“Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.”
– Alcibiades before the Athenian Assembly, 416 B.C.
It is written that there is nothing new under the sun. Some 2,421 years ago, a politician convinced a powerful democracy that in order to defend itself from an enemy that had attacked it, it was necessary to attack an enemy that had not attacked it. In the event that the analogy I am drawing here is not immediately apparent to the reader, the relevant comparisons are Athens to America, al Qaida plus Saudi Arabia plus Iran to Sparta, and Iraq to Syracuse.
Like Alcibiades before him, George Bush has staked his entire strategy on the idea that Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis are all burning to breathe free, assuming that breathing free is equivalent to a strictly limited democracy subject to constitutional power-sharing enforced by foreign arms. That the current situation is vastly preferable to living under a murderous dictatorship is undeniable, however, this is not to say that any of the so-called Iraqis who identify with one of the three major factions – or others, such as the various nomadic tribes and so forth – will be content with the new order established by America and her willing coalition.
For ingratitude tends to be the order of the day when it comes to geopolitics. Neoconservatives dreaming of a grateful Iraqi people would do well to heed the words of Felix Furst zu Schwarzenberg, subsequent to receiving Russian aid in putting down a Hungarian rebellion: “Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude.”
Unfortunately, the force of sweet reason is not always as great as we heirs of the Enlightenment might like to believe. Alcibiades subsequent words sound eerily familiar – one can easily discern an expectation of the sort of purple fingerism to which the supporters of the administration’s global democratic revolution ascribe such significance.
[Don’t] rescind your resolution to sail to Sicily, on the ground that you would be going to attack a great power. The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles, and easily change their institutions and adopt new ones in their stead …
But institutions are seldom changed so easily as those who would change them like to believe. And democracy is one of the most short-lived and notoriously mutable political systems of all, which is why the administration has worked so hard to fetter it in Iraq. Being susceptible to demagogues, dependent upon the ever-changing emotions of the majority and inherently unstable, the true test of the administration’s success is not the body count suggested by the secretary of defense, nor the various events and elections hailed by so many neoconservative writers, but how long it survives the departure of American troops.
The occupation and nation-building cannot continue much longer. Never popular with the American people, it will become increasingly unpopular as the administration’s mendacity and fundamental unsoundness become more apparent with each new revelation of its misdeeds; it is striking how the administration’s attempts to explain the previous revelation are invariably dishonest and lead, inevitably, to the next exposure of its deceit.
Given these ongoing revelations, it is considerably illuminating to read the words of Victor Davis Hanson, ironically, a supporter of both the Iraqi occupation and the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, in his excellent new history of the Peloponnesian War, “A War Like No Other”:
A central theme [of Thucydides narrative] is the use and abuse of power, and how it lurks behind men’s professions of idealism and purported ideology. What men say, the speeches diplomats give, the reasons states go to war, all this “in word” (logos) is as likely to cloak rather than to elucidate what they will do “in deed” (ergon). Thucydides teaches us to embrace skepticism, expecting to look to rational self-interest, not publicized grievances, when wars of our own age inevitably break out.
Skepticism, I submit, is the very least that is merited by what passes for American leadership today. Especially when one recalls that only 10 years after Athenian forces embarked for Syracuse, a young Syracusan democracy collapsed into tyranny. A year later, defeated, weakened and impoverished, once-mighty Athens herself fell to Sparta.