About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The original hubris

As the US marks the 2000th death among American soldiers in Iraq, Paul Johnson reviews in the New York Times A War Like No Other, by Victor Davis Hanson. While Johnson's review cautions the reader about drawing too direct parallels between historical situations, especially if separated from each other by more than two millennia, an ocean, and a few technological advances, this makes for interesting food for thought.

Hanson's book is about the Peloponnesian war fought by Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BCE, which ended with the defeat of the most cultural and democratic city in the world at the time (Athens, that is), a huge cost in human and financial resources, and the end of the golden age of Greek philosophy and culture.

The idea, of course, is not that Athens can be directly likened to the modern United States. Again, too many important differences between the two on too many levels. But it is interesting to consider that before the war Athens was the unchallenged "superpower" in the region, by far the richest city in the world. Its hubris led to the arrogant thought that the Athenian model could and should be exported to the rest of the world to civilize the barbarians, just like George W. wishes to export democracy to the Middle East and beyond. Of course, in reality Athens embarked in the war -- for example in the fateful expedition against Syracuse -- out of a much more mundane thirst for material resources, but this is also not that different from the real motivations that led to the invasion of Iraq (read Halliburton etc.).

Hanson isn't the first one to compare the United States to Athens. Johnson quotes Thomas Paine as saying that "What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude." Similarly, one might fear that the disaster that was the Peloponnesian war might pale in comparison to the long-term effects of the current US foreign policy. How much longer 'till the '08 Presidential elections?


  1. Hey, you can't make that post without referencing the Melian Dialogue - its a progressive rule I tell you!


  2. Massimo asked (rhetorically, I'm sure): "How much longer 'till the '08 Presidential elections?"

    Well, it's almost exactly 2 years. The jockeying for position should really become apparent soon. I've heard a few names mentioned from both parties but nothing very certain and no really obvious, outstanding candidates.

    Will George's war take us down? I think so. The billions of dollars and the damage to our reputation may well be insurmountable. I regret that this is the legacy that my children inherit.

  3. Personally, I don't think the mistakes (to be generous)of this administration are necessarily going to lead to the downfall of the US. I do think it will put us in intensive care for awhile though.

    But I don't think the "see, I told you so" conversation is very interesting and I doubt there are alot of folks on the other side of the issue who are going to admit the snaffu anyway.

    So, if you guys don't mind, I'd like to change gears a little and ask some questions. (These are honest question by the way, asked in the spirit of open discussion because I'm interested to see where the conversation will lead, not thinnly vailed attempts to make a point.)

    1) Is the war in Iraq in essence wrong or simply the way Bush has handled it?

    2)How should we deal with terrorism? (I know, a bit simplistic, but feel free to amend if you like.)

    3) Would the Dems, Greens, Libertarians, Other do better and why?

    4) What, if anything, can be done to fix the situation or at least make it better?

    5)Is it to late to get out of Iraq?

    6)Who else here wants to stuff that stupid bowtie down Tucker Carlson's throat? Just Me?


  4. lehwjhI'd like to throw in a few comments generated by Noah's questions.

    1. The war is in my opinion very wrong. There was no connection between 9/11 and Iraq. It would have made no less sense to attack Bolivia than it did to attack Iraq. Why didn't he attack Saudi Arabis since nearly all the particpants in 9/11 were Saudi? (Rhetorical question) The US had the sympathy of the world and we could have counted on significant help from even Muslim countries. But then gWb had to go off on a macho ego trip and everything was lost.
    2. Dealing with terrorism is not accomplished by going to war with a sovereign nation. Terrorism is a nebulous thing, an abstraction. The only effective way to deal with it is to make yourself less vulnerable (something Bush has not done very well at all)and deal with the terrorists themselves covertly. Massive military operations are worthless (much like the junta that has attempted them) because terrorist have little if any visible infrastructure and can go to ground in a New York minute when they are threatened. They just lay low while the heat is on, then reappear when they get the opportunity.

    3. We have to get out of Iraq and the sooner the better. Bush can't even keep the enthusiasm of a lot of his supporters. He has basically lost the country on this matter and it is getting worse for him everyday. I can't wait for the indictment to start to appear!

    4. I'm going to make one last comment, and leave the rest of Noah's questions for someone else to work on. I suggest depositing Tucker Carlsons bowtie in an orifice much lower and on the dorsal side of his anatomy.

  5. First, I'm not fond of the whole Bush went to war for oil or to profit Halliburton arguments. While these things may have influenced some, I prefer the more prosaic explanation of incompetence. As someone somewhere once said "never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence"

    The original explanation for the war was to eliminate the threat of WMDs, but I don't think that the Bush administration ever believed that. I do think that they naively believed that they could transform the Middle East into a vision of democracy resulting in the peace and prosperity of tens of millions (and the rest of the world by extension) for generations to come.

    If that goal was even remotely achievable force, then I would hope that most of us would see that it would be worth some measure of sacrifice in lives and dollars.

    But that is a fantasy world. History and a basic knowledge of human nature should have made it clear that the Bush administration's plans had little chance for success and a great chance to produce the opposite effect (especially given what we knew about the region's ethnic and religious divisions, etc.)

    The great sin of the administration (besides their incredible naivety/incompetence) is that they did not allow a free discourse of the pros and cons of their plans. Instead they (via the conservative media stars) painted any dissenting opinion as someone who was unpatriotic or against the freedom of the Iraqis.

    My simple analogy to my pro-war friends at the time who would make the claim that removing a ruthless dictator and freeing the Iraqis was a noble cause, was that of a brain tumor.

    If I had a brain tumor, I could patiently work with medical science to try to find a workable solution or I could run home grab a butcher knife and cut it out myself. As I lay dying of my wounds, if my wife or family should protest my actions, I could always respond "Yes, but the tumor is out. Would you rather see the tumor still in power?" You get the point.

    Who knows, in time, maybe Iraq will succeed defeat the insurgency and democracy, peace and prosperity will spread throughout the region. If it does, we all need to re-evaluate the trade-offs. I doubt that will be the outcome. One day Iraq will stabilize, but terrorism will be alive in well in other countries (including Europe) in those radicals who will have increased recruiting power now that the U.S. can be more easily painted as the Great Satan. Iraq may also be democratic, but choose to vote Islamic clerics into office. Then they will become more like Iran -- who some say are already exerting great influence over the Iraqi Shiite majority.

    Think of the great irony. We built up Hussein in the 1980's to defeat Islamic theocracy only to have spent hundreds of billions decades later to remove him and to install a government which may quite easily become an Islamic theocracy. Wouldn't have been much better to have supported Ayatollah in Iran in the 1980's. Probably would have avoided 911 as a result to boot!

    As for dealing with terrorism, it should have been (as it has been to some extent) a cooperative effort among nations to disrupt terrorists organizations, seize their financial assets and arrest (covertly if possible to avoid creating martyrs) as many of them and their leaders as possible. And add a huge dash of pro-Western propaganda.

    Would Democrats or Libertarians done better? Well, its hard to imagine doing worse, but I'm sure any administration would have made mistakes. I doubt we would be in the war at all if not for this particular group of neo-cons (i.e. Wolfowitz, etc.).

    I don't think we can unilaterally withdraw from Iraq now, but a more aggressive timetable for the Iraqis to assume security responsibility needs to be set -- would have been nice to have some major U.N. support (at least 50% of the troops) so that the U.S. wasn't the only country with a bulls eye on our backs, but we know how that went.

    Tucker Carlson - no comments - best to ignore his ilk (TV news/talk show hosts - that is).


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