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For several weeks in August and September, the United States government considered whether or not to bomb Syria. Public support for bombing hovered around ten percent, but the nation’s leaders seemed open to proceeding with military action. Various reasons were offered – to prevent further deaths from gas attacks by Syrian government forces; to degrade the Assad regime’s capacity to launch such attacks; to enforce international laws banning chemical weapons; to honor President Obama’s “red line” ultimatum of some months earlier; and to show rogue regimes and the world that the United States meant business when it made threats. An addendum to the last argument was that inaction would embolden the likes of Iran or North Korea. This line of thought got me thinking of a course I teach at Penn State, and the “logic of empire.”

The course is called “Empires” and it’s a collaborative effort with a colleague in the history department. I cover the ancient Mediterranean (the empires of Assyria, Athens, and Rome), and he the New World (Aztecs, Incas, and New Spain). Imperial ideologies and administration, the apparatus of control, modes of resistance, and why empires rise and fall are all matters considered in a comparative perspective. The class is highly interactive. For the final meeting, we divide the class into two groups and stage a debate for and against the following proposition: “Based on what you’ve learned about empires in this class, the United States is an empire.” The debate is always lively, and one issue that is hotly contested – and relevant to the Syria debate – is the role of interventionism in imperial systems.

As the political scientist Herfried Münkler makes clear in his book Empires (2005), imperial states are under compulsion to intervene against wayward, threatening, or sometimes neutral powers within or adjacent to their dominions, since failure to do so makes the empire look weak and ineffectual. Worse, rivals or rebels are emboldened. As Münkler succinctly puts it, “An imperial power that remains neutral in relation to conflicts within its ‘world’ [i.e., the realm controlled by the empire] or periphery inevitably loses its imperial status.” This is the inexorable “logic of empire” that, ironically, can drive empires to engage in ruinous interventions, which themselves seriously weaken or even destroy the imperial power. In seeking to uphold their image as empires, then, imperial authorities can embark on a road that leads to the actual destruction of their empire.

The locus classicus exploring the exercise and consequences of imperial logic is Thucydides’ famous Melian Dialogue and its aftermath, which hardly needs any introduction to readers of this blog. In defending their neutrality against Athenian demands that they join the Athenian arche (“rule”) of the Aegean, the Melians argue they are too small and insignificant to pose a threat to Athens, and that sparing Melos will bring good repute to Athens. On the contrary, retort the Athenians, Melian neutrality, if allowed to continue, shows Athens to be weak and offers a dangerous model for her allies in the arche: “they think that if any remain independent it is because they are strong, and if we do not harm them, it is because we are afraid ... the fact that you are islanders and weaker than the others makes it all the more important that you should not succeed in thwarting the lords of the sea.” Rarely has their been a clearer exposition of the “logic of empire.” The Melians, of course, refuse to capitulate and are destroyed by Athens.

What happened next is highly significant. The Melian episode concludes book 5 of Thucydides’ great history. The next two books chart the course of the catastrophic Athenian expedition to Sicily, which saw the backbone of Athenian power shattered in needless overreach. In his account of the debates in Athens preceding the expedition’s launch, Thucydides gives prominence once more to the “logic of empire.” Alcibiades argues, among other things, that Athens needs to go to Sicily to demonstrate her strength. Sitting idle looks like weakness.

This is not to argue that bombing Syria would have led to the downfall of the United States. What happened to Athens in Sicily is an extreme, if salutary, example of the negative results of imperial logic. In the end, a diplomatic compromise involving Russia and the UN seeing to the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons averted military intervention. Some, such a Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, greeted this solution with regret, insisting that bombing was, and still is, the way to go. One can’t help harboring a niggling suspicion that during the debate on whether or not to proceed with bombing, beneath the high blown rhetoric comparing Assad to Hitler or insisting on international law, the logic of empire was doing its inexorable work drawing a major power into conflict with a far weaker, distant state. It is expressed more obviously when McCain and Graham decried the diplomatic solution “as an act of provocative weakness” that emboldens America’s enemies. The Athenians at Melos would have agreed.