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The Machiavelli Inquiry

Casimir Kukielka asks: What might some of history’s most famous practitioners of power politics have thought about the war in Iraq?

In Issue 50 of Philosophy Now, an article by Ian Dungate called ‘The Aquinas Inquiry’, imagined the reactions of certain medieval philosophers to the invasion of Iraq. The panel, led by St Thomas Aquinas, used six criteria to determine whether the invasion could be morally justified; unfortunately for Blair and Bush, they ruled that it could not. While the conclusions of the Aquinas Inquiry may be comforting to some people, others who do not follow the idealistic tenets of medieval Christianity may feel that what Aquinas and company had to say was irrelevant. After all, a lot has changed in the last 700 years, and that includes perceptions of morality.

May I offer an alternative to the Aquinas panel – the Machiavelli panel, consisting of Niccolò Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, Klemens von Metternich, and Otto von Bismarck. These four statesmen are famous for basing their calculations not on high-minded principles, but on the cold-blooded calculations of Realpolitik. Though the word Realpolitik has been confused and abused, and was not even popularized until after the deaths of three of our panelists, it roughly means that the measured acquisition of power is the best way of assuring the survival of the state. It is not idealistic in outlook; it is realistic. Since this typifies the strategies of our panel members, they are uniquely qualified to offer a second perspective on the war in Iraq. Even if they concede the findings of the Aquinas inquiry, it doesn’t mean that they would have ultimately disagreed with Bush. What they will seek to find is whether the war and how it was initiated were in the best interests of the United States. Did Bush analyze things in a sober way? Did his actions before the outbreak of hostilities maximize the US’s chances for success?

The panel members have pondered such matters deeply, written copiously, and on top of that, have had a great deal of experience putting their theories into practice (more than can be said for our first panel!). Though there are no clear-cut criteria like the Aquinas panel enjoyed, they are sufficiently crafty to put together six new criteria. Let’s review each, point by point, to see if Bush made decisions that would advance US interests.

1) Was utility placed above ideology? Personal religious beliefs, prejudices, loyalties etc. must not inhibit action or reduce flexibility. The first thing our panelists must judge is whether Bush allowed such things as international law or his own professed devotion to Christianity to stand in the way of an action that probably runs counter to both. On the surface it appears quite simple – he launched a destructive war without UN approval, thus he let neither moral hang-ups, nor diplomatic niceties stand in the way. However Richelieu, drawing on his experiences in the Thirty Years War, might object that merely taking action doesn’t necessarily prove that one is not blinded by ideology. For example, he might say, Ferdinand II of the Holy Roman Empire turned down highly favorable peace terms in order to continue fighting the Protestant heretics. It was a catastrophic decision for his Empire. Though Bush may not have been inhibited by popular morality, could ‘neoconservative’ ideology have caused him to act rashly when moderation was in the best interests of the US? One possible clue that Bush was addicted to ideology was his seemingly unwavering belief that Iraq possessed a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Despite the fact that Han Blix and his team of inspectors had found no ‘smoking gun,’ neoconservatives said that people were only living with a false sense of security if they doubted the existence of these weapons. Since the resulting invasion found no weapons it can be argued that Bush was blinded to reality.

Metternich and Bismark might counter that there were many practical reasons to go to war: Iraq has large oil deposits, it is strategically situated next to Iran, Saddam Hussein had funded the Palestinians, and a Saddam-free Iraq would present a democratic alternative to the despotism common in the middle east. The weapons of mass destruction argument was only a means to garner as much support as possible without waiting for counter productive conclusions from weapons inspectors. Success, that is military victory and a democratic Iraq, would vindicate the Bush team, with or without the weapons.

Likely outcome: After weighing both sides, the panel concludes that, despite some high-minded language, neoconservatism is really just a philosophy that argues for the continuation of the ‘American Empire.’ Either way the Bush team must have intended to extend American power, and so utility and expediency were placed above all else.

2) Did the decision preserve or augment the state’s geopolitical position? This is a difficult question to answer, given that the war is still in progress. Bismarck might remind his fellow panelists of his great war against Austria in 1866. It was decisive first because it was quick and it increased Prussia’s position vis-à-vis the other great powers. Second, and equally important, it was a limited war. A person with unlimited demands risks creating unlimited enemies, as in the case of Napoleon. Bismarck’s victory might have changed the balance in central Europe, but the general European equilibrium appeared to remain intact. Thus the other powers felt they could live with the new arrangement.

The invasion of Iraq was not done inside the pre-existing framework of international relations – in this sense, it was revolutionary. Countries like Iran or North Korea are consequently seeking to balance America’s overall global position by acquiring nuclear weapons. The current situation is too unstable for them to rely on anything less than what they consider to be an absolute guarantee of their sovereignty. And of course the ongoing insurgency gives these countries a window of opportunity to get the Bomb whilst American forces and diplomacy are otherwise engaged. The combination of insurgency in Iraq and proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere has obviously decreased America’s global position.

Likely Outcome: A world skeptical of America’s motives was the price Bush paid for a war of attrition. The panel votes unanimously that the war was harmful to America.

3) Were political considerations kept ahead of military considerations? War is an unpredictable mess. History shows that clear cut, decisive victories are very difficult to achieve, even for an army that is vastly superior. When they do, it is usually a sign that the diplomats have adjusted the factors to their advantage before the shooting started. If the army drags a country into war, that country is at the whim of fortune as much as of its own strength.

It is well-known that the US launched its attack in March ‘03 in an attempt to beat the summer heat. In addition, there was talk about the financial costs of the army sitting around in Kuwait while Sec. Powell tried to hammer out a resolution at the UN. This seems to indicate that Bush placed military considerations first. On the other hand, Bush might claim that Iraq is only one battle in a larger war that began on September 11th. In this globalized world what happens in one part of the globe has an impact on the other parts far greater than might have been the case say, 200 years ago. If there is a connection between totalitarianism and terrorism, then by his very existence, Saddam was an aggressor.

Likely Outcome: The Bush team seems to be reaching here. Nonetheless, the panel has enough doubts to issue a 2-2 split decision to avoid tipping the scale too early.

4) Were decisive pronouncements kept concealed until just before action? This point could also be called strategic ambiguity. As a rule of thumb, you should not show your cards before the betting starts. On this point, the panel reaches a decision quite quickly. Nearly a year before March 2003, there was already a lot of talk that the White House was planning on invading. More grievously, Bush declared his willingness to go it alone when there were doubts among the allies, thus undercutting his own bargaining position. If there were any Asian or European politicians on the fence, he removed all incentive for them to support the unpopular measure, financially or materially. Even if they agreed that Hussein had to be eliminated, they could publicly oppose the war in order to win points with their respective publics, knowing that in the end, Bush would do the dirty work for them.

Likely Outcome: Bush was too clear too early about what he was going to do. The panel votes unanimously that he did not put off decisive commitments to the most advantageous moment.

5) Was there proper assessment of the forces at play? So far, the Iraq war has not created a direct confrontation between the US and another great power; even France now seems to be softening its stance. Bush gambled correctly that those powers opposed to the war would or could not stop him.

Where he may have gambled badly was on the effectiveness of terrorist tactics. Bush should have realized, based on Israel’s experience, that they are nearly impossible to stop. Even a few thousand people out of a population of millions can, if so determined, wreak unbelievable destruction and stalemate a powerful army for years on end.

Likely Outcome: Though Cardinal Richelieu favors the insurgency and sees it as proof that Bush did not properly assess all the various forces, Prince Metternich loathes to be seen on the same side as radicals and rebels. The Prince aligns 3 votes behind Bush.

6) Were half measures taken? In Chapter III of The Prince, Machiavelli states that if you intend to oppose someone, you should crush them since “they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals.” The emphasis here is on not shrinking from the implication of an action. Doing something half way sets up future wars, which all our panelists tried to avoid when possible.

The UN and the Security Council can be taken to task for not heeding this warning after the first Gulf War. The ceasefire agreement (weapons inspectors, sanctions, the no fly zone) left Saddam weakened but still a threat, as he naturally sought to alter a situation that he considered humiliating. Being a Machiavellian himself, he used any means to do so, which included manipulating world opinion by broadcasting painful images of Iraqis suffering under the sanctions. Pressure to remove the sanctions grew, in spite of the fact that the sanctions were there in the first place because the international community deemed Saddam too dangerous to be left to his own devices. The only way to safely remove the sanctions was to first remove Saddam. In this respect, Bush gets power politic points for his refusal to let Saddam steer world policy.

Machiavelli might raise the point that while Bush didn’t use half measures against Saddam, involvement in Iraq has diverted men and money from the war against Osama bin Laden, so a half measure was actually a product of the war.

Likely Outcome: The bin Laden argument is plausible, but since terrorism would continue with or without bin Laden, the panel concludes that Hussein might have been the more reasonable target. The panel votes in favor of Bush.

So the panel votes three times in favor of Bush, twice against, and is split on another point. The panel says that Bush’s strategy had many elements of Realpolitik but the fact that the war actually reduced America’s power and influence makes it difficult to give him a high rating. Many politicians have been amoral but ultimately unsuccessful. The panel is not likely to induct Bush into the ranks of the great practitioners of Realpolitik.

© Casimir Kukielka 2005

Casimir Kukielka is an independent writer who lives and works in Milan, Italy. He can be reached at casimirkukielka@hotmail.com .

The Panel:

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Had various diplomatic assignments for Renaissance-era Florence. Was an early exponent of Italian unification, and wrote a famous treatise called The Prince.

Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642). Sometimes referred to as the Iron Cardinal. Considered the father of the French state, broke the back of the Hapsburgs in the Thirty Years War. Made France dominant in Europe.

Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859). Wily opponent of Napoleon’s. He staved off the death of the Austrian Empire by 100 years. Also credited with inventing chocolate cake.

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). Called the Iron Chancellor and considered the father of Germany. Famously said that the great questions are not settled through parliamentary debates but through “iron and blood.” It has since been misquoted as “blood and iron.”

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