As the U.S. Congress readies for its historic vote on intervention in Syria, many Americans doubt whether another war in the Middle East is worth it. “Why spend one more dollar,” they ask, “let alone one more American life in that God-forsaken wilderness? What could we possibly hope to achieve there? Those people hate us–leave them alone already!”

Other Americans reject this isolationist attitude and call for decisive strikes against one of the world’s most murderous tyrants. These interventionists celebrate virtues like courage and audacity, and note that some of their nation’s greatest triumphs were gained in the face of tremendous risk. 

The first group forgets America’s role as the guarantor of international order. The second forgets that audacity can sometimes lead to massive and even catastrophic loss.

How should American lawmakers decide the matter? What criteria can they use to make their decision a sound one? Perhaps the best answer is to evaluate a similar episode from history for practical wisdom on whether striking Syria is in fact prudent.

One instructive episode can be found in the Peloponnesian War, that famous conflict between Athens and Sparta for supremacy of the Greek-speaking world. The episode I’m referring to is known as the “Sicilian expedition,” and concerns a democratic power intervening in a distant civil war with a military campaign that some claimed was too costly, too peripheral, and too unfocused to ever succeed.   

The background. About halfway through the war, Athens and Sparta made a truce. In the midst of the truce, envoys from the Sicilian city of Segesta came to Athens to request a military strike against their local rival, the city of Syracuse. The Segestans claimed the Syracusans would soon join forces with Sparta and that the two powers would together be unstoppable. Fearful of such an alliance, the Athenian people—whipped into a frenzy by a popular young orator named Alcibiades—approved a strike force of 60 ships to aid the Segestans and “order all other matters in Sicily as they should deem best for the interests of Athens.” It was a vague mission statement if there ever was one. When the assembly met again to work out the details, an old politician named Nicias stepped forward to denounce the reckless campaign and persuade the Athenians to desist.

Unfortunately,they didn’t listen. When the expedition failed, the tide of the war turned against Athens and the Spartans ultimately emerged victorious.

If we agree that the Sicilian expedition was a bad idea, it would behoove us to look back on Nicias’s warnings and try to apply them to our own situation. For those in favor of Syrian intervention (full disclosure: I am one such person), due diligence demands addressing the toughest questions before thrusting the U.S. into a new Middle East conflict.

In trying to persuade the Athenian assembly, Nicias first argued for prioritizing strategic goals. He believed that Athens would be best served by conquering nearby enemies first and only then (if ever) looking to claim prizes afar off. By venturing to Sicily before wrapping up other conflicts, the Athenians would “leave many enemies behind…to go yonder and bring more back with [them].”

Nicias also asserted the unsustainability of any conquest of Sicily. Even if the Athenians could seize the gigantic island, he said, they could not control it for long. The Sicilians were simply “too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty.” He further dismissed the specter of a rising Spartan-Syracusan empire as nonsense and argued that the best way to scare the Sicilians was not to show up on their doorstep, but to remain distant and ominous. “[T]hat which is farthest off,” he reminded the assembly, “and the reputation of which can least be tested, is the object of admiration.”

Nicias believed that the expedition was a foolish subjugation of domestic concerns to foreign ones. Under the truce with Sparta, Athens was finally enjoying the long-awaited fruits of peace. These fruits were best used “at home on our own behalf, instead of using them on behalf of [those] whose interest it is to lie as fairly as they can, who do nothing but talk themselves and leave the danger to others, and who if they succeed will show no proper gratitude, and if they fail will drag down their friends with them.”

Nicias urged the Athenian people to resist the irrationality of the mob and its self-serving demagogues. He encouraged those afraid of looking cowardly to stand strong and act like patriots. There was no shame in evading disaster. The elders had a special obligation to speak up, and Nicias called upon the chairman of the assembly to put the matter to a second vote since “the virtue of men in office is…to do their country as much good as they can, or in any case no harm that they can avoid.”

Nicias didn’t think that bold action was unwise per se, and was himself ready to join battle without regard for the danger. He merely felt that such action was warranted only when it made strategic sense.

If he could take the Senate floor today, Nicias would no doubt rattle even the strongest supporters of Syrian intervention. Might the U.S. have its strategic priorities out of order? Is it pursuing new conflicts without finishing old ones? Is it fearing hypothetical threats? Is it making decisions based on emotion, ignorance, or self-serving punditry? 

Though I will hold off applying Nicias’s argument for now, I will concede that his overall point–i.e., inaction can be more courageous than action and apprehension wiser than reckless bravery–is right on the money. I will also grant opponents of intervention the right to be skeptical. No war should be taken as obvious. Now that the decision has been handed to them, the American people should choose to strike Bashar al-Assad only if it clearly aligns with their long-term interests.

Avoiding another Sicilian expedition demands answering Nicias’s challenges. Those of us who want intervention (even on a limited scale) must answer him honestly, knowing that the burden is on us to justify yet another expenditure of blood and treasure. 

It’s a justification I plan to make in another post.