Tag: Alexander the Great

What Exactly is the Point of Foreign Policy Analysts?: Lessons from Libya (and any other crisis in history)

I don’t follow the news as closely as I should. I am not up on everyone’s blogs. I don’t check the Brookings Institution for every new report it issues. I am a lazy blogger. But I do seem to recall when this whole Libya thing started and didn’t end successfully immediately that all kinds of “foreign policy analysts” came out of the woodwork to say it wouldn’t work, that we were merely facilitating and prolonging a protracted civil war stalemate. We couldn’t will the means that would be necessary.

Dumbasses.

I say that not because they got the prediction wrong, but rather that they tried to make a prediction at all. I wish we could just admit that we generally have no earthly idea how a civil war, humanitarian intervention, tsunami response, military coup, financial crisis, etc. will work out. I


Eat humble pie, boys. I said, “Eat it!”

am an international relations academic not because I don’t want to be on TV, but because I have a sense of shame and dignity. I simply could not get up in front of millions, or even dozens, of people and claim that I had any notion of how any of those things was going to work out. We can only work out explanations well after the fact when we know what was going on on the ground, what people were thinking, etc. Every social phenomena of interest is simply too complicated. I appreciate it when folks like Steve Saideman tell us the mistakes of the past. But I wouldn’t like it if he predicted the future. And he doesn’t.

I am not going to name names, because I’d have to look them up. Like I said, I’m lazy. But the next time that one of these things happens again, like tomorrow, and someone offers you a prediction of how it will end, respond like this: “Ew, get that away from me. That’s been up your butt.”

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Wine, War and Alexander

As the Ashmolean Museum shows in its latest exhibition, Alexander of Macedon was the spectacular bearer of Hellenism into Asia who inspired dreams of a unified humanity. His royal dynasty boasted a rich court life in vast palaces with ample room for dinner parties. The tombs of the Temenids contained beautiful artifacts.On slow afternoons they would graduate into manhood by hunting big lions.

Less prominent in the exhibition is the flip-side: that the same warriors liked getting drunk, razing cities, and beating the crap out of each other.
The urge to project humanist ideals onto Alexander and his brethren is odd but enduring. Oliver Stone has dabbled in it, as did W.W. Tarn, a classicist and liberal gentleman who saw his own liberal and gentlemanly values reflected in the world conqueror, whom he recast as the forerunner for twentieth century dreams of enlightened internationalism.

This is odd, because Alexander’s activities and temperament were not exactly in the spirit of the League of Nations at prayer. This was a man who annihilated Thebes. In the name of Pan-Hellenic vengeance he went on a murderous and enslaving blitz through the Persian empire. Beyond winning consent and obedience, he showed little interest in the art of government, was only turned back from his endless expansionist project by a disgruntled army whom he punished by force-marching through a desert, and who was so unbothered about the long-term stability of his new multi-civilisational empire that he refused to name a successor. The man who fancied himself a god-king who reincarnated the spirit of Achilles was not centrally driven to the cause of human emancipation.

In short, he was a conqueror and bringer of death on an epic scale. Sure, his exploits might have excited some philosophers to dream of the unity of mankind, but the lived experience of his rampages might have tasted a little different.

As Peter Green nicely put it: ‘Philip’s son was bred as a king and a warrior. His business, his all-absorbing obsession through a short but crowded life, was war an conquest. It is idle to palliate this central truth, to pretend that he dreamed, in some mysterious fashion, of wading through rivers of blood and violence to achieve the Brotherhood of Man by raping an entire continent.’

Nevertheless, the idea of Alexander the benign multiculturalist is continually reintroduced. There is the urge to find an ancient exemplar of internationalism and the cosmopolitan, to reinvent Alexander with all the blood, wine and tears rinsed out.

And as hinted in the Ashmolean pamphlet, the exhibition happens under the ‘aegis’ of the “Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, Mr George A. Papandreou, in collaboration with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.”

In other words, we can hardly expect a proud civilization enduring economic turmoil and humiliation to support an exhibition showing off the primal brutality of its most famous warlord.

Do I want exhibitions that provide an even-handed, scholarly, and impartial account of history? Not particularly. Like movies and football games, I go to be entertained on the cheap, and taken in medium-sized doses, propaganda like bias keeps life interesting.

But exhibiting Alexander without the background music of ceaseless violence and alcohol-fuelled hubris seems to miss something, offering us the tonic without the gin.

Go and see the exhibition, but imagine also what it was like for the inhabitants of a small town in Persia which reputedly had done something to annoy Alexander’s ancestors, when the unifier of mankind turned up muttering of revenge and without a peacekeeper in sight.

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