Thucydides All Over Again

Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, GR 42, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, GR 42, Hoover Institution Archives.

President Obama recently said the war in Syria “haunts me constantly.” It ought to. Because the killing of more than a half million of Syria’s people by their government, Iran, Russia, and ISIS will cast a long shadow over the legacy of the Obama administration. Especially because this devastation results from the success of the Obama doctrine, not its failure.

The Obama doctrine—as outlined by the President and his amanuenses Ben Rhodes and Derek Chollet—emphasizes retrenchment: disengage from the Middle East, shift greater responsibility for security outcomes to allies, “nation build here at home,” and “take the long view,” which means not over-committing to near-term problems. In their eyes, Libya is a success story because America limited its role and affixed responsibility for Libya’s failure onto Europeans. Syria, too, is a success story—the best decision of his administration in President Obama’s opinion—because the President did not get sucked into “owning” a problem that would demand long-term American involvement.

In Book 1 of the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides famously describes the motivations of war to be fear, honor, and interest. The weaker allies of Sparta’s coalition complain that Athens is laying siege to towns, interfering in commerce, and inciting revolt, while Sparta does nothing. The Corinthians complain that “instead of calling these allies together before the blow fell, you have delayed to do so till we are smarting under it.” They complain that Sparta’s inaction is provoking aggression, and shame Sparta by saying, “the world used to say that you were to be depended upon.” It is a perfect classical allusion to our contemporary problems, complaints our allies are making right now about President Obama’s passivity in the face of metastasizing terrorist organizations, Iran destabilizing neighboring countries, aggressive moves by China in the South and East China Seas, and a dramatic revision of power dynamics by Russia in the Middle East with their intervention in Syria.

Thucydides gives a pitch perfect description of how America’s adversaries have gained because of the Obama doctrine: “you have…a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release.”

In advising a different course, Sparta’s allies plead “do not sacrifice friends and kindred to their bitterest enemies, and drive the rest of us in despair to some other alliance…if you will only act, we will stand by you.” It is the exact same plea America’s allies in the Middle East and beyond are making to President Obama now.

Instead of taking that sound advice, Sparta—like President Obama—falls into bickering with their allies about who contributed more or less in previous battles, the superior justice of their policies over those of other possible allies, and recriminations about the iniquity of allied complaints. What neither Sparta nor President Obama appreciate is how much more robust and less costly our security is when allies trust our commitments.