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.