2004-04-30 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Tide of Politics?

 I recently finished reading a novel, "The Tides of War," by Steven Press-field, recalling the events of the 27 year conflict between ancient Athens and Sparta for dominance of the fifth century Hellenic world. Based largely on the account of a contemporary ancient Greek historian, Thucydides (The History of the Pelopennesian War), it tells the tale of the rise and fall of the Athenian leader Alcibiades, a billiant orator and general who never lost a battle but who had a somewhat harder time hanging on to his command. Alcibiades was the best Athens had to offer, a man of vision and profound intelligence, a brilliant strategist . . . though, if Pressfield has it right, he was also somewhat self-serving. What brought him down was the "democratic" dynamic of his city-state, since the Athenian citizenry was given to constant bickering, incessant litigation, and intense investigation and prosecution of its officials, reflecting the different factions and individuals within the state as they jockeyed for power.

In Alcibiades case, he was initially called home on charges of sacrilege, brought by his political enemies, just as he was successfully kicking off Athen’s war against Syracuse in the west. Rather than face charges that could result in his death, Alcibiades bolted and ended up in Sparta where he joined the Spartan cause, to the Athenians’ great discomfort. Without Alcibiades at the head of its armies in the west, the Syracusan campaign collapsed. Its army was routed and most were slaughtered, with the remainder condemned to a living death in the mines of Syracuse.

Eventually Alcibiades left Sparta and, after a brief sojourn in the Persian Empire, made his way back to Athens where he was welcomed contritely by his countrymen, who were tired of losing to Sparta. They gave him control of their forces again and, in a series of brilliant campaigns, Alcibiades turned the tables on the Spartans and restored Athenian supremacy on the Aegean Sea. But while he was at work on the battlefield, his old enemies in the Athenian democracy renewed their struggle for power with him and brought a series of lawsuits against him, charging him and those around him with all kinds of perfidy, eventually succeeding in convincing the Athenian democracy to cut his military budget. Without money for supplies or to pay his troops, Alcibiades forces slowly began to strangle and, in one last bid to finish things quickly, he struck at the Spartans at Ephesus. Although he again succeeded in destroying the Spartan forces, he was unable to dislodge them from their stronghold and, as they stubbornly hung on, Alcibiades, Pressfield tells us, recognized in this his ultimate defeat. He could not win a final victory in time to stave off the work of his opposition at home since his own forces were weakening each day, even as the Spartans were digging in, aided by unlimited amounts of Persian gold. In the end Alcibiades fled again, rather than lose a war which he expected his ungrateful fellow citizens would blame and execute him for.

But the crowning stupidity of the ancient Athenians, having allowed their fickle minds to be turned against their most effective leader, came after this. To replace Alcibiades, they sent out a committee of ten generals (to make sure none could become pre-eminent like Alcibiades, a man whose successes struck jealousy and fear into the hearts of his competitors). This committee, despite shrinking resources in the face of the inexhaustible funding the Spartans were able to secure from Persia, managed, through superior seamanship, to win battles, though not with the panache and consistency of Alcibiades. But after one successful battle against the clumsier Spartan navy, a fierce storm came up, making it impossible for the leaders of the Athenian expedition to rescue thousands of their own seamen who had been swept into the sea.

Despite heroic efforts, these sailors were lost. Returning to Athens, the generals were not hailed for their victories but indicted by the populace instead, for failing to save their brethren . . . even though all evidence pointed to the fact that the storm had made this impossible. Six of the ten generals fled, but four were caught in the Athenians’ political fury and forced to stand trial for their lives. In the heated investigations that ensued, these men were condemned to death and slaughtered ignominiously by the Athenian democrats intent on consuming their own. Athens never recovered, having executed or driven out its best military leaders. Its subsequent leaders proved too timid to take further risks or to think clearly when confronting the Spartans. They were rapidly destroyed on the field of battle and Sparta ultimately marched into Athens. It demolished Athenian democracy, set up a reign of terror operated by 30 Spartan-appointed despots, demolished Athens’ walls and other defenses and crushed all opposition . . . in the name of "freedom" for Greece. The Spartans could not have been more delighted with the work the self-destructive Athenian democracy had done for them.

Why is this important today? I’m reminded of these events every time I turn on the news and read about the incessant clamor against the Bush administration over 9/11. The media, hungry for excitement or just dead set against the current administration (or both), fall all over themselves to find another nail for this president’s political coffin, seeking to blame George W. Bush for events that none of us could have envisioned even a day before they occurred. As the political opposition takes every opportunity to fan the flames of suspicion concerning Bush and his staff, the American public increasingly doubts the leadership that produced the first al Qaeda reverses in that terrorist organization’s decades long history.

Never mind that the Bush administration responded to the vicious sneak attacks by al Qaeda in an unprecedentedly forceful and effective way. Never mind that Bush and his people did what no American president before him had done, taking the war the terrorists had declared on us back to them and unseating a dangerous monster in the Middle East who had made it his mission to secure dominance for himself in that critical region. Instead the political opposition and its ratings-hungry media abettors want to tell us that

Bush erred for failing to stop attacks no one before him had managed to deal effectively with either. They want to hold Bush accountable for not doing what Bill Clinton also had not done. This despite the fact that contentious political lawsuits, originally initiated by the Democrats, over Florida back in 2000, had drastically delayed the usual transfer of power between administrations, while contentious congressional hearings had slowed approval of Bush appointees into the critical summer before 9/11.

What’s changed since ancient times? Certainly, democracy and politics still seem to be about bringing down the guy in charge, for the benefit of those who are temporarily out of power. Bush may be no Alcibiades, and that’s not bad since Alicbiades for all his brilliance was a somewhat self-serving egoist, convinced of his own superiority to ordinary men. But Americans have certainly set themselves up as modern day Athenians, allowing democratic principles to be used to undermine their own interests and institutions. In fanning the flames of the current witchhunt to somehow blame the Bush administration for a storm it could not have controlled and was not in a position to prevent, we "Athenians" are seeking to exile or eliminate the very generals who have brought us our first victories and who have turned the tables on those Spartan-like elements who want to destroy our nation and culture.

How can we be so foolish? Are Osama and his ilk right, that Americans have no stomach for real conflict?

Is it democracy’s great flaw, that it contains, within itself, the seeds of its own demise?

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