Machiavelli on Iraq

Uprooting a totalitarian regime —— a regime that has penetrated all corners of society —— and replacing it with something more humane is no easy task. This week's fighting in Fallujah and other hotspots attests to this sobering fact. Regime change involves not simply removing the ancien regime, rehabilitating infrastructure, and writing constitutions, but instilling the habit of self—restraint among the populace. Too many Iraqis are prone to pick up the gun to further their political ambitions.

In short, regime change in Iraq was not simply a matter of toppling Saddam Hussein. Exactly how long it will take, and whether it ultimately succeeds, will depend on Iraqis themselves.

For guidance it's worth consulting an unlikely source: Niccolo Machiavelli, best known as the author of the 16th—century treatise The Prince. Reviled for propounding an end—justifies—the—means doctrine of statecraft, Machiavelli nonetheless makes a sturdy guide to the foundation and maintenance of the regime. His Discourses on Livy, which drew on Roman history, is one of the most thoughtful analyses of the subject ever published. Its main theme was that a firm hand was essential when a society was undergoing the wrenching transition from one regime to another.

How does this apply to Iraq? Machiavelli likened a people accustomed to living under a tyrant to 'a brute animal that, although of a ferocious and feral nature, has always been nourished in prison and in servitude' —— dulling its natural virtues. Left untended in a field, a beast reared in servitude would fall prey to the first master who sought 'to rechain it, not being used to feed itself and not knowing places where it may have to take refuge.'

A people liberated from tyranny, then, confronted a fate comparable to that of a newly freed beast. People who had known nothing but authoritarian rule but were perchance made free would know little of 'how to reason about either public defense or public offense,' and thus would be prone to fall 'beneath a yoke that is most often heavier than the one it had removed from its neck a little before.'

Muqtada al—Sadr, Abu Musab al—Zarqawi, and other insurgent leaders are undoubtedly counting on this dynamic.

Machiavelli first assessed the fortunes of a virtuous people that had been freed. The key for the founder of a republic was to enact 'orders and laws in which universal security is included,' since the multitude craved not power over their fellows, but 'freedom so as to live secure.' The few aristocrats who thirsted for dominance could be dealt with either by 'getting rid of them' —— a product of the rough—and—tumble politics of Renaissance Italy, Machiavelli wasn't one to shrink from harsh methods —— or by showering them with honors and thus co—opting them.

The problem was compounded when a long period under the princely yoke had sown corruption in the body politic; for 'a people into which corruption has entered in everything cannot live free, not for a short time or at all.' Such a people would succumb to oligarchy in short order. Indeed, Machiavelli fretted that 'a corrupt city that lives under a prince can never be turned into a free one, even if that prince is eliminated along with all his line.' The only way to freedom for such a people was if 'the goodness of one individual, together with virtue,' weaned them away from their corrupt habits through a lengthy period of supervision.

For Machiavelli, extreme problems warranted extreme measures. Where the 'matter' of which a society was composed was 'not corrupt, tumults and scandals do not hurt; where it is corrupt, well—ordered laws do not help unless indeed they have been put in motion' by a new ruler, who with 'an extreme force ensures their observance so that the matter becomes good.'

A grim route to a more liberal society.

Which category does Iraq fall into —— the virtuous or the corrupt society? Arguably, Saddam's tyranny was not so long that habits of mind and heart ossified into semi—permanent deeply—rooted characteristics of the Iraqi people. But on the other hand, Saddam's extreme brutality, the large number of minions implicated in his crimes, and the lack a pre—existing vigorous democratic political tradition, do not augur well. 

If the former hypothesis proves correct, then regime change will be a relatively straightforward matter of defeating the various Iraqi militias, continuing to rebuild civilian infrastructure, and forging the institutions of a free society. But if the latter hypothesis holds —— if a few decades of despotic rule so coarsened the body politic that Iraqis lack the habits of self—restraint they need to govern themselves humanely —— then America will be embroiled in Iraqi politics for years to come, and a virtuous yet firm—handed leader will have to appear to restore them to a reasonably uncorrupted state of political life.

Machiavelli gives us reason to be optimistic about the ultimate outcome of the second Persian Gulf War, but getting there promises to be painful for the coalition, Iraqi citizens, and —— assuming the coalition takes his hardnosed counsel to heart —— for the Sunni and Shiite insurgents.

James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security and a combat veteran of the first Gulf War.