[ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]
From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”
I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:
None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.
And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.
Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..
If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.
In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.
Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.
The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us
a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities
— down to our own times.
What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.
The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:
Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.
Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.
Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.
The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.
And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.
The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..
Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?
He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:
Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.
— and had the final, pointed word:
We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.
Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:
Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.
MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.
“I cannot tune a harp or play a lyre, but I know how to make a small city great.” – Themistocles
Nautical archaeologist Dr. John R. Hale, an expert on bronze age shipbuilding and seafaring, has written a delightful and robust popular history of the navy of ancient Athens, but more importantly, a poignant political history of the Athenian navy’s intrinsic relationship to radical Democracy and Empire. A page turner with enough detail about triremes and warfare in the Aegean to leave you crying “The Sea! The Sea!”, Lords of the Sea will be enjoyed by naval buffs and philo-Hellenes alike.
As you would expect, there is much in Lords of the Sea about the design, construction and care of triremes, Piraeus and the Long Walls, the shipsheds at Zea Harbor, the financing of the Athenian navy, trierarchy, naval tactics, rowers and rowing, superstitions of Athenian sailors on campaign, the deforestation of Athens for ship timber, comparisons with Spartan,Persian and Macedonian naval prowess and the great sea battles of the ancient world. Plenty, in fact, to keep naval aficionados happy while reading Lords of the Sea and all of which I am spectacularly unqualified to comment upon. I can say that in regard to ancient navies, I learned much that was new to me.
What was of greater relevance to me was Hale’s major theme of the political nature of the Athenian navy. That the imperial glory and thalassocracywas irrevocably bound up with democracy itself and bitterly opposed by the wealthy, would-be, oligarchs who consistently preferred a much diminished Athens they controlled as Sparta’s vassals to a democratic Athenian empire where they shared power with the people:
….The resumption of work on the Long Walls jolted Athens’ oligarchs into action. A small group of upper-class citizens still hoped to destroy the radical democracy. These men feared that once Athens was permanently and inseparably linked to its navy by the Long Walls, the common people would never be unseated from their rule. Before the walls had been completed, the oligarchs sent secret messages to a Spartan army that was at that moment encamped not far from the frontiers of Attica. The oligarchs invited the Spartans to attack Athens, promising to assist in the overthrow of the current regime. In their own minds, these men were patriots, pledged to restore the ancestral consitution.
Traitors are always heroic in their own minds.
Hale was a student of Donald Kagan, whom he credits with inspiring him toward an investigation of the naval prowess of Athens, however in covering the history of Athens, including the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Hale is more evenhanded in his assessments than Kagan. The faction of oligarchs come off quite badly, except for the rising to the occasion of the Areopagus, patriotism and sacrifice is to be found by Hale primarily in the demos, especially the thetes and newly freed and enfranchised slaves who rose to the call to defend the city in the hours of Athens’ maximum danger. However, the demos in the Assembly were not without fault; rule by the people also proved to be impetuous, arrogant, capricious toward Athenian generals and cruel toward allies and enemies alike. The Athenian empire was, in short, afflicted with hubris and this caused their downfall.
Hale ties both democracy and Athens’ unparalleled cultural creativity to thalassocracy. When the political will to maintain Athenian naval dominance and independence as a power faded among the Athenian upper-classes, the spirit of oligarchy ignominiously surrendered Athens to a foreign king, despite a mighty navy and eagerly betrayed their own countrymen:
….The Assembly sent Phocion and Demades and Xenocrates, the head of the Academy, to ask Antipater [ Alexander the Great”s regent and successor ] about terms: a war hero, an orator, and a philosopher to negotiate the fate of a once-great city. Antipater demanded a payment of indemnity equal to the full cost of the war, the handing over of Demosthenes and other enemies of Macedon, and the evacuation of Samos. The thetes of the demos, defined as all citizens with a net worth of less than two thousand drachmas, were to be expelled from Athens. The wealthier citizens who remained must surrender the fort on Munychia Hill in the Piraeus to a Macedonian garrison.
…..So the Athenian envoys returned to Athens with the terms of surrender that gave up Athenian independence and, for all practical purposes, Athenian identity. The incredible had happened. Almost three-fifths of the citizens – 12,000 out of 21,000 – failed to pass Antiper’s test of wealth. They were the rabble, the mob, the radical democrats who were everywhere blamed for all the crimes of restless, ambitious, and expansionist Athens. They were now to be banished for the good of all, not merely from Athens but for the most part from Greece itself
The Athenian Assembly would have been far better off keeping Demosthenes, executing the trierachs who had cravenly surrendered to Cleitusthe White and his Macedonian fleet, ostracizing Phocion, Demades and Xenocrates and resuming the war. From this defeat, there was no recovery for Athens, nor did the new oligarchy, secure in their power now, seek any. Without the thetes there were no crews to man the ships or skilled laborers to build them at Zea. Athens was broken as a power and a polis forever.
Donald Kagan, who has been a professor of history and classics at Yale University almost as long as I have been alive has written a provocative book about Thucydides that challenges both conventional scholarly wisdom regarding the man who shares the title of “The Father of History” and the purpose of the book Thucydides meant to be “a possession forever”, The Peloponnesian War. In Kagan’s interpretation, Thucydides is the father of historical revisionism whose careful methodology furthered a political agenda: to defend the record of the Periclean state in Athens, where democracy was moderated by the wise statesmanship of the old aristocratic elite; and lay the blame for the downfall of Athens at Spartan hands on the vulgar hubris of radical democracy of mob and demagogue.
Thucydides is tightly focused argument about Thucydidean omissions, juxtapositions and treatment of sources and bias in his analytical rendering of military events and debates in the Assembly, not a comprehensive examination of The Peloponnesian War. Specifically, the treatment of Pericles and Nicias (whom Kagan argues Thucydides favors and whom Kagan blames for failures of strategy and execution, especially the latter) vs. that he meted out to Cleon, Alcibiades and Demosthenes. Kagan criticizes Thucydides for the deliberate omission of speeches of Periclean opponents in debates where he had been present and purporting to know the thoughts of actors where definitely had been absent, in exile; of faulty military analysis of the situation of the Spartan garrison besieged on Sphacteria due to personal enmity with Cleon and of the original expedition to Syracuse, because of favortism toward Nicias.
On Nicias in particular, a fellow aristocrat in favor of strategic restraint whom Kagan ascribes blame for the disaster in Sicily, did Thucydides seek a radical revision of the contemporary Athenian opinion. It was Thucydides belief that the post-Periclean democracy was a reckless, superstitious and greedy mob that led him, Kagan argues, to craft his narrative as an apologia for the inept statesmanship and incompetent generalship of Nicias that brought Athens to utter ruin in Sicily. Kagan’s accusations of bias on Thucydides part are more persuasive than his contention that the original expedition to Syracuse of sixty ships was a justifiable and sensible endeavor.
Kagan’s charges against Thucydides indirectly raise the larger question of politics in postwar Athens. A democracy shorn of it’s empire, long walls and fleet, defeated in external war but triumphant in brutal civil strife over it’s internal oligarchic enemies, was in all likelihood a dangerous place. Xenophon felt as a follower of Socrates, who had been associated with the reviled Alcibiades and Critias, that it was politic to leave Athens for his march upcountry under the banner of Cyrus. Socrates was unjustly put to death by the democratic faction. Writing from retirement in the luxury of a distant estate was a wiser option for a man of Thucydides’ opinions in that era than a return to the political fray in Athens and in part, would explain his supposed “revisionism”.
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.