Politics

Machiavelli’s Revenge

President Bush was a Prince of a guy, but not when it came to Iraq.

By 1.20.09

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George W. Bush's relationship with Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar was a close one. They were sometimes spotted holding hands in public in observance of Saudi custom. So when Bandar came calling at the White House shortly after Baghdad had fallen to American forces, we might expect that what he said carried serious weight.

Bandar was worried about the stability of the country. He urged Bush not to disband Iraq's military or intelligence services. The prince advised that Bush should remove the Iraqi leadership "because of their bloody hands" but not do away with Iraqi institutions. Rather, he should fire everyone down to the rank of colonel in the military and a similar rank in the intelligence services, and use those underlings to find Saddam Hussein, who was still on the lam, and to root out Baathist loyalists and other troublemakers.

Bandar encountered resistance so he pressed the point. The underlings might not be the greatest people, but they could help to stabilize Iraq, and it wasn't as if the U.S. government would be obliged to hand the country over to them. "Look, bad people find bad people and then after that you get rid of them." Bandar said. "Double cross them. I mean, for God's sake, who said that we owe them anything?"

"That's too Machiavellian," said someone who took part in that White House meeting. According to Bob Woodward, the speaker was either President Bush or national security adviser and future secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The Bush administration went ahead and disbanded the military -- with predictable results. Iraq devolved into chaos and sectionalism, and far too much blood was shed.

"Too Machiavellian..." It would be harder to come up with a more pithy summary of why Bush's foreign policy fell apart. He never understood that his soaring rhetoric of human freedom needed to be tempered by guile and the particular interests of his own nation.

It's one thing to say that "freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God" or that "liberty and justice light the path to peace," as Bush did in his final televised address from the White House. Those are fairly standard staples of presidential rhetoric. It's quite another to decide that the world should conform to your ideals and go mucking about the globe assuming that everyone -- from heads of state to angry mullahs to rock throwing, mortar-launching mobs -- will suddenly slap their foreheads and wonder, "Why didn't we think of that?"

Many critics claim that Bush lied us into war in Iraq but that gives him more credit than he merits. Bush is a decent but extremely naive man who could never see the wisdom in Machiavelli's advice that, say, a ruler should preach virtue but practice it sparingly; encourage the oppressed but not with the force of your own armies, unless you're in the market for new territory; regard reports of spies with skepticism; and be wary of the advice of flatterers and men with axes to grind.

Bush talked often of good and evil, but couldn't recognize evil when he observed it in its more banal permutations. He said publicly that Vladimir Putin had a good soul and then appeared shocked when Putin went on to behave like just about every other Russian autocrat save Czar Alexander II. He never could understand why many countries resisted going into Iraq to spread freedom.

In fact, Bush got so caught up in his notion of democracy promotion that his State Department insisted Hamas be allowed to stand for election in Palestine. The geniuses at Foggy Bottom looked at polls that predicted the terror-sponsoring organization probably wouldn't win, took a cue from their starry-eyed commander-in-chief, and figured, what could it hurt?

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.