The Spartan alliance with Persia would be like two small states fighting a war, and one state asking America for aid. There is no way the other state could win. Whichever state allies with the superpower wins. Athens could have had the best foreign policy possible, and it still would have lost. Once Sparta controlled the sea (with Persian boats) Athens was doomed. Sparta already controlled the land around Athens and prevented goods from getting into the city. People have to eat.

I think Athens and America can be distinguished in two ways. I am uncertain what that means for foreign policy. 1. Athens was unsteady at foreign policy because it wanted to conquor as much as possible so it could not form long term plans. Athenians wanted honor, glory, gold, etc. They were constantly outward looking. America is unsteady in foreign policy because we want no involvement in the world. America gets involved when we might suffer harm or have been harmed, but never because of a desire to conquor land (with the exception the Spanish-American War) or to secure resources. America is inward looking; as soon as security exists, or the illusion of security exists, we retreat back to America. 2. Athens had to have a foreign policy because they could not survive without it. Because Attica could not grow enough food to support its population, it had to trade with other states, and this required a navy, which required money, which required conquoring. With the exception of oil, I cannot think of anything America could not substitute if we had to. This makes foreign relations less important.

Rob, very nice layout of Thucydidean levels of subject and analysis; I’d never thought of his text that way. Keep us posted on discoveries (or even hypotheses).

What if the idea of a "bold and risky stroke that, if successful, so changes the constellation of forces that the long-term disciplined struggle becomes somewhat easier to manage" is nothing more than a delusion? Just like the Sicilian Expedition?

The defeat of Athens lies in the want of prudence. The Sicilian Expedition was imprudent and it seriously weakened Athens. It can be compared to the lack of prudence in the late 18th century when Britain sought to reconquer colonies about 3,000 miles away. Now we have dispatched forces halfway around the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the Iraq War. But it should be managed prudently and expectations should be kept low and realistic. Hoping that an Iraqi democracy will herald in a new era in the region may be too much to hope for.

Very interesting bold and risky posting. But are you drawing the conclusion that the invasion of Iraq was a noble failure? The hopes for regional and regime transformation have surely been sharply curtained, if not abandoned.


How can you say this? There has been a regime change. There is now a democracy in Iraq, albeit a messy or imperfect one but these are still early days. Moreover, there is a constitution with the legitimacy of referendum behind it. Sure, there is not a solution that will make every ethnic group or minority within Iraq perfectly happy. The Sunnis cannot be given a veto on Iraq’s political future--they should be treated fairly and given voice and protection as a minority but a veto would put far too much power in the hands of one group and more importantly their elite.

The insurgency has been a failure except in terms of slaughter itself. They have not stopped Iraqis from voting, from putting their lives back together, deliberating on a constitution, from creating new businesses, and so forth. Their one hope is to kill enough US soliders that the US pulls out, no longer providing security, and that in such a situation they can destabilize the new regime. But even this hope is fading, as the Iraqi government and its constitution are achieving the backing of other states in the Arab world. Besides there is more wisdom in the political class of the American regime than one sometimes gives it credit for--not only Republicans but most responsible Democrats will not push for a pull out that has the result of plunging Iraq into civil war. They do not want that much blood on their hands. Even support FOR the war is low among the public, there isn’t much support either for ending America’s involvement in a way that leads to a massive bloodbath.

At the same time, I surely agree with you to the extent that you draw attention to the many blunders and miscalculations and absurd predictions in the US strategy that cost so many lives.

As for regional transformation, the Saudis and the Egyptians are becoming increasing uncomfortable with using the excuse of fear of Islamic fundamentalism as a reason not to democratize. If Iraq can take that risk, then surely Egypt can? So I think there are positive regional effects. The whole discourse about democracy and Islam has subtly shifted.

Unfortunately, I suspect that you may be right - although my reasoning is somewhat different.

Historically, the American public has not been willing to wage long wars. Popular support is strong for about three years - then the public demands either victory or withdrawl. It happened during the Civil War - if victory had not been clearly in sight in November 1864, Lincoln would never have been reelected. And in World War II, when Truman was getting polling data showing that support for continuing the struggle against Japan was waning. And yet again in Vietnam, when public support for the war collapsed in 1968.

The way that I see it, a nation with our government and temperment has two choices - either to wage an all-out, maximum effort war, or to wage a series of short, sharp clashes. The first is epitomized by the Civil War and both World Wars, the second by the Indian Wars of the 19th century.

The time when a great maximum effort could have been sold to the electorate is over. Which leaves us with the Indian Wars model - a series of short, brutal engagements using professional forces, infrequent enough that a full mobilization is not demanded.

The great challenge will be to keep the military capable of this kind of fighting. The Dirty Little Secret of the Bush Administration has been the neglect of the long-term health of the armed forces. We’ve had ordnance bought for us, but are still using the same worn-out hardware that was bought 20 years ago. Even as I write this, there are substantial cuts being considered for the procurement accounts. It’s a little hard to fight wars with hardware that qualifies for antique license plates.

Classical history, certainly, is a fine source of examples... so is the primal playground of contemporary terrorists in our midst.

It requires no diploma or triple digit IQ to see, clearly, the terrible consequences of losing our will to fight on... when modern weapons and pathologic evil render all terrorist acts potentially mortal to nations, not just the innocents among us.

Our near term sacrifices, of all degree, must be worth the pain when viewed opposite the ultimate end of days that radical Islam envisions for the free.

Rob gives the best case for the war, but I also agree that the moment when maximum effort could be sold to the American people is passed. And I see not all that much evidence that the region is democratizing in a way that will benefit us over the long term. The degradation of our military is also a legitimate concern. How long can we sustain our presence there under current force and spending levels, and where in the world do we get more men and more money? The jury is still out on all this, although it goes without saying that I hope and pray the bold and risky experiment will still succeed. Our leaders thought in terms of a quick and decisive victory that would work wonders in the region, and there’s no denying they were in many ways deluded, as Rob admits.

This post helps get at some of the reasons for the war that many of its supporters like myself have been hesitant to articulate, that is, reasons having to do with TIMING. Going back to the decision-situation that faced the U.S. in 2002 and 2003(i.e., reasonable assumption that WMD program existed),the debate was primarily about whether to wait longer to let the UN have a go at it (Powell, and why we waited til April) or, and this was the dominant Dem position, to let the UN inspectors have more time even after France’s recalcitrance had come to light. One factor in the timing that isn’t discussed much is the state of the troops stationed in Kuwait, and the difficulty of invading in Summer. Another is giving Saddam’s Baathists time to prepare. But perhaps the biggest factor, that Knippenberg’s post points to, is the worry that US and world opinion would shift in a direction that would make an invasion impossible--"Oh, we’ve lived with this for so long, we deterred the Soviets who had nukes, so why can’t we continue to live with it?" This factor, UNPREDICTABLE SOLIDIFICATION OF DEMOCRATIC OPINION, by the way, would exist even if our system allowed presidents to be elected for more than two terms.
What I mean is that democratic opinion tends to find stabilization points that are hard to predict, impossible to control. In 2002/2003, for example, it looked as if the Dem Party position might solidify a bit to the left of Joe Liebermann’s. But today the average Dem knows in his bones that Iraq was a monstrous mistake. Unless Iraq’s gains become truly dramatic, it appears most Dems will permanently believe that.
Comforting conclusion: W had to act when he did, given info at time.
Discomforting conclusion #1: No WMD almost gave us Kerry, and has ruined mainstream Dem foreign pol opinion for a generation.
Discomforting conclusion #2: W should have gone in Nov 2003, w/o attempt at UN support, and he should have made attacks against Syria to keep them (and Iran)in line.

I’ll just add one datum I think may be of interest to the mix.

If you’re toting up possible positive consequences of the Iraq war, here might be one:

The armed destruction of the Saddam regime and the opening up of Iraq have made the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani far and away the most popular religious figure not only in Iraq, but in the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.

This is a remarkable development, since Sistani is a principled Shi’ite "quietist" (he openly urges Muslim clerics everywhere to steer clear of political office or partisan activism, and has no problem with secular constitutions or free elections). Sistani, moreover, belongs to a clerical tradition strongly opposed to Khomeini and Khomeinism (Sistani’s teacher, the Ayatollah Khoei, was one of Khomeini’s most persistent and vocal critics). Sistani, in short, is a root-and-branch foe of the entire ideological reading of Islam on which the Islamic Republic is based.

What if one of the downstream consequences of the US-led toppling of the Sunni/Ba’athist dictatorship in Iraq is to lay a basis for regime change in Iran--not an armed regime change caused by a foreign power, but one led by Iranians themselves?

Aside from Iran, the only country in the world with so big a disjunction between its general level of socioeconomic development (as measured by literacy, Web connectivity, etc.) and its lack of political freedom is the curious Sinitic city-state of Singapore. From a democratic point of view, in other words, Iran may be in a "prerevolutionary situation," with the Iraqi opening (ultimately courtesy of George W. Bush and the US military) acting as a destabilizing influence on the current tyrannical regime.

Can I predict confidently that Iran will trash the theocracy that it now labors under and embrace liberal democracy at least in part because of what’s been going on in Iraq? No. But it’s not outside the realm of plausibility.

Oops! Discomforting conclusion #2 should have said November 2002.

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