Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Thucydides and thymos

Here’s some stream of consciousness rambling from Maureen Dowd, the first fruit of my excursion behind the TimesSelect firewall. A snippet:

With cold realism, Thucydides captured the Athenian philosophy in the 27-year war that led to its downfall as a golden democracy: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

What message can we take away from Thucydides for modern times?

“To me,” Professor Kagan said, “the deepest message, the most tragic, is his picture of civilization as a very thin veneer. When you punch a hole in it, what you find underneath is hollow, the precivilized characteristics of the human race — animalistic in the worst possible way.”

Compared to Iraq, the Peloponnesian War was a cakewalk[!?!].

Dowd gets a critique of "hubris and imperial overreaching" from Thucydides. I wrote in a somewhat different vein

Discussions - 4 Comments

Sounds like she's finally confronting human nature and it's not the John Lennon, feel-good, fuzzy-wuzzy, internationalist crap she's been thinking all along.

"Why not boldly open a new theater of conflict if it can either hasten the resolution of the war on terror or limit the opportunity of successors lightly to change policies?"

I agree that, theoretically, the war in Iraq could be justified if the first part of your disjunctive were true. Alas, it is almost certainly not: the invasion and now probably indefinite occupation will not bring the "war on terror" to resolution any quicker than not invading would have. It is hard to know, but leaving now probably will replace one set of conditions that create terrorism for another, so it's most likely a wash.

And the second half of your disjunctive is absolutely startling, Joseph. Bush was right to invade Iraq - and we are right to stay there - because it will mean that the next President is stuck there as well? Yes, public opinion shifts. It does so in non-democratic countries as well, limiting their ability to wage war successfully. But for your second justification to make sense, the didactic and therapeutic value of structuring events to force consistency would have to outweigh the harms of the policy itself. Since life is not a college seminar and citizens are not students, I doubt that's the case, my friend.


A couple of thoughts. First, I think all the justifications of the invasion in Iraq were plausible, given the information we had available at the time, and given the sense that a failure to act could have produced quite horrendous consequences. Of course, the boldest and most speculative of those justifications--that regime change in Iraq could have a profoundly positive effect on the region--was the one that promised the most decisive effect on the conditions promoting terrorism. I'm willing to criticize in a variety of ways the executiion of the policy, but I'm not going to avail myself of 20/20 hindsight in criticizing the decision. All I will say is that if you take such a risk, you had better be prepared to make the maximal effort to promote success. No one can argue that we've done that.

Second, people undertake policies that limit the options of their successors all the time, even in domestic policy. Consider how difficult it is to dismantle a bureaucracy or revoke an entitlement once it has been established. Of course, anytime you go to war, you limit your successor's options, especially since there's no guarantee that you can win on your electoral timetable. Your successor has to find a way to finish what you started, either by winning or by finding a more or less acceptable resolution. I don't know any other way to govern.


Your first point is fair - I disagree with it and think that criticism is thorogoughly justified, but I think I can see how you would hold that view - although I would hope that the Iraq adventure has tempered enthusiasm for military proposals that are both "bold" and "speculative."

It's not quite true that no one says that we haven't devoted resources to back up the boldness and speculation. Kristol and Kagan are saying that now, we are devoting the resources, and if only the rest of us would just keep quiet and get in line, things will go fine. But if the idea of transformation was bold and speculative then, it's that now as well, at best - plus, now, as you say, it's harder to change course than it would have been to refrain from invading.

Path-dependency is real in politics. But that's not a justification for any particular choice, particularly a bad one. I thought that the context of that quote showed that you weren't simply describing the the invasion but justifying it. I apologize if I misread you.

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