The Classics Rock

Eleven reasons Plutarch and Herodotus still matter.

Is the study of classical history pointless? What useful knowledge will I glean from reading about some dead Roman governor of Britain? How will studying what the Delphic oracle had to say about the Persian advance into Greece help me in my future job at the State Department?

I hear such questions often in my seminar on Thucydides and other classical writers, which I teach at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. My students -- future policymakers, pundits, and managers -- approach the class with a good dose of skepticism about the value (aside from mere amusement) of reading about ancient times. Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War -- in particular the Melian Dialogue, a quintessential tale of the small, neutral Melians defending themselves against the strong Athenians -- is relatively common reading among budding wonks. But Tacitus, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Plutarch? Most students favor the latest tome on the rise of China over the insights of these long-dead writers.

My students' predilections reflect a wider skepticism about the present-day relevance of old texts. For modern academics and policy analysts, ancient authors are guilty of adopting an unscientific approach, relying on anecdotes, and showing a primitive fear of natural events. What good does it do the reader to know that before battle the Romans often consulted a pullarius, a chicken-feeding augur? Such texts say nothing about modern life, critics say, and certainly will not help one get a job at Goldman Sachs or the Pentagon. The ancients were not worried about the movement of the IS and LS curves.

But that's precisely the point. Reading Thucydides's description of the revolution in Corcyra, Tacitus's praise of Agricola, or Julius Caesar's tale of Vercingetorix's uprising is refreshing because these works do not simplify human affairs to logical models. These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood. Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether politics or economics; we are often at the mercy of incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces. Events can sometimes only be appreciated when taken as they are.

With that understanding, let me relate 11 ancient lessons relevant to today's world.

1. Superstition bests logic. Today's leaders, like those of ancient times, do not think exclusively in terms of gains and losses, balance sheets, costs and benefits, and legal constraints. Rather they are moved by hearsay, superstitions, and dreams. Consider, for instance, the Athenian general Nicias, who spent more time in divination than pondering how to extricate his troops from Sicily. He took a fateful decision to stay at Syracuse because of a nocturnal eclipse of the moon and ended up being executed by the Sicilians.

2. Theology is far more important than economics. People are humans, not cash registers. And humans, even today, tend to hold strong beliefs about the Supreme Being, eternity, and what happens when you drink the waters of the Lethe River. They act here and now on the basis of those beliefs. Many will be led to great sacrifices, incomprehensible to those without an appreciation for the divine, in defense of their faith. Witness the Jews who refused to allow Caligula's statue in the Temple and were spared his full wrath only by his timely and violent demise. Others, notably the early Christians in Rome, were not so lucky, and their bodies littered imperial streets and stadia.

3. Political leaders care about public opinion, but they also care about history and their place in it. They might be willing to trade present public support and admiration -- or even the survival of their city or army -- for a shot at immortality and a place in history books. As a British rebel put it to encourage his men to fight the Roman legions, "Think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after!" Well, they lost, and, in Tacitus's description, an "awful silence reigned everywhere." But he fought not as much for that day as for the past and the future. People engage in politics and war sub specie aeternitatis, with all of its consequences.

4. Money is not the sinews of war. Men are. Wealth is nice, but an enemy's center of gravity is his soul, character, mind, and faith, not his arms or his cities. As Xenophon wrote, "It is not numbers or strength that bring victories in war. No, it is when one side goes against the enemy with the gods' gift of a stronger morale that their adversaries, as a rule, cannot withstand them." On another occasion, the Persians ate on tables of gold and still had a hard time defeating 300 Spartans who ate porridge. Persia's large reservoirs of money and manpower could not bend the Greeks' disdain for the Medes and love of independence. The Greeks never surrendered.

5. Thus, to conquer an enemy, change him. Julius Caesar, when expanding the Roman Empire across Gaul and Britain, knew he needed to sap his new and unwilling constituents' desire to rebel. Calgacus in Caledonia and Vercingetorix in Gaul could be defeated on the battlefield, but the Romans had to assimilate the British and Gauls to rule. Thus, Caesar made the enemies into Romans, providing them with things like schools. Tacitus described the result: "The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilization,' when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement."

6. Fear is powerful, but love can overcome it. Our modern understanding is that fear motivates individuals and states. (Thank you, Thomas Hobbes!) Politics is then the attempt to calibrate fear to achieve stability, deterrence, or whatever other desired outcome. Yet the ancients teach that love of one's brother in arms, family, city, nation, honor, prestige, justice, and god will make one do things deemed impossible or even suicidal. For instance, the Melians' faith in justice and their gods led them to naively believe that Sparta would help them against Athens.

7. States are fragile, no matter how wealthy, strong, or cohesive. The "school of Hellas," Athens, collapsed into a whirlwind of violence when the plague struck its people. The Athenians ceased to fear their gods and respect the law and "coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner," as Thucydides wrote. In fact, even families, the rock of societies, can fall apart. In the "bloody march of the revolution" in Corcyra, as Thucydides put it, fathers killed their sons, and there "was no length to which violence did not go." Polities may break up unexpectedly, and the beastly state of nature is always around the corner.

8. Expect the unexpected; not everything makes sense all the time. A respected, beloved, and experienced general can be, in a key moment, a pusillanimous and superstitious leader whose actions border on the treasonous. The Athenian general Nicias, mentioned earlier, refused to retreat speedily at the end of the siege of Syracuse -- for no clear reason at all. Much cannot be understood. The ability to comprehend is limited. Live with it.

9. For some, war is not a means to an end, but a goal in and of itself. Some fight because they love the glory of the battlefield, the pleading of the defeated, the plunder, the women, the gold, and the social cohesion of the battalion. For some, war is a way of life and peace the beginning of the end. Take, for instance, Julius Caesar, who loved the Germanic soldiers who fought on his side even though their fellow tribes were threatening Roman imperial interests from across the Rhine. They simply enjoyed a good fight. Similarly, Tacitus describes a Roman officer who "exulting less in the prizes that danger wins than in danger for its own sake, ... sacrificed the assured gains of the past to a novel and hazardous gamble." Or, as Achilles put it in The Iliad, "What I really crave is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men."

10. Technology extends man's power over nature, but nature is powerful too. An earthquake stopped a Spartan invasion of Attica; a plague devastated Athens and upset its political order; and Julius Caesar barely made it back from Britain to Gaul across the British Channel. Nature can redirect history in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.

11. Success is elusive. Sometimes naiveté, arrogance, and dumb luck turn the most powerful into a loser. (Looking for a Ph.D. dissertation topic? "Stupidity as an independent variable in international relations" would be useful and rare.) Accept this as a tragedy of the human condition. You will never engineer the perfect political administration. Often a group of brilliant generals can lead to a disaster, as the Athenians found out in Sicily.

In the end, we will never fully comprehend power, war, or life. The biggest danger for modern leaders and students of politics is that we think we know more than we do and that we can play with political realities as if they were hard sciences. Reading these classical texts is a good antidote to modern arrogance. Politics is an art, after all.

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Obama’s Foolish Settlements Ultimatum

History shows that progress toward Middle East peace happens when U.S. presidents use finesse, not unreasonable demands, to move negotiations forward.

U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to confront Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli construction activity in East Jerusalem has been greeted by a hail of praise, especially from people impatient to proceed with peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The belief seems to be that meeting this issue head-on will accelerate progress toward an agreement ending a conflict that has festered for generations. The historical record suggests a different conclusion.

The assumption that a faceoff over construction in Jerusalem will advance negotiations has not been subjected to much scrutiny. But the last two decades show that progress has occurred not when this issue was put first, but when it was finessed and left for the final status negotiations on Jerusalem.

Consider this: If, 17 years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had insisted that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, before Arafat would sit down with Rabin, there would have been no Oslo agreements.  By Rabin's own account, in comments before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, he had to fudge the issue.

"I explained to the president of the United States," he said,"that I wouldn't forbid Jews from building privately in the area of Judea and Samaria ... I am sorry that within united Jerusalem construction is not more massive."

The same year as the famous handshake on the White House lawn, 1993, the Rabin government completed the construction of more than 6,000 units in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of East Jerusalem, out of a total of 13,000 units that were in various stages of completion in areas of the city that had been outside Israeli lines before 1967.

So Arafat did sit down with Rabin, even while Israel's construction in Jerusalem continued. And, on Sept. 13, 1993, the Oslo peace accord was signed -- by the same Mahmoud Abbas who refuses to sit down today. And on October 14, 1994, Rabin, who built homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Altogether, Israel completed 30,000 dwelling units in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem in the four years of Rabin's government. Even the Jan. 9, 1995, announcement of a plan to build 15,000 additional apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1967 borders (especially Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaacov, Gilo, and Har Homa) did not stop negotiations, which resulted in the Oslo II accord of September 28, 1995. Israeli construction continued while Abbas and Rabin signed an historic accord.

And what was the American policy toward Rabin's construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem? Mild annoyance.

On Jan. 3, 1995, the State Department spokesman said mildly, in response to the Rabin government's announcement of expanded construction, "The parties themselves ... have to judge whether it presents any kind of a problem in their own dialogue. The important thing is to continue to meet." The spokesman added on Jan. 10, 1995, "We admit that settlements are a problem, but we ... enjoin the parties to deal with these issues in their negotiations."

Clinton's Middle East peace advisor, Martin Indyk, told the U.S. Senate on Feb. 2, 1995, that Rabin's government had recently "given approval for something like 4,000 to 5,000 new housing units to go up in settlements around the Jerusalem area." But, he said, Clinton had decided to stay out of it. "To take action now that would in one way or another ... would be very explosive in the negotiations, and frankly, would put us out of business as a facilitator of those negotiations." Had Clinton taken Obama's approach, it might well have exploded the negotiations and brought the Oslo process to a halt.

Nor was this example of construction in Jerusalem while diplomacy made progress an isolated exception. Two years after Oslo II, in January 1997, Abbas and Arafat sat down with another Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, to sign the Hebron Protocol, which provided for the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from 80 percent of the very sensitive area of Hebron in the West Bank. Arafat and Abbas had no illusions that Netanyahu intended to freeze Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. In fact, Netanyahu had announced that he would proceed with the building of Har Homa, a controversial Israeli suburb conceived by Rabin. Nor, another 18 months later, did the Palestinians' fierce objections to Har Homa stop them from joining the Wye Plantation negotiations from October 15-23, 1998. These talks led to an agreement known as the Wye River Memorandum, in which Netanyahu, under considerable pressure from President Clinton, agreed to pull the Israel Defense Forces out of an additional 13 percent of the West Bank. This move was fiercely opposed by Netanyahu's right flank, and it led to his downfall in January 1999 when the hard-liners in his coalition defected.

Had Clinton demanded Netanyahu freeze construction in Jerusalem and Arafat made it a precondition for negotiations, neither the Hebron nor Wye agreements would have been signed.

The Labor government that was elected in the wake of Netanyahu's ouster continued the pattern of building in Jerusalem while moving forward in negotiations with the Palestinians. At the Camp David Summit (July 11-25, 2000), then Prime Minister Ehud Barak went past Israel's past "red lines" and the Palestinians most of the West Bank and a capital in Jerusalem, along with land swaps. But, at the same time that he was taking these unprecedented steps, Barak was accelerating the construction of Har Homa and other Jerusalem communities across the pre-1967 line. While the talks accelerated, Barak also moved ahead with the Ras al-Amud neighborhood on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. President Clinton said he " would have preferred that this decision was not taken." But Clinton added that the United States "cannot prevent Israel from building in Har-Homa." Haim Ramon, Rabin's minister for Jerusalem affairs, said "I would like to make it clear that the government has no intention of stopping the building at Har Homa."

Here again, had Clinton taken Obama's position and issued an ultimatum demanding that all construction in Jerusalem stop, and had Arafat made that American demand a precondition to begin negotiations, the Camp David Summit of 2000 and the Taba talks in January 2001 would not have occurred.

The next Israeli government, headed by retired general Ariel Sharon, did not seek any breakthroughs in negotiations with the Palestinians. But Sharon ordered the most dramatic territorial concession in Israel's history since 1967: the withdrawal of all Israeli soldiers from every square inch of Gaza along with the abandonment of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, in the "unilateral disengagement" of August-December 2005. Sharon pulled 8,000 Israeli settlers from their homes against fierce opposition from his right flank.

President George W. Bush played a key role in making Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza possible by softening U.S. policy on the settlement issue. To offset the concession that Sharon was making, and counter opposition to it from Israel's right, he wrote a letter to Sharon on April 14, 2004, acknowledging that, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. ... It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities." One implication of the letter was that the United States would treat Israeli construction in communities that all parties knew will remain part of Israel in any future two-state agreement, like the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, differently from settlement activity on controversial areas in the interior of the West Bank.

Elliott Abrams, the White House advisor who negotiated the Bush administration's compromises on the natural growth of settlement, explained the significance of the step Bush took last June in the Wall Street Journal: "There were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. ... The prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation ... the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza. ... There was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to ... confront his former allies on Israel's right by abandoning the 'Greater Israel' position. ... He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze."

There were expressions of unhappiness by Palestinian leaders and European diplomats about the Bush policy of giving a green light to limited construction in Jerusalem and certain settlement blocs. But the Bush administration defended it as a realistic policy that moved the peace process forward.

Four months after the disengagement from Gaza, on Jan. 4, 2006, Sharon went into a coma. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. Olmert sought a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Following the Annapolis Summit in November 2007, Abbas, who had taken over as president of the Palestinian Authority and head of the PLO after Arafat's death in November 2004, agreed to begin intensive negotiations with Olmert. While Abbas expressed his unhappiness with continued Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, he did not make cancelation of these projects a precondition for talks. In fact, Olmert said, "It was clear from day one to Abbas ... that construction would continue in population concentrations -- the areas mentioned in Bush's 2004 letter. ... Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Zeev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem ... areas [that] will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement."

These negotiations produced significant results: on Sept. 16, 2008, Olmert offered Abbas 93 percent of the West Bank, partition of Jerusalem, and a land swap. Abbas's deputy Saeb Erekat boasted to a Jordanian newspaper that he and Abbas had achieved considerable progress with the Olmert government between the November 2007 Annapolis talks and the end of 2008 in as many as 288 negotiation sessions by 12 committees -- all while Israeli construction continued.

The record is clear and consistent: The United States has never liked Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, and frequently stated that it complicated the peace process. But until Obama, no U.S. president had made its cancelation a precondition for negotiations, and until Obama, Palestinian leaders including Abbas did not make it a precondition either. For 19 years -- from the Madrid conference of October 1991 through the Olmert/Abbas negotiations that ended in 2008, negotiations moved forward while Jerusalem construction continued. Madrid, Oslo I, Oslo II, the Hebron Protocol, the Wye River Memorandum, Camp David, Taba, the disengagement from Gaza, and the Olmert offer to Abbas -- all these events over the course of two decades were made possible by a continuing agreement to disagree about Israeli construction of Jewish homes in Jewish neighborhoods outside the pre-1967 line in East Jerusalem.

Today, for the first time in 19 years, we have an aministration unable to produce Israeli-Palestinian negotiations . Abbas is following Obama's lead in demanding an unprecedented precondition that Israel cannot satisfy. This is the same Abbas who negotiated with seven previous Israeli prime ministers -- Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu (in his first term), Barak, Sharon, and Olmert, without the precondition that he now demands of Netanyahu. We have a crisis. Netanyahu is doing something that every past Israeli prime minister of the left and right has done, but Obama is doing something that past American leaders considered unwise. It is the U.S. behavior that has changed.

At this moment, Obama's decision to confront Netanyahu about construction in Jerusalem wins wide praise. Whether Obama's policy will still look good in six months, when people realize he has mired the negotiations in quicksand, remains to be seen.

Obama would do better to take the advice of his own Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who wisely told PBS host Charlie Rose, "For the Israelis, what they're building in is in part of Israel. Now, the others don't see it that way.  So you have these widely divergent perspectives on the subject. Our view is, let's get into negotiations, let's deal with the issues and come up with a solution to all of them including Jerusalem. ... The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in East Jerusalem. ... There are disputed legal issues. ... And we could spend the next 14 years arguing over disputed legal issues or we can try to get a negotiation to resolve them in a manner that meets the aspirations of both societies."