One of the favorite analogies of Iraq is the evocation of the Athenian invasion of Sicily (415-13 B.C.) and the democracy’s defeat there by democratic Syracuse (40,000 Athenians and their allies lost). It was certainly a catastrophic mistake to attack Sicily at a time of an uneasy respite with Sparta.
But for some strange reason, the historian Thucydides, after chronicling the lapses, still believed the Athenians might have won (and indeed they almost did), had they not been torn apart by bickering at home—usually thought to be a reference to the recall of Alcibiades. It is difficult to know exactly how Thucydides thought the operation might have worked—a different commander than Nicias?; had Lamachus not perished?; had the armada brought more horses?; etc.).
But an analogy to Iraq makes no sense. Sicily was, by some accounts, the largest city-state in the Greek-speaking world. And it was democratic as well—at a time that Athens was trying to wage a war of ideology that pitted democratic allies and subject states against Sparta’s oligarchy and its sympathetic partners and friends. A better modern parallel might have been made had the United States attacked larger, democratic India right in the middle of the Afghan war. Apparently, because democratic Athens lost the Peloponnesian war, and did not ever fully recover from Sicily, so too it is simply claimed that the United States has lost in Iraq, a precursor of general American decline.