Friday, October 21, 2005


Battles change, wars don't

Victor Davis Hanson observes:
In our age of sophisticated economics, we tend to look for material causes for wars — land, resources, populations — rather than remembering these age-old emotional urges. But perhaps we could learn from Thucydides the next time Osama bin Laden alleges in his fatwas that we provoked him by stationing troops in Saudi Arabia or by enforcing the U.N. oil-for-food embargo.

The fact is, the deep-seated anger and humiliation of Al Qaeda were more likely incited by a globalized and Western culture that really did threaten all the old hierarchies of an increasingly dysfunctional Arab and Islamic world (and the worried mullahs, patriarchs and theocrats, whose sense of privilege and honor derived from that world).

In other words, Bin Laden probably went to war over a sense of lost honor, in Thucydidean fear of Western globalization and due to his perceived self-interest — given perceptions of Western appeasement of radical Islamist terrorism since 1979 — that he had more to win than lose by hitting New York and Washington.

Of course, we must be careful when evoking the past to make sense of the present. Many, for example, recently cited the Iraq war as the modern equivalent of the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415-413 BC, when Athens lost most of its fleet by assaulting distant Syracuse. But Syracuse was democratic, larger than Athens and, until the invasion, mostly neutral during the Peloponnesian War. A more historically apt analogy to that expedition would be if the United States had attacked democratic India during the midst of the U.S. war against Al Qaeda.

Study of the Peloponnesian War should also remind us that it is not assured that the wealthiest, most sophisticated and democratic state always triumphs over less impressive enemies. After all, Athens, for all its advantages, finally lost its war. And as Thucydides reminds us about the democratic empire's lapses, arrogance and major blunders, more often the chief culprit was its own infighting and internal discord than the prowess of its many enemies.


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