March 1, 2007
Machiavelli and the MullahsBy David J. Rusin
Machiavelli could offer President Bush what he needs most at this pivotal juncture: a philosophical blueprint for confronting the Iranian nuclear threat and successfully prosecuting the broader war against radical Islam.
A leading figure of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli served as a diplomat and militia commander for the short-lived Florentine Republic of the early sixteenth century. His seminal experiences in office, coupled with a remarkably deep reading of history, led Machiavelli to the pioneering political philosophy which he would outline in The Prince and elaborate upon in Discourses on Livy. Like all great books, The Prince transcends the time for which it was composed. Though intended as a manual to aid Lorenzo di Medici in navigating the tumult of Renaissance Italy, Machiavelli's masterpiece offers ageless advice to those charged with defending their societies during periods of heightened peril.
Machiavelli is regarded as a patriarch of realist political theory. His concern was not the moral perfectibility of man and his institutions, but rather their survival in an uncertain and often violent world.
Realism should certainly not be mistaken for fatalism - regardless of how the phony realists of the Baker-Hamilton commission might labor to conflate the two. Machiavelli argued that, through prudent actions, a leader can shape the outcome of events to his advantage and snuff out dangers before they metastasize.
Five hundred years later, America and its allies face a brutal enemy. Terrorist organizations and their homegrown affiliates, seamlessly melding political grievances with Koranic decrees, plot to bring death to the infidels of Dar al-Harb. The atrocities visited upon such disparate locales as Manhattan, Madrid, and Mumbai warn that the savagery of the terrorists is limited only by their ability to inflict mass casualties. These limitations on the global jihad may soon evaporate, however, as the march of technology threatens to enable terrorists and, more ominously, Islamist governments with the means to precipitate carnage on unspeakable scales.
At the confluence of radical Islam, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction lies Tehran. The Islamic Republic is the first modern theocracy in the Muslim world, and its founding presaged an era of escalated conflict between Islam and the West. Iran also distinguishes itself as the most prolific state sponsor of terrorism, with Hezbollah and Hamas among its many acolytes. The mullahs are currently plying their terrorist trade in Iraq, where sectarian violence is being fueled by Iranian money and materiel. Shiite Iran has also provided support to the Sunni jihadists of Al Qaeda. Not only did a majority of the Saudi "muscle" hijackers pass through Iran prior to September 11, but the nation also welcomed prominent Al Qaeda figures fleeing Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Security chief Saif al-Adel and Osama Bin Laden's son Saad head the list of Al Qaeda luminaries believed to enjoy refuge there.
Now imagine this regime armed with nuclear weapons. In just a few short years, imagination may no longer be necessary. Unmoved by half-hearted Security Council resolutions and never-ending dialogue with Europe, Iran continues to plow ahead with its uranium enrichment program. Tehran naturally seeks to assure a credulous international community that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful in nature. However, such claims ring hollow in light of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's persistent boasts that Israel will soon be "wiped off the map."
While its centrifuges still have quite a bit of spinning left to do, Tehran already possesses the delivery systems it needs to carry out threats against the Jewish state and project power throughout the Middle East. Iran's Shahab 3 missile can strike both Israel and Saudi Arabia, while future upgrades will extend its range to all of Europe and perhaps even the eastern United States. Moreover, the Washington Times recently noted that Tehran has augmented its arsenal by purchasing 18 North Korean-made derivatives of an old Soviet submarine-launched missile - a missile which was specifically designed to carry nuclear warheads.
In short, Iran's key role in the rise of radical Islam, its decades-long support for terror, and the genocidal taunts of its millenarian president lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Islamic Republic must not get the bomb. A nuclear-armed Tehran would jeopardize American security, menace its neighbors, and present an existential threat to Israel. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush vowed that
Likewise, Machiavelli urged leaders to act in advance to ward off gathering perils:
The time to stamp out the Iranian nuclear malady is now.
President Bush's approach to Tehran must be guided by three Machiavellian principles:
The first of these is the central tenet of The Prince: that a leader must act decisively in pursuit of his objectives, rather than relying on others to accomplish them.
Self-reliance is critical because those who do not share your objectives are unlikely to sacrifice on your behalf.
Machiavelli's admonition went unheeded in December 2001, when high-ranking Al Qaeda figures were holed up in Tora Bora. Rather than flooding the zone with U.S. troops, President Bush unwisely placed his faith in local Afghan fighters. "The arms of another" did indeed fall from the president's hand, as the capricious warlords allowed terrorist leaders - and perhaps bin Laden himself - to escape. The Tora Bora debacle may be contrasted with Ethiopia's successful American-backed campaign against Somalia's Islamic Courts Union in December 2006. Because Ethiopia rightly feared that the Somali Islamists would threaten its sovereignty, the nation could be trusted to carry out an important American objective in the Horn of Africa.
Outside of the apprehensive but weak Sunni Arab states, motivated allies are few and far between when it comes to staring down Iran. Relying on the United Nations or European Union will virtually guarantee that the Islamic Republic obtains nuclear weapons. Veto-wielding Security Council members China, France, and Russia are deeply invested in the mullahcracy based on trade and energy interests, and will likely block any serious countermeasures.
As for the Europeans, their fortitude is highlighted by Jacques Chirac, who recently mused to the New York Times that Iran's
By now President Bush should understand that if the United States does not take the lead in defusing the Iranian nuclear threat, then nobody will.
Second, the president must recall Machiavelli's principle that there is "greater security in being feared than in being loved." Indeed, the fear of force can be just as persuasive as force itself. Did this fear not factor into Muammar Qaddafi's pledge to dismantle his weapons programs in the wake of Saddam Hussein's overthrow? Likewise, were Hussein and bin Laden not emboldened by the limp-wristed American response to terror during the 1990s? Love, in contrast, plays little role in international affairs. Alliances, after all, are founded not on affection, but on mutual interests and respect. And as far as the jihadists and their enablers are concerned, they will love us when we bow to Mecca five times a day - and not a moment sooner.
Islamists may or may not fear death, but they certainly fear the loss of power. States are vital to the Islamist enterprise because they provide resource bases which cannot be assembled through other means. It is for this reason that the Taliban will seek to reclaim Afghanistan for many years to come. There is also the ego factor, magnified by the Muslim preoccupation with shame and honor. Islamists are still fretting over their ejection from the Iberian Peninsula more than five centuries ago, and the collapse of the last caliphate following the First World War. How would they feel about losing Iran, the tactical and symbolic centerpiece of their modern project?
President Bush must therefore convince Tehran's more circumspect power brokers that continued intransigence on the part of Ahmadinejad and his backers will leave their regime in the cross hairs. This is one of those times when actions speak louder than words. Since the greatest threat to an autocracy originates from its own people, the U.S. should redouble efforts to mobilize and fund liberal opposition groups, while retooling Radio Farda into an effective voice for freedom. It is equally important that the U.S. signal renewed resolve in Iraq, as years of indecision have eroded American prestige. The pending troop surge and the recent arrests of Iranian operatives in Baghdad and Irbil are small steps in the right direction. Dismantling the Mahdi army, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran, would be a bigger one. Combined with an already promising campaign of financial pressure on the regime, such measures may yet convince the mullahs to reconsider their nuclear course.
Finally, the president should heed Machiavelli's observation that some conflicts are inevitable, and that a leader must seize the initiative once the tipping point has been reached. Machiavelli praised the Romans, who, upon
Machiavelli attributed this to their repudiation of
Apparently the beltway bien pensants counsel passivity and appeasement in every age.
Delaying war is immoral if doing so ensures greater suffering and peril down the line. History is replete with examples. Britain and France failed to confront Hitler's provocations when he was still building his forces, only to face a significantly strengthened Nazi war machine a few years later. In contrast, seeing that war was imminent in 1967, Israel launched a swift and decisive strike against Egypt. The current Israeli leadership is not so wise. Their reluctance to crush Hezbollah in the summer war of 2006 is merely a ticket to a future conflict which will bring additional death and destruction to both sides of the Blue Line. Finally, even considering the many difficulties encountered in Iraq over the past few years, the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein in a post-9/11 world more than justified his removal in 2003.
A nuclear-armed Iran would invigorate the most radical elements of the Shiite theocracy and set the stage for an inevitable clash with America and its allies. Therefore, if other options fail to thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions, then the U.S. must be prepared to accomplish this by force. It should not be a difficult choice: tangle with Iran before it acquires nuclear weapons, or do so afterward. While a preemptive strike would come with a significant downside - it would likely rally Iranians to their much-despised government and trigger retaliatory attacks by its terror assets in the West - Machiavelli noted that a nation
The day is fast approaching when the use of force against Tehran's nuclear infrastructure may be the lesser of two remaining evils.
President Bush's ability to mold the above precepts into a viable Iran policy will ultimately determine whether his successors must face a nuclear-armed and highly emboldened Islamic Republic. Recent tactical shifts by the White House are cause for optimism in this respect. Furthermore, as demonstrated by events from Tora Bora to Mogadishu, Machiavellian philosophy is equally pertinent to the wider struggle against radical Islam. In fact, a careful reading of Machiavelli offers trenchant insights regarding the occupation of foreign lands, the role of ancient institutions in fueling rebellion, and the dangers posed by enemies who do not fear death - issues of particular significance to present and future fronts in the Long War.
The Prince concludes with an exhortation to Lorenzo di Medici, encouraging him to rise to the challenges of his time and beat back the "barbarian insolence and cruelty" which threatened his state and his people. If Machiavelli were around in 2007, one suspects that he would summarize current circumstances in much the same way.
David J. Rusin holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania. His interests include foreign affairs and security policy. He may be contacted at email@example.com.