WASHINGTON — The Greeks have a word for it - hubris.
Thucydides, the Greek historian, reminds us that in the 5th century BC the Athenian Greeks learned a lesson about having too much hubris - arrogance. The citizens went to the agora and voted to send a military expedition to what in those days was a distant Sicily. There the Syracusans were harassing a small nation-state that was something of an ally of Athens. On the day the expedition rowed away in 134 triremes - warships with three banks of oarsmen on each side - most of the populace of Athens came down to the harbor at Piraeus to cheer and send them off.
There was no reason to doubt victory. Syracuse was no more than a backward, uncultured nation-state on the outskirts of civilization. When the Athenians arrived, however, the military of Syracuse tried some new tactics that confounded the Athenian generals sufficiently that victory did not come quickly, as anticipated. Instead, the Athenians had to send home for reinforcements. After two years of war, the Athenian force in Sicily was so decimated that few managed to return home. This was only the beginning of problems for Athens, however. In another nine years the Athenians had lost their empire abroad and their democracy at home. The hubris that had carried them to Sicily had started them on the road to their downfall.
Is it not time for us to recognize that there was a good deal of hubris behind our decision to invade Iraq? It impelled Congress to pass a resolution in support of an attack, the president to decide to invade, and the American public to give wide support to his doing so. The initial fighting went well, but the enemy's tactics since have not been what we anticipated.
In fact, most of the assumptions behind our invasion have been proven wrong: The intelligence did not support the imminence of a threat, the Iraqis have not broadly welcomed us as liberators, the idea that we could manage this action almost unilaterally is giving way to pleas for troops and money from other nations, the aversion to giving the UN a meaningful role is eroding daily, and the reluctance to get involved in nation building is being supplanted by just that.
Despite these reversals of course, our current policy appears to be to "stay the course." The problem with not acknowledging that we are changing course is that it makes us do so begrudgingly. The longer we hesitate to increase our troop strength in Iraq; to pour billions of dollars of our own money into reconstruction; and to invite the UN to play a substantive, decisionmaking role, the more the chance of failure increases.
Failure in Iraq is simply unacceptable. It would not be just a severe embarrassment, as it was in Vietnam. It would be caving-in to terrorists, and not just to terrorists in Iraq. The president's worldwide "war on terrorism" would be seen as having folded up the minute the going got tough. Whether Al Qaeda has operated out of Iraq in the past or not, it almost certainly would do so in the future.
There is, of course, a possibility that muddling along on the fallacious assumptions we have been employing will succeed after all. The problem with risking this is that so much is riding on our performance in Iraq.
We cannot take that chance. Only the president can declare a change of course. His acknowledgment that we have made some mistaken assumptions and are changing direction would help to repair our strained relations with much of the world community. And from the president's viewpoint it would also be a good insurance policy against our being mired down in a chaotic Iraq 12 months from now, when the election campaign heats up.
• Adm. Stansfield Turner, former director of central intelligence, is on the faculty of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland.