Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. Those who persuade funding bodies to give them money on the basis that their research project is really with-it and relevant to contemporary issues shall spend their time worrying that everyone may suddenly lose interest. Thucydides was the classical text of choice for the two Iraq conflicts, whether deployed to justify an overwhelming ‘shock and awe’ approach (and I really must get round to finishing the article in which I reveal the real source of Colin Powell’s misquotation to support his strategy…) or to argue in favour of toppling Saddam; what about now..?
Three cheers for the good old US military. At a House committee hearing* this week, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was interrogated by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) about his earlier statement that Iran was considered a rational actor (and hence sanctions and diplomacy were the best approach. Gen. Dempsey’s reply:
Yes, I stand by it because the alternative is almost unimaginable. The alternative is that we attribute to them that their actions are so irrational that they have no basis of planning. You know, not to sound too academic about it but Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. said that all strategy is some combination of reaction to fear, honor and interests. And I think all nations act in response to one of those three things, even Iran. The key is to understand how they act and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality. I think that’s a very dangerous thing for us to do. It doesn’t mean I agree with what they decide by the way but they have some thought process they follow.
My first thought was, I must admit, relief that Thucydides was still felt to be relevant by more than the occasional blogger with the standard critical reading of the Melian Dialogue (“Today, the diplomatic pressures being exerted against Iran reflect the same essential logic that Thucydides once put into the mouths of the Athenian delegates at Melos. “). The second was that Gen. Dempsey’s paraphrase is actually of Thucydides, rather than Powell’s essentially fictional quote. The third was that I love the idea of a military officer apologising to a politician for being too academic, but that may be the transatlantic cultural difference talking.
And then there are the broader questions: why Thucydides? Is this simply a reflection of Dempsey’s original training? Or is that the evocation of Thucydides (the hard-nosed realist) can add legitimacy to the idea that humans, even Iranians, are basically rational even if their goals are different, an idea that without such backing would be easily dismissed as liberal flannel at best?
*Taken from http://thinkprogress.org/security/2012/03/01/435346/dempsey-iran-rational-actor/?mobile=nc; thanks to Dan Tompkins for passing this on.