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Hail to the Prince: Obama, the paradigmatic Machiavellian Leader


A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.
Nicolò Machiavelli

Obama, before he actually “did” anything, had a reputation. And, indeed, reputation – what others think you are, and not what you actually are – is a crucial factor in a public figure. A political leader, while marketed, literally, in order to reach positions of power in most democracies, is going to have to continually develop a reputation that will keep the story going, because, not being a dictator, a president is going to have to obtain consensus for the many things that the power he holds enables him to enact, but not without some accountability.

What you “are” and how you are “perceived” is a fascinating topic. It is dealt with mainly in sociology and psychology, but someone very important in the history of thought had a great deal to say about it regarding politics and power. Unwittingly, this topic that has been one of my favourite areas of research was dropped on my lap in my day-to-day life: helping my child with her homework.

By any measuring stick, the scholastic curriculum of Italian children is complicated. In the 5th grade they are spending five months studying Homer and classical poetry. When they are 11 or 12 they are expected to make sense out of Dante, Cervantes and Ariosto. Most of the time they require help from older siblings, cousins or parents, so in addition to crouching over the textbook summaries and sloppy notes, a daily ritual is taking the books of adults off the shelves and trying to find a way to work through the labyrinth of archaic language that is the bulk of the content, and to put things into an understandable context, at least enough to get the kids through the frequent oral exams.

This winter break, my 12-year-old daughter’s history and literature lessons were focused on Savonarola, Dante, the Counter-Reform and Machiavelli, so we spent many hours preparing for the exams coming up in January. Needless to say, while the topics may be really dull for a child, I realised they were perfect primarily to keep the teacher interested. Not that I am against culture, but with the heritage Italy has, and the linear direction of history, it’s complicated as hell for a pre-teen. While it was frustrating thinking of how my kid was going to tackle things like the Council of Trent and the Guelfs and Ghibellines, I myself was happy to have a chance to revisit things that I studied in University, this time in their original language and with greater awareness of the context and how they have often been paraphrased erroneously, even diluted and twisted, to conform to a modern sensitivity.

Trying to paraphrase the basic concepts and reading the various textbook presentations (both for the History class and the Literature class) gave me a chance to look at the material with fresh eyes and some of that has been illuminating for me. I have no illusions that textbooks are outside the dominant discourse. They all have an agenda, and nowhere like in a crucial field that is run by the government, that of education, is there going to be anything far outside the approved national narrative. Yet, the approach was different than what I was used to, embracing Machiavelli as the pioneer of political science, but also someone who was an acute observer of reality and still today relevant.

And, in reading the summarised material, I realised that President Barack Obama, not so differently from his direct predecessors, rather than being inspired by Andrew Jackson, Samuel Adams or Abraham Lincoln, is a brilliant student and disciple of Nicolò Machiavelli.

The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.
Nicolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s got something of a reputation, evidenced by the fact that his name has become an adjective with largely negative connotations, not really merited, in all honesty. What makes it even more entertaining is that the most scandalous part of his theoretical writing was the analysis of “reputation”, and the necessity of the leader of a State to manipulate the idea and the perception others have of him in order to carry out actions that have as the goal consolidation and maintenance of his own power.

I’m assuming everyone is familiar with Machiavelli’s concepts, as expressed in his major work “The Prince”. But for the sake of clarity, I will briefly sum them up. Many tend to call that treatise a kind of “recipe” for the shrewd leader, but his ideas were not the fruit of some conniving mind, rather they were quite simply a lucid analysis of the real world. He warned that before him, all had analysed politics and leadership according to “ideal” criteria. Useless. Something ideal remains theoretical and very rarely is able to be put to the test, and therefore is non-existent. There is no evidence Popes are the representatives of God’s will or that Kings descend from the emperors of Rome, so those battling in defence of one or the other for those reasons were not saying what the real role of these rulers were, which was a form of total control by means of the carrot and the stick, but kept hidden by all that “ideals” rhetoric.

Yet, most governing systems, (even modern ones ranging from democracy to constitutional monarchies to military dictatorships to theocracies), carry the germ of some ideal and this obviously is true for the ideologies, bearing the root in their very name, and they take advantage of that when they can so as to build their reputation and gain consensus. The vision of what shall be obtained and the means to do so are constructed and not accidental. However, Machiavelli took the mask off things by noting that throughout history there has never been a government, regime or ideology that could qualify as fully meeting its ideals, a “perfect society” (not necessarily a utopia, just a society that works according to the ideal rules established). The best thing to do, in the light of that, was to analyse the reality and study the States in order to be able to create and consolidate the power of the leaders (who at the time represented the land and the people), determining the necessary means to maintain that power and if at all possible, to expand it.

And the beauty of his thesis is in its simplicity and the ease of its being verified. His idea was that in public life only the praise and blame of fellow human beings is what really counts. Thus, Machiavelli supposed, the ruler needs to acquire a good reputation while actually doing whatever seems necessary in the circumstances, no matter how “right or wrong” it could appear or actually be. Thus, rulers must seem to be generous while spending their money to consolidate their own wealth and power, appear to be compassionate while ruling their armies cruelly, and act with great cunning while cultivating a reputation for integrity. In essence, the ace ruler, cream of the crop, has to be considered as a worthy recipient of peace prizes while at the same time he is sending more troops to wage war in faraway lands. People will see the parts of it they want to see, and all of it is real.

In his writing, a true “Prince/President” has to appear “compassionate, faithful, humane, religious” without actually being any of these things. He should go to Cairo to tell Muslims they have a beautiful faith, yet address them in a way only a colonialist could do, using Arabic words to thrill them, a sort of Ich bin ein Berliner in Middle Eastern Sauce. He believes that they are so thirsty for American love and so intellectually immature that they will be impressed enough into thinking he is sincere, allowing them to approve his doublespeak: talking about peace and love while telling them how just and righteous the wars against Muslim nations were and how Palestinians have to “stop killing”, then they will be like “the good side, peace-loving but forced into a preventive war”. If they accept and approve all of this, they win! They get to join the “international community” and be worthy of that love. He has carried on in the great Neocon tradition in citing that stuff, terrorism, defining it as located in the Muslim world and joining as a single category true terrorist acts with resistance insurgency against (American) military occupation, all of it bad, bad, bad and going to be punished. Machiavelli would have been impressed at the blatancy of it and in awe of how it was done by today’s Prince. Not too many people in history have applauded their oppressor while he is doing his job so ruthlessly.

Obama studied his Machiavelli, of this there can be no doubt! He knows that history teaches that the head of a State has to be a “fox” as well as a “lion”, crafty and ferocious. His adversaries have to be weakened totally or else extinguished. As a matter of fact, the adversaries have to be shown courtesy or even a level of respect in order to obtain their friendship; the alternative is to kill them, and they will be told they have the choice of obedience or death. All clearly spelled out. But, this too was a Bush specialty. It is just that Bush got criticised for it and has not collected any prizes recently in Stockholm.

On the national level, the Prince understands that although it is desirable to be both loved and feared by one’s subjects, it is difficult to achieve both, and of the two, Machiavelli declared, it is far safer for the ruler to be feared. Thus, any kind of restrictions of freedom, a lietmotif of decades of American leadership, are creating stress levels that force Americans into numbing themselves in front of mindless infotainment and disinformation. Stressed because they know they are being monitored at all times and one false move, one bad investment, one iffy book taken out of the library, one strange video downloaded, one racist joke made over the phone, and they may do some hard time. Should the skeletons in the closet get discovered, the real ones this time, there will be no one to save them. Even the folks who work for Obama had to fill out detailed personal questionnaires (preventive scandal insurance), so if that’s how one handles friends, heaven help the rest of them.

The Prince should be able to control his subjects by demonstrating qualities of severity that could also be cruel, because the subjects must feel fear and respect towards the leader, and the two-stepping charmer we all would like to date could turn into the goose-stepping enforcer who decides Guantanamo isn’t such a bad idea anyway, and allowing cops to shoot down Imams in Detroit and ask questions (maybe) later was still the Law and Order MO.

Machiavelli looked at reality without hypocrisy. He had the courage to cut through the rhetoric and recognise that it is action that shapes geopolitics, and his most intense statements were those about the relationships a State has with another. He insisted that the only real force of a State is in an extremely well-armed military, solid and faithful to its leader.

Clashes and wars are born out of will to power and desire to control ever greater territories, conquest, in other words, not for abstract principles, though the abstract principles get the consensus required by a democracy. You can’t invade a country and say, “We want your resources”, though you are actually taking control of them, they always “did something” to deserve it, and the spoils of war are extreme punishment that they had coming. But you can get people to support a war because it will prevent terrorism or even make the world a safer place, but once in there, well, why not take advantage of the stuff under the sand? Indeed, Obama continues and adds more ammo to the policy of controlling territories, even those that are not contiguous and would need military garrisons to control after the dust settles. He learned the Machiavellian lesson that the life of a State is regulated by calculation, force, even brutality. A Strong State tends to conquer and annihilate a weaker one. Back in history this is the constant. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Peace can only exist when it is in the interests of the nations. The idea of love between populations has existed only in rhetoric. It is one army fighting another for the sake of the leader and his expansionist ambitions. The leader that wants to maintain his power will attack when he has the military advantage, and will claim that others forced him into it. There will be peace once the nations that have invasion soldiers crawling all over them capitulate and let the history run its course.

This paper is only a brief exercise, a stimulus for readers to find more of their own evidence as we note that the salient points that characterise “The Prince” are not so different from “The President”, based on Machiavelli’s treatise. I thank Italy’s Ministry of Education, my daughter’s professor and my daughter herself for turning homework into discussion points.

Illustration: Prince Obama by Edna Spennato

Source: Palestine Think Tank

Original article published on Mar. 4, 2010

About the author

Mary Rizzo is a member of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity. This article may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source and author are cited.

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IMPERIUM : 05/03/2010