Saturday, April 26, 2008

Judgements of Histories

On the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, I remembered Thucydides's account of Athens's catastrophic expedition to Syracuse. Daniel Mendelsohn's brilliant New Yorker review of an annotated edition of Herodotus's Histories suggests to me that other Greek historian (and Thucydides's predecessor) had a better template for the Iraq expedition. In Mendelsohn's reading, Herodotus's point was not to gossip or celebrate Greek courage, but to recount the rise and fall of the great Persian empire. The empire fell because of a rash ruler's effort to expand it beyond its natural limits. That puts a nice socio-biological twist on hubris, the motor of Greek tragedy, and echoes Dirty Harry's line that "a man should know his limitations." In concluding his review, Mendelsohn lays the template thickly over the present case:

Then, there is the story itself. A great power sets its sights on a smaller, strange, and faraway land—an easy target, or so it would seem. Led first by a father and then, a decade later, by his son, this great power invades the lesser country twice. The father, so people say, is a bland and bureaucratic man [Darius], far more temperate than the son; and, indeed, it is the second invasion that will seize the imagination of history for many years to come. For although it is far larger and more aggressive than the first, it leads to unexpected disaster. Many commentators ascribe this disaster to the flawed decisions of the son[Xerxes]: a man whose bluster competes with, or perhaps covers for, a certain hollowness at the center; a leader who is at once hobbled by personal demons (among which, it seems, is an Oedipal conflict) and given to grandiose gestures, who at best seems incapable of comprehending, and at worst is simply incurious about, how different or foreign his enemy really is. Although he himself is unscathed by the disaster he has wreaked, the fortunes and the reputation of the country he rules are seriously damaged. A great power has stumbled badly, against all expectations.
Max Rodenbeck, the Economist's Middle East correspondent, also uses a book review to deliver a similar judgement of the Iraq expedition's effect on the American empire. He finds much wrong with Robin Wright's Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, especially her assuming that Middle East societies can easily adopt civic culture and democratic values. However, he agrees with her that the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath helped put an end to such efforts earlier in this decade.

As numerous interlocutors in the region tell her, not only did the debacle promote extremism and further isolate pro-Western liberals, it alerted people to the terrible risks of toppling tyrants. The Iraq adventure, in Wright's view, may have been the biggest American policy failure of all time. It could yet prove to mark the end of an imperial America's influence in the region, much as France and Britain's catastrophic invasion of Egypt in 1956 demolished the colonial powers' standing and dangerously boosted the fortunes of Egypt's reckless leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. That is surely a sound judgment.

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