Iraq According to Machiavelli

By Grenier, Richard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

Iraq According to Machiavelli


Grenier, Richard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Well, well. So Machiavelli has finally put in an appearance. Actually Old Nick has been with us all along, wearing more than one garb in the Iraq crisis - during which almost everyone involved has been playing the game according to Machiavelli's rules. Except, of course, for our moral leader, President Clinton. And we're heading straight for trouble in ignoring the Machiavelli rule book, "The Prince," which, heartless as may seem, has guided the world's power struggles for several centuries.

According to Machiavelli, for example, with whom should one side in a conflict? With the stronger side? Not at all. That's a primitive reading of the master political strategist. One should side with the participant which, once the conflict has subsided, will retain the greater means and above all the will to punish an offending third party. From this point of view, the behavior in the current Iraq crisis of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Arab micro-states of the Persian Gulf, and even of France, was altogether to be expected.

Why on earth would one want to side with the United States, which, with a staggering military superiority, seems terrified of acting on its own about anything. In the administration's view, you see, the solution to the crisis must be truly multilateral. In multilateralism we trust. The way the U.S. is handling the situation, it's surprising we have any allies left at all. At the moment, actually, we have only one: Britain.

In France they study Machiavelli with far greater attention than in the U.S., and they pay deference to him as a major Renaissance figure. The French even give theatrical productions of his plays, whereas few Americans know Machiavelli even wrote plays. In the United States "Machiavellian" means scheming, deceitful, hypocritical. In Europe, by contrast, Machiavelli's work serves as a kind of moral guide to power politics, to be ignored at one's peril. Because of his wily ways the late French President Francois Mitterand was frequently called "the Florentine" -Renaissance Florence being Machiavelli's home in every sense.

Machiavelli served as a diplomat under Cesare Borgia, one of the great Renaissance princes - both he and his flamboyant sister Lucretia Borgia being children of Pope Alexander VI. It's often overlooked on this side of the water that Machiavelli's scheming ways were all deployed in the service of the state. His work, in fact, provides an extreme example of a political leader judged by a different moral standard from the ordinary citizen (to whom Machiavelli doesn't give very high marks for astuteness).

In a typical passage of "Il Principe", Machiavelli asks if a ruler once he's declared himself should keep faith with what he's said? Absolutely not, Machiavelli wrote. Not when so doing would be against his interest. "If all men were good," he thought, "this precept would not be a good one. But men are bad, and since they would not keep faith with you, you are not bound to keep faith with them.

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