Daniel W. Drezner

Has anyone at The American Prospect ever read Thucydides?

Has anyone at The American Prospect ever read Thucydides?

Via Daniel Nexon and Robert Farley, I see that The American Prospect has committed multiple sins against Thucydides. The major sins are contained in this Thomas Geoghegan essay that blasts neoconservatives for being so besotted with Thucydides:

College kids write papers now on how we got into Iraq. Or so it is with my friend’s daughter. She’s supposed to write a paper on one of the neocons. Which one should she pick?… If I had a kid, I’d make her do Thucydides (460? – 400? B.C) — he’s an honorary neocon in a way, and no one’s doing him. Indeed, he’s the darling of the neocons. They simply love this guy. Donald Kagan, the father of Robert and Fred, has written four or five volumes on The Peloponnesian Wars, all to illustrate how the neocons should see the world. And other neocons like Victor Hansen Davis make a big fuss over Thucydides, too. And what’s the moral they draw from Thucydides? “No mercy,” my old college teacher said. The strong will crush the weak. If ever there’s a case for pre-emptive war, it is all there in Thucydides. It’s a world in which there is no world opinion, or international law. That kind of thing’s for sissies, the neocon’s would say Set up those prisons in Guantanamo. They don’t cry over these things in Thucydides. You focus on being strong. Yet maybe one should say something in Thucydides’ defense. First,, he was writing in Fifth Century B.C. There was no such thing as world opinion. There was no mass media. There was no CNN, or UN, or anything like the Hague. We were not wired up to each other. And there were no roadside bombs. What the neocons miss is that things that the Spartans could get away with in The Peloponessian Wars, they wouldn’t even try to get away with now. It’s not that we’re “soft” in the twenty-first century. But our hard power is so dependent on our soft power that there are things a “realist” would have done once that anyone with a sense of reality wouldn’t do now. But it’s not much of a defense, because even back then, at least Herodotus knew better…. One big blustery super-power can’t dominate the world. Actually, the kind of hegemony that neocons call for isn’t even really found in Thucydides. Ultimately, as some scholars note, even in Thucydides, Sparta backs off too. But it’s even clearer in Herodotus: there is not so much a clash of civilizations as a plethora of them. And even one based on Hollywood cannot subdue the world. Indeed, that’s why Herodotus is more important than Thucydides for Americans. We’re the most blinkered because we don’t do what Herodotus did and travel around the world.

In the interest of having a productive work day, I’ll have to refrain from a detailed analysis of why this piece is so God-awful. Instead, I’ll have to ask my informed readers to determine the biggest sin committed in this piece:

1) Geoghegan’s moronic belief that Thucydides was some kind of war-monger — indeed, it is ironic that Geoghegan basically accepts the neoconservative interpretation of Thucydides (for a conservative takedown of this neoconservative position, click here).; 2) Geoghegan’s confusion of Sparta with Athens; 3) As Nexon put it, the “”everything I need to know about Thucydides I learned from the Melian Dialogue” problem in Geoghegan’s article. Indeed, I’ll put cash money on the table that Geoghegan has never read a single word of books six, seven, or eight in History of the Peloponnesian War; 4) The fact that the editors of The American Prospect pparently know as little about Thucydides as Geoghegan.

Debate away!