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
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