Thucydides vs.
Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson, previously a classics professor at Fresno State specializing in the military history of ancient Greece and currently embedded at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, is a fervent apologist for the Bush administration’s interventionist foreign policy. In his enthusiasm to transform the Islamic world by force and serve his new political patrons, Hanson has shamelessly debased his own scholarship. And how ironic that military historian Hanson, like his fellow neocons who urge violence to remake the Middle East, has never served in the U.S. military. Hanson truly has much in common with the administration’s corps of instant Middle East experts: He has never lived or worked in the Arab world and has no specialist knowledge of the region. He speaks no Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, or Farsi. At least when Trotsky set out to create the new Soviet man, he could speak Russian.

Hanson has been an indefatigable cheerleader for the Iraq war. He’s not as quotable as Kenneth "Cakewalk" Adelman. He’s not as humorous as William Kristol, who claimed on NPR "that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of fundamentalist Islamic regime" was merely "pop sociology." Hanson’s clangers, nevertheless, illustrate just how much of an administration shill he has been. Before the war Hanson declared ponderously, "The EU, the UN, NATO, the European street, the American Left … by failing to understand the post 9/11 world and its requirement to neutralize Saddam Hussein, have unnecessarily put their perceived wisdom, prestige, and influence in jeopardy – and with the liberation of Iraq they all are going to lose big time." His other predictions were no better: "oil production will rise to over three million barrels. That would help to allow the world price to decline – or at least stabilize" and the "Marines will find more deadly weapons in the first hours of war than the UN did in three months. "

Even as the America’s Iraq adventure began to fail, Hanson followed the administration’s lead and blamed the press for failing to report the "good news" from Iraq: "It is good to remind Americans that the news from Iraq is far better than the gloom and doom promulgated by the press and the political opposition, many of whom are tied inextricably to their past predictions of failure." And Hanson did not shrink from praising the president, although one is tempted to conclude Hanson had developed a certain sense of irony:

"[A] country that was the worst in the Middle East [is] evolving into the best. … [A] reborn democratic Iraq will overturn almost all the conventional wisdom, here and abroad, about the Middle East, the nature and purpose of war in our age, the moral differences between Europe and America – and the place in history of George W. Bush."

Hanson made his reputation in academia studying the warfare of ancient Greece. His most recent book, A War Like No Other, has as its subject the Peloponnesian War, that 5th-century B.C. struggle between Athens and Sparta for mastery of the Greek world. Hanson’s title is a quote from the redoubtable historian Thucydides, who fought for Athens during the war and whose history of the conflict, The Peloponnesian War, is the world’s first and perhaps still greatest political history. Academics and general readers esteem Thucydides for his critical approach to his sources, his accuracy, and his lack of overt prejudice. Unfortunately, Hanson’s unqualified endorsement of the administration’s foreign policy and his pleasure at being treated as the administration’s tamed academic and house historian have led him to sacrifice intellectual rigor and honesty to shoehorn the Peloponnesian war into the neocon world view.

The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431 and 404 B.C., with a truce that suspended most hostilities from 421 to 415 B.C. The war pitted Athens, its maritime empire, and its allies against Sparta and its allies. Athens was strong at sea while Sparta had the best land forces in Greece. They fought on land and at sea all over the Greek world, including the island of Sicily, where the Greeks had established colonies as early as the 8th century B.C.

Hanson associates Athens and its democratic system, limited as the Athenian franchise may have been, with the United States and links the Athenian struggle against an oligarchic, militaristic Sparta with America’s efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Hanson equates Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington to the Spartan invasion of Attica, which began the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. Because Hanson is keen to attribute the 9/11 attacks to the failure of previous administrations to retaliate strongly after terrorist strikes against American interests in Beirut, Aden, Khobar, and Tanzania, he claims both events, 9/11 and the Spartan invasion, flow from the same inability to deter the attacker. "They [the Athenians] lost the deterrence, and the war started," said Hanson in a 2006 speech. Thucydides, however, attributed the Spartan decision to attack to fear of growing Athenian power.

Who is right, Thucydides or Victor Davis Hanson? The years prior to the start of the Peloponnesian War witnessed a tremendous expansion of Athenian wealth and power. The Athenians transformed the Delian League, which originally functioned as a voluntary alliance against Persia, into an Athenian empire. Athens forced member states to pay an annual tribute to the Athenian treasury, and membership ceased to be voluntary. Concurrently, Athens extended its influence by fostering democratic revolutions in states that had been neutral or friendly to Sparta and throttled Sparta’s remaining allies by restricting their rights to trade with Athens and its dependencies. Did Sparta attack Athens because it was weak and unwilling to defend itself? On the contrary, Sparta attacked Athens because Athens was strong and getting stronger.

Hanson has said repeatedly that the United States should continue military intervention in the Middle East until all the countries in that region have bent to the American will. Thus it is not surprising that one of Hanson’s "lessons" from the Peloponnesian War is that Athens should not have accepted a truce with Sparta in 421 B.C. In reaching this conclusion Hanson reveals clearly that he either fails to understand the nature of the Peloponnesian War or that he is prostituting his scholarship to support neocon intentions toward Iraq, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on. By offering Athens a truce the Spartans were essentially admitting You are already too strong. We cannot defeat you and your sea borne empire. By accepting the truce the Athenians knew they would not have to risk their empire to the uncertainties of war and that its favorable political and financial arrangements would remain intact, enabling their city to grow stronger each year.

In 415 B.C. the Athenians, enjoying the fruits of their truce with Sparta but with Sparta still a threat, attacked the city of Syracuse in Sicily, some 700 miles from Athens. After several years of fighting, the Athenian expeditionary force, the flower of the Athenian army and navy, was totally destroyed. Now if America equals Athens and Sparta equals the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the unprovoked and disastrous Athenian attack on Syracuse, a city that in no way threatened Athens, is difficult for Hanson to fit into his lessons from ancient Greece. Although Hanson tries to avoid equating the Athenian attack on Syracuse with the American invasion of Iraq, Thucydides betrays him.

The American debate about the wisdom of attacking Iraq is uncannily similar to the debate in the Athenian Assembly about whether to invade Sicily. The Athenians questioned the motives of Sicilian refugees pressing for war, "these exiles, whose interest is to lie as well as they can, who do nothing but talk themselves and leave the danger to others, and who if they succeed will show no proper gratitude." How reminiscent of Ahmed Chalabi and all the bogus intelligence sources he provided. Remember too that ultimately Chalabi showed his gratitude by betraying American secrets to Iran. Thucydides also reported that Athenian envoys sent to Sicily claimed falsely that the Athenian invasion would be self-financing, an assertion eerily similar to Paul Wolfowitz’s testimony before Congress in March 2003: "The oil revenues of that country [Iraq] could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years. … We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon." In the end the Athenian Assembly voted overwhelmingly for war, although Thucydides noted that many who opposed the Sicilian expedition voted for it anyway so as not to be labeled "unpatriotic."

As for the war itself, Nikias, the Athenian general appointed to command the expedition, warned that it would be unwise to attack Syracuse with the Spartans still a threat. But one will never find Hanson asking whether it was wise to attack Iraq with the Taliban resisting in Afghanistan and bin Laden at large. Nikias also doubted the wisdom of invading a place as large as Sicily and warned prophetically against attacking people that even if conquered could not be controlled. And perhaps most insightfully of all for both the Athenian adventure in Sicily and the American adventure in Iraq, Nikias, who was to be killed in Sicily, observed, "Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power we went away again as soon as possible."

Ultimately Sparta prevailed over Athens with help from the Persians. In return for financing the Spartan fleet, Sparta recognized Persian suzerainty over the Greek cities in Asia Minor. How ironic that the Spartans, who gained immortal fame resisting the Persians at Thermopylae, should just two generations later betray their fellow Greeks for Persian gold. The greatest beneficiaries of the Peloponnesian War were the Persians, just as they are today from our fiasco in Iraq.

Author: John Taylor

John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.