It’s Friday, and I’m declaring a moratorium on breaking portentousness. Let’s just mop a couple of things up for the week.
The tapes that weren’t
First, on Trump’s bluff with the drive-by warning to James Comey about whether there were tapes of their Oval Office discussions.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
The wild shrieking over that is due to the Trump gambit being successful. It corrected damaging omissions from Comey’s public statements, and probably prevented damaging commissions of irresponsible innuendo.
Under the implied threat of taped evidence, Comey publicly acknowledge truths he wouldn’t have admitted otherwise; i.e., that he assured Trump on three occasions that Trump was not being investigated.
With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
…whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
It may also have gotten Comey to avoid phrasing his public statements about Trump in a way that might later prove to be, at the very least, deliberately misleading.
Comey openly clarified, remember, that he leaked a reminiscence from his memos to the media (via a friend), in the hope that casting Trump in a bad light – a bad light with no substance behind it, as it turns out – would prompt the appointment of a special prosecutor.
That’s underhanded behavior. We’re not talking about a pillar of rectitude here. After Comey took it on himself to usurp Loretta Lynch’s authority in 2016, and preempt her with his public announcement on the Hillary Clinton investigation, it was clear that he was motivated to act politically, rather than in pursuit of disinterested justice.
The same pattern emerged with his refusal to state publicly what Trump knew to be true: that Trump wasn’t under investigation. The purpose for Comey’s silence on that could only be political.
So don’t feel sorry for Comey. And I really recommend not getting on a high horse about how Trump handled it. Yes, he tweeted a dare. How juvenile. But not as bad as an entire Washington establishment of media, Democrats, and even Republicans, keeping, out of political malice, the secret they all knew: that Trump was not being investigated. (Sen. Chuck Grassley pointed out on Thursday that congressional Democrats didn’t just “keep a secret”; they actively lied about Trump being under investigation, when they knew he wasn’t.)
What possible purpose could it serve for Trump to sit with his hands tied, unable to force Comey, or anyone else, to tell the public the truth? If you really think there was some good reason that should have tied his hands in that regard, all that reveals is that you’re willing to throw away principle for partisanship.
White House “obsessing” over an “ancient Greek historian”
We were just talking about this. David Brooks felt, a few weeks ago, that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster would benefit from a greater familiarity with Thucydides, whom I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining to you.
Now a Politico writer, Michael Crowley, has uncovered a veritable hotbed of Thucydides familiarity in – of all places, as he would have it – the Trump White House.
A few passages from Crowley:
Most Americans probably don’t know Thucydides from Mephistopheles. But the Greek writer is a kind of demigod to international relations theorists and military historians, revered for his elegant chronicle of one of history’s most consequential wars, and his timeless insights into the nature of politics and warfare.
And they’re definitely familiar with him in the White House:
Thucydides is especially beloved by the two most influential figures on Trump’s foreign policy team. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has called Thucydides’ work an “essential” military text, taught it to students and quoted from it in speeches and op-eds. Defense Secretary James Mattis is also fluent in Thucydides’ work: “If you say to him, ‘OK, how about the Melian Dialogue?’ he could tell you exactly what it is,” Allison says—referring to one particularly famous passage. When former Defense Secretary William Cohen introduced him at his confirmation hearing, Cohen said Mattis was likely the only person present “who can hear the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ and not have to go to Wikipedia to find out what it means.”
That’s not true in the Trump White House, where another Peloponnesian War aficionado can be found in the office of chief strategist Steve Bannon.
This next reductionist passage conveys a great deal – about Crowley, and the state of media commentary on international relations:
Trump might approve of the ancient Greek scholar’s sway over his senior strategists. Thucydides is considered a father of the “realist” school of international relations, which holds that nations act out of pragmatic self-interest with little regard for ideology, values or morality. “He was the founder of realpolitik,” Allison says. This view is distilled in the famous Melian Dialogue, a set of surrender talks that feature the cold-eyed conclusion that right and wrong means nothing in the face of raw strength. “In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must,” concludes an Athenian ambassador—a Trumpian statement 2½ millennia before The Donald’s time.
I give Graham Allison, the historian Crowley starts his tale with, credit for having a deeper understanding of Thucydides than this implies. (That said, it’s typical of analytical commentary in our age, for someone to say that a thematic chronicler of history is the “founder” of what is in very essence a practitioner’s perspective. Such elisions are also a typically reductionist mental process of realpolitik, for that matter.)
But read it for yourself. I think you might agree that Crowley’s treatment betrays what seems to have gone missing between the years when I was in high school and college, and when he was. His breezy assumption that most Americans don’t know who Thucydides was may be statistically correct by now. But it is so much at odds with my educational experience, and how I see our civilization’s history, that it strikes me as painfully callow and sad.
American kids attired in the silly fads of the day used to sit in high school classrooms and debate, pretty creditably, the “famous Melian Dialogue.” As regards one of history’s most-studied cultural divides: which partisans of the day were “Athens,” and which were “Sparta?” The Republicans versus the Democrats? The Soviets versus the Americans? The Europeans versus the Americans of the “New World?” The North versus the South in the Civil War? (Steve Bannon, who is said to think in those terms, merely seems to have gotten a good education, one way or another, which apparently resonated deeply with him.)
Was the Vietnam War America’s “Sicilian Expedition”? The lessons from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War were vivid, familiar, resonant across the millennia. The actors in it could have been from any contemporary drama of domestic and geopolitics. If you were lucky enough to have a good teacher, or to be a voracious reader on your own time, you understood that generations of Western students had studied Thucydides, and discussed and debated the very same themes in relation to their times.
Reading Thucydides early in life is a great antidote to the silly notion that one’s present generation has just discovered the explanatory patterns of human behavior. Keeping new generations in touch with it was not a way of trying to enforce cultural rigidity, but of helping the younger generations both learn to think in time, and avoid wasting time. Why withhold from students the truth that their clever insights were articulated by people who turned out to be wrong, 2,400 years ago? Why deny them the intellectual exercise of arguing over what it even means, to turn out to be wrong versus right?
The History of the Peloponnesian War is a powerful text because that’s what it offers to every generation.
After that big build-up, you might think I “agree” with Thucydides in all his assessments. I don’t. That very formulation is such a captive mindset of our day.
Michael Crowley seems to view what Politico calls a White House “obsession” with Thucydides as evidence that Trump’s officials have adopted Peloponnesian War as a sort of occult guidebook. But Thucydides’ enduring power lies in the fact that he is quintessentially Greek, and thus is not a dogmatist. His treatment isn’t a guide to conclusions. It’s a guide to how to think.
The Greeks were a marvel of the Western heritage because, while they came to a number of fatalist conclusions based on the evidence they had, they were always open to the possibility that the progress of empirical understanding might eventually change that. The Greeks were unique as what we might call provisional fatalists. (I think that’s a key reason why they did tragedy so well.)
To investigate the Greeks is to learn a mindset that accepts possibility, and the vision of a dramatic, developing future, rather than a mere continuation of the past. Trump’s senior advisers could do far worse than read Thucydides as a thinking aid about national security affairs. (They could be reading Kant, for example.) For what it’s worth, I think the “Thucydides Trap” concept is misapplied to the situation of the United States and China. But in the spirit of our Greek heritage, I will only add: Let the debate begin.