August 13, 2006

Karl Rove’s Bookcase: Machiavelli and Iraq

Last week I talked about how Karl Rove might find Machiavelli useful in his job of winning elections. However, on reading The Prince, I was struck by his foreign policy advice, which this Administration might do well to heed. While Rove would have to stretch a little to apply these lessons to domestic political races, Machiavelli writes at length about how to conquer and occupy other countries. Since the Bush Administration is heavily into the conquering business; Afghanistan, Iraq ... and since it isn’t going very well, perhaps they could use some advice.

I have to stress here that Machiavelli takes a very self-centered approach to the whole subject. He is not concerned with the morality of what he is doing, or how the people being conquered suffer. He doesn’t even discuss why one might want to engage in a conquest of another country. His only concern is how to do it effectively. For this the Bush Administration ought to love him, because they have their agenda and all they want to do is put it into effect. The plan was to take over Iraq, and if a lot of people suffer and die in the process, it doesn’t matter because the overall goal is “worthy”. However, they don’t even seem to understand the process well enough to do it well.

In The Prince, Machiavelli talks about the different ways to rule a country that has been conquered. The worst is to maintain an army of occupation, “But in maintaining armed men there in place of colonies one spends much more, having to consume on the garrison all the income from the state so that the acquisition turns into a loss, and many more are exasperated, because the whole state is injured; through the shifting of the garrison up and down all become acquainted with hardship, and all become hostile, and they are enemies who, whilst beaten on their own ground are yet able to do hurt. For every reason, therefore, such guards are as useless as a colony is useful.” He goes on to say that discontented subjects will flock to the banner of a leader who professes to free them from the occupying state.

All of this, of course, has direct relevance to Iraq. The military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime was easy, given the overwhelming superiority of forces. Much of the Iraqi army simply melted away into the population, rather than confront the American tanks head on. However the US then proceeded to try to rule Iraq with an army of occupation. This is where they ran into trouble for two reasons. One, the quality of life had been degraded for most people there. This started with the bombing campaign of the first war that targeted the civilian infrastructure of power plants, sewage treatment and water purification plants and continued with a decade of sanctions that crippled the country economically. The invasion of 2003 once again put many of these same plants out of commission, leaving most people with very limited access to clean water and electricity, even compared to the sanctions period. Economic opportunities are also extremely limited due to the continued fighting. As Machiavelli had predicted, the growing number of people who were discontented with the state of affairs have come to blame the occupying forces for their troubles. They have thus tended to rally around those who are willing to stand up to the Americans. This fuels the resistance in a spiral of violence, response and revenge that has only gotten worse as it becomes clear that there is no end in sight.

Machiavelli supposes two kinds of state which you might want to conquer. One has a strong central ruler, who controls the whole of the state apparatus. This kind of state can be difficult to conquer because it is united, well organized and strong. However, once you do succeed, it is easy to take over the top post in government and control the rest, more or less as the previous ruler had. The daily life for most people doesn’t change, so they have little reason to resist. In the other case, there are many power centers that are independent of the central authority. It is easy to manipulate these conflicts to pit one against the other, thus dividing and conquering. However, the occupation is much more difficult because these same rivalries tend to make some support you and some oppose you, so whatever you do there is bound to be opposition.

Iraq was more the first type under the Baath Party. The sheer superiority of forces guaranteed a quick victory but the US made a fatal error. Rather than preserving the government as it was, simply supplying a new ruler more compliant to American wishes, they destroyed the whole government apparatus, creating a power vacuum that came to be filled by Iraqi nationalist resistance fighters, Islamic fundamentalists and Kurdish nationalists. The Kurds are willing to go along with the Americans as long as their goal of greater Kurdish autonomy is realized. The Americans accept this, even though it requires finessing Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish nationalism, which they have been brutally fighting, with US support, for years in Turkey. The other power centers have not been dealt with as successfully. The inability of the US to supply normal governmental services turns people to the resistance, in one form or another, as an alternative.

Machiavelli’s conclusion is that in this situation the occupying power will be driven out sooner or later. Furthermore, their position at home is weakened by the strain of the continuing war. Their popularity is down and the upcoming elections will likely weaken, if not break, the Republicans’ hold on all three branches of government. For this reason, Karl Rove might wish that he had lent Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney his copy of The Prince before they got themselves into such a mess.


Most Democrats have been gleefully engaging in this kind of analysis that criticizes the Administration for mishandling the war, and God knows they have, while staying away from the more basic question of why we are there in the first place. At one extreme is Joe Leiberman, who went so far in supporting the whole enterprise that he lost his primary and abandoned the Democratic Party. But others, such as New York’s Hillary Clinton and Washington’s Maria Cantwell, who are both up for re-election, are trying to have it both ways. They are fast to criticize the administration, with Clinton, seeing the handwriting on the wall after Leiberman’s loss, calling for Rumsfeld to resign, but slow to question the legitimacy of the war or present any meaningful alternative to the President’s “stay the course” policy. A professed desire to bring the troops home at some unspecified time in the future after the Iraqi government has control of the situation is not a policy. It is a pipe dream. Anti-war voters (and a majority now oppose the war) are losing patience with these fence straddlers. It remains to be seen how this will all play out in November. Whatever happens here, the prognosis is bleak and getting bleaker in Iraq.

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