United States / War on Terror

To Save Our Athens

Twenty-four hundred years ago, an exiled Athenian general and statesman set about chronicling the dramatic geopolitical upheaval of fifth-century classical Greece. Meticulously compiling the events of a thirty-year conflict between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the earliest and most accurate historical accounts of the Greek classical period.

For his time or any other, Thucydides’s understanding of the world around him was stunning in complexity and breadth—the Greek historian intended for his masterwork to remark on the condition of human nature and explore the very essence of conflict. His expansive History, he hoped, would advise succeeding generations on the fundamentals of sound foreign policy and advocate the strategic virtues of restraint, discipline, and foresight. Moreover, it would be a historical lamentation on his belief that Athens, failing to uphold these virtues, had fallen from grace.

Thucydides’s History warrants serious contemplation today, twenty-four hundred years later, as we attempt to navigate the perils of our increasingly dangerous world. His excellently crafted narrative of the Second Peloponnesian War, however foreign it appears at first glance, holds serious implications for policymakers seeking to solve Syrian instability, combat the scourge of global terrorism, and overcome a divisive moment in American history. If we hope to leave a longer lasting mark on the course of human history than did the Athenians’s fleeting civilization, we must learn from their resounding failure to avoid catastrophe.

As first written by Thucydides, this is their history.

***

At the onset of the Second Peloponnesian War in the middle of the fifth century B.C., the city-state of Athens faced an existential threat.

Sparta marched on Athens with its militaristic rulers bent on bringing Athenian predominance to heel. The Athenian way of life, relatively cosmopolitan and democratic, seemed to be at risk. Citizens of the Athenian assembly, compelled by the need to uphold the honor of their city and steeped in a tradition of military confrontation, called for a frontal assault on the Spartan army to halt its approach. Although the Spartans outmatched and outnumbered the Athenians on land, the assembly fervently demanded a decisive battle, trusting that history and justice were firmly on their side as they endeavored to keep the barbarous Spartans at bay.

One man, however, was not so easily convinced. An Athenian by the name of Pericles—“first among equals” to his fellow statesmen, though a citizen like the rest—cautioned his colleagues against a direct confrontation with Sparta in the field. The Athenian army, Pericles believed, was not prepared to repel the encroaching Spartan invasion. A battle against the highly skilled, highly disciplined Spartan hoplites on their terms would surely result in Athenian defeat, leaving their city defenseless and vulnerable. Pericles passionately urged the assembly to abandon such ill-advised plans.

Instead, Pericles proposed, the Athenians should retreat behind their walls and use their far superior navy to defeat the Spartans where they were weak. Athenian countryside on the Attican peninsula would be temporarily surrendered to ensure the survival of Athenian democracy.

There were some who resented the boldly defensive Periclean strategy. How could the great city of Athens sit on its hands while Spartan soldiers burned the Athenian countryside, plundered Athenian homesteads, and besieged Athenian allies?. The heroic triumph of the allied Greeks over the invading Persians just half a century earlier had made direct confrontation to existential threats central to ancient Greek identity; reverent Athenians balked at the idea of breaking from the defiant traditions of their apotheosized forefathers. Nonetheless, Pericles managed to persuade enough of the assembly to take his side, and the Athenians thus agreed to withdraw behind their walls and begin a campaign of naval supremacy.

Sparta, meanwhile, unleashed a torrent of destruction on the defenseless Athenian countryside. Spartan tactics—merciless and brutal— struck fear into the heart of every Athenian, and many could not help but despair as they watched the Spartans raid and pillage their homeland of Attica from atop the city walls. Spartan commanders sought to provoke an emotional reaction, hoping the terror they wrought on Attica would incite civil discord against Pericles and draw out the Athenians from the safety of their stronghold.

But, for a time, the Athenians stood steadfast behind Pericles and his strategy. And, for a time, Athens and her allies seemed to have the upper hand. But Pericles would not see the war through. The statesman died in a plague that rocked the city only a few years into the thirty-year conflict.

Simmering Athenian resentment towards the sacrificial Periclean strategy quickly boiled over in the aftermath of his death, and popular movements catapulted newer, angrier voices to the political fore. The Athenian known as Cleon, armed with a fiery tongue and inclined towards populist politics, was one such voice that rose to prominence in the assembly after Pericles’s demise. A true demagogue, Cleon exploited the growing fears and frustrations of the people to further his own vengeful political agenda. The majority of Athenians, disheartened by the ongoing war and disillusioned with a seemingly passive strategy, were quick to support this uniquely passionate citizen, who denounced Athenian officials and exhorted a rabid hatred for the Spartans. The gradual successes of Periclean strategy were no match for popular demands for revenge and retribution, and so the Athenians rashly discarded the late statesman’s sage advice of strategic restraint.

Under Cleon’s direction, Athens adopted an aggressive strategy of occupation and subjugation. Although seemingly successful for a time, Cleon’s aggressiveness soon began to overextend the empire’s limited resources and expose the city’s precarious supply lines. In one sense, Athens treaded water. In another, it began to drown as the financial and human costs of war eroded its hegemony and way of life. Athens simply lacked the capability to wage an aggressive offensive war and protect its empire. Yet the war continued to grind on in this direction, sapping Athenian strength with each passing day. Although Cleon would also have his leadership cut short by an early death on the battlefield, he had irreversibly altered Athens’ trajectory.

When an ally on the island of Sicily called on Athens to repel a Spartan incursion, the intemperate city Cleon had helped create jumped at the opportunity, using intervention as a pretext for an Athenian occupation of Sicily. But subduing the island would prove far more difficult than any Athenian commander, save perhaps the clairvoyant Pericles, could have ever imagined. Athens grew tired and weak as the protracted occupation dragged on, exerting every effort it could muster to tame an unyielding Sicilian resistance. Exorbitant spending on the overseas campaign ruinously drained the city’s famous wealth, and a succession of disastrous naval expeditions left most of the Athenian fleet at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

In a matter of years, the once great power of Athens had been brought to its knees. The city’s far-flung empire, which had once spanned from Italy to the Black Sea, finally crumbled when Athenian strength faltered at Sicily. Thirty years of war robbed the city of a generation of its finest soldiers, leaders, and thinkers. Most consequentially, incessant political turmoil set in motion by Cleon’s demagoguery had hollowed out Athenian democratic traditions and institutions. In 411 B,C., the city’s elite suspended democracy and replaced it with an oligarchic tyranny, in what they billed as an eleventh-hour effort to save the empire.

Sparta finally forced Athens to surrender in 404 B.C., though by then the battle for Athenian Hellas had already been lost.

***

It is often said that history repeats itself. That may be a stretch, but it does not mean we cannot distinguish meaningful similarities between the past and present, or learn from them. We might consider the more accurate adage, then, that history never repeats—but often rhymes. As it were, the lines of Thucydides’s tragic ballad have echoed through the halls of history into our modern age. And now more than ever, we should listen.

The classical Greek historian’s account is not necessarily one of a “clash of civilizations,” though the events of the Peloponnesian War, much like the current “War on Terror,” often fit that narrative. Rather, Thucydides recounts a once democratic Athens defeated by its own institutions, the fearful impulses of a besieged citizenry leading the city astray towards its untimely demise. It is an account that also elevates the prudent judgement of Pericles—Thucydides’s contemporary, whom the historian greatly admired—for the consideration of future generations facing such existential threats. Finally, Thucydides’s retelling of the war weaves a cautionary tale, like so many others, of a failed foreign occupation and its tragic consequences.

It seems particularly necessary to draw upon this ancient wisdom in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. The rising threat of global terrorism has shaken the very foundations of Western liberal society, and for the third time in as many decades, the drums beat for war. America and her allies are considering the real possibility of another prolonged, committed military occupation in the Middle East. It is of paramount importance that we weigh the full implications of what it would mean to escalate our involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Western policymakers would be wise to consider the strategic reasoning of Pericles. The Islamic State—also widely known by the names ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh—poses a real threat to free society, much like the Spartans of Pericles’s day. Unfortunately, the historical similarities do not end there.

We too have little reason to believe in our own ability to successfully wage a ground war against the enemy or invade foreign lands. American counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan—conflicts now spanning nearly fifteen years—have provided very little in the way of regional or global stability. In fact, they have left vast tracts of the Middle East in lawless chaos at the cost of thousands of American lives and trillions of American taxpayer dollars. Are we truly prepared to commit to another counterproductive, decades-long conflict we might not win?

Apparently, we are more than simply prepared. A series of polls conducted in December found that over half of all Americans would actually support a new American military occupation in Syria and Iraq. And be not deceived as to which demographics support increased military interventionism—millennial support for a ground war in Syria tops 60 percent. American interventionism over the last half century has been a categorical failure. Not only have American occupations consistently failed to spread liberal principles or establish democratic regimes, we have failed at great cost to ourselves and the nations we occupy. Nevertheless, the majority of Americans appear ready and willing to try state-building in the Middle East one last time.

That is beyond comprehension.

What is needed now is a strategy that avoids the mistakes of Iraq, not repeats them. Only one voice and doctrine passes that litmus test. It figures that such a doctrine would be the handiwork of a statesman who has devoted much of his career rebuking, and later remedying, that ruinous mistake of a war—President Obama.

Mr. Obama’s judicious campaign of precision airstrikes and reserved, multilateral action against the Islamic State constitutes a modern and much-needed iteration of Periclean strategy. Reasoning that American counterinsurgencies have not had success, and in many cases have proved counterproductive, the Obama administration has precluded the possibility of another ground war in the Middle East. And rightfully so.

“We… can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into ISIS control, even if it’s done with the best of intentions,” asserted Mr. Obama in his last State of the Union address. “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq—and we should have learned it by now.” Like the Athenians, there is little reason to meet our Spartans in the field, so to speak.

Consequently, the administration has pursued a restrained policy aimed at degrading and debilitating the Islamic State while avoiding a constraining American commitment or excessive exposure of U.S. personnel. Following over half a century of proactive and aggressive American interventionism, Mr. Obama’s doctrine of strategic restraint represents a pivotal break from the past.

Be that as it may, the administration’s Syrian policy remains highly contested among the public—nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the president has not acted aggressively enough on Syria—and Republicans nearly unanimously denounce Mr. Obama’s campaign as too weak and too limited. Bob Corker, Republican senator from Tennessee and long-time adversary of this White House, wrote to the Washington Post last year: “Those around the world who are looking to the United States for support against intimidation, oppression or outright massacres have learned a tough lesson in the past few years: This U.S. president, despite his bold pronouncements and moral posturing, cannot be counted on.”

Conservatives have pounced on what they perceive as “idleness” from the Obama administration to counteract the heightened threat of terrorism after San Bernardino and Paris. “Never before have I seen an American president project such weakness on the global stage,” said Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, after Mr. Obama reaffirmed the administration’s existing Syria policy following the November 13 attack in Paris. In a similar vein, Republican senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio berated a televised address from the White House concerning the attack on San Bernardino, opining during a December Republican presidential debate, “I wish [the president] hadn’t spoken at all. He made things worse. Because what he basically said was we are going to keep doing what we’re doing now, and what we are doing now is not working.”

In reality, recent evidence suggests Mr. Obama’s Periclean strategy, much like its ancient precursor, is quietly turning the tide of the war in Syria without imperiling American lives or interests. The president’s smart, sustainable, and disciplined two-pronged approach—prioritizing an effective air campaign and multilateral cooperation— borrows Periclean pragmatism. Engage the enemy where they are weak, and deny them where they are strong.

Just as the Athenian navy once dominated the seas, the United States Navy and Air Force now rule the skies. To exploit this ultimate advantage, American forces have waged their involvement in the Syrian Civil War almost exclusively from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. From there, a contingency of U.S. Navy jets conducts high-altitude sorties against the Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq virtually unopposed, adding each day to the nearly 10,000 strikes carried out against the group thus far. Not only are these precision strikes effective, they are also relatively humane. Official figures for civilian deaths resulting from American strikes stood at just fifteen fatalities as of early January, though some estimates from outside watchdog groups run higher.

Strikes on Islamic State targets have taken a serious toll on the terrorist group. A renewed surge of American airstrikes has disabled critical infrastructure links in the organization’s oil trafficking network, and the combined financial strain of coalition strikes has hamstrung the Islamic State military operations. In late January, two American airstrikes on the Islamic State “cash depots” incinerated over half a billion dollars of the group’s capital reserves. Those aerial assaults continued to degrade the already tenuous morale of Islamic State fighters, who were informed in the days after the American operation that their salaries would be halved due to “exceptional circumstances.”

Undermining the Islamic State’s revenue stream continues to be a central facet of the administration’s strategy in Syria and Iraq. Forbes reported that American strikes had destroyed 90 percent of the Islamic State’s oil production capacity by early this year, ensuring those incinerated cash reserves will not be replenished soon. But bridges, arsenals, and command centers are also under fire from above; the disruption of the Islamic State oil operations represents only a single, important component in the administration’s multifaceted and lethal aerial campaign.  

Though unilateral operations (nominally under the auspices of N.A.T.O.) have proven remarkably effective, a priority for the Obama administration has long been to engage and empower states in the region to play a larger role in the battle against the Islamic State, and more generally, Syrian instability.

“It must be local forces who deliver ISIL a lasting defeat,” wrote Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in a recent Politico opinion piece, “because only they can secure and govern the territory by building long-term trust within the populations they liberate. We can and will enable such local forces, but we cannot substitute for them.”

These efforts by the administration have been met with some early successes too. Last year, American strikes in Iraq successfully supported an Iraqi counteroffensive, driving the Islamic State from a quarter of its seized territory in Iraq. American military aid also enabled Iraqi forces to retake the extremist-controlled city of Ramadi in late December, and a U.S.-backed campaign to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is planned for the coming months. Kurdish fighters working closely with American operators have repelled the Islamic State from a considerable portion of the Turkish border in Syria. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey have all supported U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to various degrees.

Most notably, talks between U.S. and Russian officials have produced a tentative cease-fire agreement, which if implemented would be the first pause to hostilities since civil war first broke out in Syria five years ago. Although the Obama administration has retreated far from its “red line” on Bashar al-Assad some years ago, now conceding some role in a democratic transition for the Syrian dictator by working with Russia, the cease-fire agreement is a prudent tradeoff in a Syria that has essentially disintegrated.

Considerable diplomatic dilemmas—such as open hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran—continue to destabilize the region and thwart international efforts for peace. But Mr. Obama’s multilateral approach has already made hard-earned progress towards greater stability in a regional and global diplomatic climate averse to it. Most importantly, these modest achievements have come at the cost of exactly one U.S. combat death thus far.

Although the Islamic State remains a formidable foe that will require a significant and concerted international effort to overcome, Mr. Obama’s policy in Syria and Iraq has been far more effective at degrading and defunding the Islamic State than the American public generally believes.

***

Of course, fear and anxiety over foreign policy are understandable during such a time of global disorder. The tragic Parisian attacks laid bare the repulsive and hateful ideology that fuels the Islamic State, and revealed how alarmingly close to home determined extremists could strike. Only weeks later, a merciless assault rifle spree by “lone wolves” in San Bernardino reinforced mass paranoia. The attacks, carried out by a husband and wife who had seemingly made it in America, worsened our evaporating sense of personal security. The horrific loss of life from both tragedies is testament to the cruelty of which humans are too often capable, and the wider goal of global terror these sociopaths aim to achieve is a crime against us all.

But while we have a right to feel under siege, to dramatically escalate involvement in the Syrian conflict out of impulsive, irrational fear would be an egregious mistake.

“As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” reproached Mr. Obama later in his address to congress, “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages—they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.”

The president makes an important point. Terrorism generally remains a fringe threat to the stability of developed society and the preservation of modern liberal values. Domestic acts of terrorism have resulted in just 85 American fatalities over the last decade. To put that figure in perspective, 301,797 firearm-related deaths occurred in America over the same period. Indeed, the average American is about three times more likely to die from a lightning strike than to die in a domestic terrorist attack.

Nevertheless, the relatively small risk to public health posed by terrorism has justified shockingly disproportionate countermeasures since 9/11. The American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan—justified by the supposed necessity to root out extremists abroad and impose U.S.-friendly regimes—cost an astounding $4 trillion and left 6,656 U.S. servicemen dead and nine hundred thousand seriously wounded, ultimately only securing for the American future a new generation of veterans haunted by P.T.S.D. and life-altering disabilities. The forgotten deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians are perhaps the War on Terror’s most tragic consequences.

Current administration officials estimate a ground war in Syria could be even costlier than our previous Middle Eastern quagmires, citing a potential monthly price tag exceeding $10 billion and military risk assessments predicting over five hundred American soldiers wounded or killed for each month on the ground. The supposed advantages of a potential Syrian occupation—preventing terrorism and spreading democracy—simply do not justify these costs. In fact, this is exactly the toll groups like the Islamic State strive to exact.

When Sparta burnt the Attican countryside, their intent was to draw the Athenians out from the safety of their walls. Extremist attacks on European capitals, sadly, hold a similar intent. The Islamic State actively seeks to pull the West further into the Syrian conflict, where it believes it will be more able to undermine Western power and take Western lives.

The successful mujahideen insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s (which ultimately contributed to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991) continues to provide a blueprint for chaos-seeking anti-Western Islamists. In that conflict, an otherwise ragtag outfit of radical Islamists ensnared the Red Army in the unforgiving environs of Afghanistan and dealt a death blow to Soviet power and influence.

It is an often overlooked historical footnote that Al Qaeda maintained only a limited presence in Iraq prior to the American occupation, only to aggressively expand its influence there post-Saddam in a successful effort to entrench the Americans in a costly, protracted counterinsurgency. The Islamic State itself developed out of the Iraqi faction of Al Qaeda following the U.S. departure, and the two organizations share this twisted desire to ensnare Western militaries in prolonged destructive conflicts.

“We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria.  That’s what groups like ISIL want,” warned Mr. Obama in a national address responding to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. “They also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits,” continued the president, summoning his inner Pericles.

Figuratively speaking, the Islamic State remains beyond the walls of civilized society when we consider the costly alternatives. Only when we descend to meet them on the battlefield do terrorists and extremist insurgents find they can wage real destruction. Ultimately, the most dangerous aspect of terrorism in the twenty-first century is not necessarily its ability to inflict devastating casualties, but its capacity to frighten and coerce a nation into war.

Despite this, conservative foreign policy rhetoric continues to rely on the fallacy that more aggressive interventionism promotes stability. In practice, nothing could be further from the truth.

***

Mass public paranoia and an overriding sense of uncertainty stemming from terrorism, mass immigration, and declining economic fortunes, however, now force the United States and nations around the globe to grapple with the rise of their own ultra-conservative “Cleons.” Xenophobic, nationalistic, and populist movements across the northern hemisphere, from Warsaw to Washington, threaten to project a new generation of “people’s candidates” to positions of influence within the international order. Universally chauvinistic and aggressive, these new far-right populists preach intolerance against Muslims and often advocate a far more combative Syrian policy.

The rise of France’s Marine Le Pen in many ways epitomizes Europe’s dalliance with neo-nationalism and radical conservatism. Ms. Le Pen and her National Front party, long fueled by French suspicions of the nation’s growing unassimilated Muslim population, are expected to experience a significant boost of support as the French reel from the nightmarish November attack. “France and French people are no longer safe,” said Ms. Le Pen the night of the attack. “Islamic extremism must be crushed.” Although the National Front was battled back from a political blitz on France’s regional governments this December, Ms. Le Pen will remain a formidable opponent to French establishment politics pushing aggressive counterterrorism policies through the 2017 election cycle.

Other European nationalist parties such as the U.K. Independence Party, the Alternative for Germany party, and the Law and Justice party in Poland have all seen strong upticks in public support since the November attacks. That policy ministers across the E.U. have echoed some hardline anti-Muslim sentiments—excusing backtracks from refugee resettlement commitments as issues of national security—demonstrates the surging influence of nationalist movements across Europe.

Since the November attacks, governing coalitions have attempted to quell fears of jihadist extremism. Legislatures in France, Britain, and Germany have all authorized increased military operations against the Islamic State, though each has stopped short thus far of troop deployments. Whether European military involvement in the Syrian conflict will expand in the coming months remains to be seen.

Aggressive varieties of conservative populism have found even wider success in America, where Republican presidential candidates compete to out-escalate foreign policy commitments to court the 53 percent of Americans who support expanded troop deployment in Syria or the 80 percent who fear a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is imminent. Successive attacks on Paris and San Bernardino reignited policy debates over U.S. security infrastructure and foreign intervention seldom discussed since the end of the Bush era.

The frenzied obsession with domestic terrorism among conservatives has prompted unprecedented proposals to restrict American rights and liberties in the name of security. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed increased scrutiny of Muslims, including a national religious registry and the closure of American mosques, absurd measures that would irreversibly undermine the high level of assimilation most Muslim-American communities have achieved. In December, Trump proposed barring foreign Muslims from entering the United States and then registered a huge boost in the polls. Exit polling conducted for the New Hampshire primary revealed 65 percent of Republicans in the state, usually a moderate bulwark to the party’s most conservative elements, now support that Trump measure prohibiting Muslim travel to the U.S., a stance pundits thought would doom the candidate months ago. These unsettling developments in the Republican race should not be taken lightly. The conservative base demands a dramatic foreign policy departure to deeper, more violent waters.

American conservatives almost unanimously seek to break from Mr. Obama’s reserved Periclean strategy, though differ on the specifics of what that would mean. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, high-ranking members of the Republican leadership, announced in late November their plans to support a deployment of twenty thousand additional troops to Syria and Iraq.

Most remaining republican presidential candidates—including Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio— have all expressed willingness to significantly increase U.S. troop presence in Syria, and while Ted Cruz has been cautious to commit to a ground intervention, the Texas senator has offered some of the most vitriolic rhetoric of the election cycle, promising his Syrian strategy “will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties, when the terrorists have such utter disregard for innocent life.” At another event, the senator declared, “We will carpet bomb [the Islamic State] into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”

Make no mistake, by seeking to escalate the conflict at home and abroad, populist movements in Europe and America pose a serious threat to Western democracy and stability. American counterinsurgencies over the last half century have, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, become sources of national humiliation and regret. Moreover, prolonged foreign occupations perpetually undermine American financial security and, in fact, empower extremists to sow discord and destruction at home and abroad.

***

Thucydides laments throughout his work that Athens lacked both the foresight and wisdom needed to stave off the city’s great decline. Thanks to the publication of his chronicle—and the twenty-four hundred years of reflection that followed—we twenty-first-century Americans have both.

It is an all too frightening reality that terror has not seen its last day in the Western world. But it cannot be so frightening that we willingly forfeit our public finances, democratic community, or inalienable rights because momentary fear clouds our judgement. Why we now sit on the precipice of yet another foreign occupation should be a mystery to us all. Justice and history are assuredly on our side in the fight against the Islamic State, but we defeat ourselves if victory comes at the cost of liberties or thousands of lives.

We have a responsibility as citizens, now more than ever, to stand above the fear. Descending to meet the insurgents on their terms, as some in the surging populist movement demand, would be a horrendous error of judgement. The legacies of unilateral intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to those who call for an escalation of the conflict in Syria. We simply cannot afford to repeat those mistakes. Only when we act in harmony with the international community—with the express backing of local Sunni and Shiite nations—can the Syrian dilemma begin to be addressed.

In the meantime, however, we must stay the course. In spite of broad public rejection, Mr. Obama’s doctrine of strategic restraint has proven remarkably adept at bringing American technological advantages to bear in a effective, disciplined, and humane air campaign against the Islamic State. Still, attaining Syrian peace and reconstruction will endure as an geopolitical dilemma for decades to come. There will be no easy solutions.

There will, however, be impulses to take the easy way out. To trust the politician who claims to have it all figured out. To “put boots on the ground.” To forget history.

Thucydides’s account of the Athenian downfall should serve as a useful parable. Impulsive, aggressive policy founded on fear is seldom wise, and often disastrous. Come November, the future of our nation’s democracy will depend on the American people choosing a candidate who values Mr. Obama’s Periclean doctrine and sage judgement. May fear not lead us astray from this mission.

There is still time to save our Athens.