Are we following in the footsteps of Athens? Let’s leave the path before we come to the same end.

Summary:  America can develop a sound grand strategy, if only we clearly see the path we’re now on.  Perhaps an analogy from history can help.

‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?
— Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Colin Powell (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) in the 1990s, about Bosnia, from Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003), p. 182

At an early intergovernmental meeting on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.  But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won. “Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.
— From The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam (1972)


  1. America following in Athens’ footsteps
  2. A cogent summary of our strategy from a disturbing expert
  3. A primer about Grand Strategy
  4. For more information

(1)  America following in Athens’ footsteps

The Founders modeled America on Rome, but we might be following in the footsteps of Athens.  A people attain great power through their daring and vigor.  They use this power unwisely, making enemies while dissipating their resources.  And eventually the rising stress leads to internal conflict and foreign defeats.  The details differ, but on a broad level the story might be the same.

See this summary of the past four years, from “Warrior in Chief” by Peter L. Bergen (Director at the New American Foundation), an op-ed in the April 28 New York Times.

He {Obama} ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. … During the Bush administration, there was an American drone attack in Pakistan every 43 days; during the first 2 years of the Obama administration, there was a drone strike there every 4 days. And 2 years into his presidency, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president was engaged in conflicts in 6 Muslim countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.

This aptly describes America’s grand strategy:

  1. Bipartisan, with little difference between the Bush Jr and Obama administrations
  2. Bellicose, with force the primary tool of statecraft when dealing with conflict.
  3. Based on uncritical acceptance of government claims and indifference to publicly available data (“effective covert wars”, “played an operational role in Al Qaeda”).
  4. Indiscriminate, using force in a wide range of situations — most of which do not affect America’s national interests (unlike 9-11, planned in Europe and trained in Florida).
  5. Indifferent to the deaths of uninvolved bystanders, even women and children.
  6. Multiplying enemies, alienating friends.

{For more analysis of this remarkable op-ed see “Celebrating our ‘Warrior President’”, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 29 April 2012 — “The Democratic case for Obama’s foreign policy greatness is most significant for what it blissfully ignores”.}

Not grand strategy!

(2)  A cogent summary of our strategy from a disturbing expert

These attitudes spreading out from our leaders to the wider society.  Such as this statement, which could be by any DoD official describing our drone attacks.

I understand what they felt in Oklahoma City. I have no sympathy for them … I recognized beforehand that someone might be … bringing their kid to work. … However, if I had known there was an entire day care center, it might have given me pause to switch targets. That’s a large amount of collateral damage. … To these people in Oklahoma who have lost a loved one, I’m sorry but it happens every day. You’re not the first mother to lose a kid, or the first grandparent to lose a grandson or a granddaughter. It happens every day, somewhere in the world.

— Timothy McVeigh, quoted in American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck (2001)

We’re waging ever-widening war on nations with large Muslim populations, often to support pro-American governments widely disliked by their people (eg, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and the Philippines (we had troops there; now using drones).  Allied with Israel, almost universally hated by its neighbors for its aggressive land acquisitions and horrific treatment of Palestinians.  Force and killing as primary foreign policy tools, supporting a mad and unprofitable America Imperium.

We’ve betrayed the ideals for which we fought WWII, and trashed in its infancy the resulting international order which was our nation’s greatest accomplishment.  As with Athens, our great accomplishments as a civilization will not help as our enemies proliferate — and the newly emerging great powers (eg, Turkey, Brazil, China) regard us as an unpredictable and potentially hostile nation.

“Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”
— Opening line to Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869)

(3)  A primer about Grand Strategy

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, circa 500 B.C.

To understand the nature of grand strategy is to see that we’re doing it badly.  The late American strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF) said that a grand strategy focused our nation’s actions — political, economic, and military — so as to:

The late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF)
  • Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
  • Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
  • Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
  • Attract uncommitted states to our cause.End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.

— From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139

In his essay on grand strategy, DNI editor Chet Richards quoted Boyd as recommending a “unifying vision” (killing every potential enemy is such a vision, albeit a mad one):

A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances — yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Such a unifying vision should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things.
— ”Patterns of Conflict”, Chart 143)

As one of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, summarized Boyd’s concept:

… grand strategy is the art of pursuing national goals in a way that improves our nation’s fitness to shape and cope with the conditions of an ever-changing international environment. A nation’s grand strategy is about its organic vitality and growth … or in Sun Tzu’s words, it is the “road to survival or ruin” over the long term.

For more information

(a)  About the meaninglessness of terrorism as a label used by our government:

  1. The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of ‘Terrorism’”, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 23 July 2009 — “The news reaction to the Oslo events clarifies the real meaning of ‘terrorism'”
  2. Iran and the Terrorism game“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 12 January 2012 — “When Iran allegedly engages in targeted assassination, that’s terrorism; when it’s the victim of that, it isn’t”
  3. Washington’s high-powered terrorist supporters“, Glenn Greenwald, 12 March 2012 — “As investigations begin into paid D.C. advocates of a dissident Iranian group, their self-defenses are revealing”
  4. Report: U.S. trained terror group“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 6 April 2012 — “The New Yorker documents ample material support from the U.S. to MEK: A clear felony if true”
  5. America’s drone sickness“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 19 April 2012 — “The U.S. slaughters at will, then shields its actions from all forms of judicial and democratic accountability”

(b)  Posts about grand strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  6. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  7. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  8. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  9. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  10. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  11. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  12. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009



16 thoughts on “Are we following in the footsteps of Athens? Let’s leave the path before we come to the same end.”

  1. In Sun Tzu’s words, it is the “road to survival or ruin” over the long term. That phrase rhetorically slaps you in the face. As if Chuck Spinney is saying change course now or horror will follow. The bad news is that so far the inertia of our current course is difficult to alter (and is relatively quickly ruining us). The good news is that America is robust i.e. can withstand some very poor choices and still have time to pivot. It feels like a unstable dynamic.

    1. “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”
      — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  2. You’ve been on fire lately, FM. Keep up the good work. I’m sorry I haven’t had time to respond but real life has reared its ugly head lately.

    Hoyticus – Two issues with your comment about America being robust.
    1) We won’t know where the breaking point is until after we’ve passed it

    2) We’ve been making increasingly bad decisions for the 3-5 decades. Inertia, as you’ve already noted is very considerable and I don’t think a simple pivot will do the job any more. We aren’t going to change course until reality hits us with something so big that it staggers the entire country. I’m talking something much bigger than either 9/11 or the financial meltdown. And then we have to change course in a more profitable direction. That’s going to be really hard and I have troubles imagining the current crop of leaders being up to the task.

    Lee –
    Don’t forget war profits. That helps the balance sheet considerably.

    1. Thanks for making my point – war profits (war expenditures, death on all sides, et al) that’s the overhead!

    2. Pluto, you raise good points. America is in an awkward equilibrium that cannot be maintained. Personally, I would say we’ve been making poor decisions for 50 years as opposed to only 30. That is to say I agree with Kennan’s version of containment not the more “muscular” versions. I agree with your assertion that it will most likely take some massive event to force us to change course. In the meantime, all hope is not lost especially considering we still frequent this place to absorb Fabius’ words. We still search for solutions.

    3. An interesting factoid, looking back on 7 years of articles on the FM website: most of the prophetic articless received few hits when written. The traffic recently is down 1/4 from average. People like to read consensus thinking about current events. Looking ahead too far is disturbing.

  3. Ole C G Olesen

    Now…. I KNOW … that what I present here ..will cause a stark reaction …. among some of the authors of ” Fabius Maximus ”
    And I do not claim .. that what is presented is the truth .. still there are many arguments which lend the presented some credibility …

    BUT is something EVERY AMERICAN … especially if You are a TRUE patriot ..defending the values which .. externally and internally made the world and a lot of native americans … believe .. that the USA was the land of the FREE … it is something which every american ..must reflect upon … and reach a verdict upon least in his heart .. as he may not ..understandably the situation is in the US ..DARE … to say what he thinks .. but way or the other.. he has to make up his mind.. what he believes ..about what is presented !

    Here it comes :

    and ( a bit more provocative ) .. please keep Your intelligent mind ..OPEN ! : “WHO WAS OSAMA? WHO IS OBAMA?“, by Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research, 2 May 2012.

    I remember my own reaction when 9/11 occurred apart from the sheer horror of the devastation ; Inside me a voice whispered ( because I am NOT stupid ) : ” that couldnt have come more convenient for the powers who are in the US .. than this one ! ” and as always in historical analysis.. and in criminoloigy …always ask yourself : WHO has a MOTIVE ?

    The USA has done similar before ; think of Pearl Harbour … this time around they may be quit a bit more RUTHLESS and the populace considerably more ignorant !

  4. I’m a little sad you only strung three B’s in a row, should’ve gone for the clean sweep. You’ve had great posts recently, though it makes me wonder all the different historical analogies that can be used to highlight our current trajectory. So far we’ve got Athens, late republican/early imperial Rome and both Roosevelt eras. Makes me wonder what other ones would be particularly illuminating, and whether we as a people have enough of a grasp of history to make use of them.

  5. Ole C G Olesen

    to themurr : probably NOT .. i mean regarding historical grasp ..

    The analogy which applies most consistently is the History of ATHENS and in that context Youll have to read : ” The Second Peleponesean War ” by Thukyidides … a great piece of work.. totally modern in its “Grasp” of history and politics
    The USA has NEVER showed anything resembling The ROMAN EMPIRE even if some delusionary and megalomaniac americans THINK that could be the case ! ( example Kagan now employed at STRATFOR as well as Hillary , Brezhinsky , Bush and many more ) The Demise of The ROMAN Empire can more appropriately be brought into context when looking at the Entirety of the Western World .

    To paraphrase men superior to me: those who do not understand the past.. will never understand the present and definitely not be in a position to attempt to percieve the Future …

  6. Another particularly illuminating era paralleling todays various conditions is the pre Civil War in America.

    1. Fabius, just as a stab in the dark on the pre-Civil War era. The political deadlock is very similar, with those willing to compromise being sidelined or dying (Webster, Clay). You have an entrenched elite protecting their interests with large numbers of those not sharing in the wealth supporting them anyways (slaveholders in the South). Both political parties try as hard as possible to avoid the truly dire issues (Tippecanoe and Tyler too).

      We’re lacking a real third party to cannibalize one of the old parties though, so that’s where the parallel gets speculative. Would it be a peaceful takeover or would it end in strife? Nothing else immediately comes to mind, and this was entirely off the cuff so I could be off base.

  7. Ole C G Olesen

    AS a small Post scriptum to my initial reply … an ” interesting ” article , which probably will be read by a few : “Insider trading 9/11 – the facts laid bare“, Lars Schall, Asia Times, 21 March 2012.

    and add to that ” Asia Times ” is an absolutely indespensable news Media for anyone who want s to follow whats going on in Asia ..and in The World ….

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