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Martin Cohen examines Barack Obama's political philosophy and finds parallels with Machiavelli's Prince. Behind the rhetoric, the President is a pragmatist who will do whatever it takes

July 23, 2009

What kind of a political animal is Barack Obama? Ambiguity seems to be his hallmark. In foreign affairs, no one is sure whether he is a dove or a hawk. At home, some see a persuasive snake, and others a dangerous shark. Or perhaps he is a mixture - a "snark", to borrow Lewis Carroll's term.

One thing is clear: education, hard work and, most of all, steely determination have been his greatest assets, and we all salute his remarkable achievement.

Obama appears for the cameras on the White House lawn, characteristically casual - just like one of the Main Street Americans that he both represents and, more unusually, still is. He has his equally intelligent and charming wife Michelle on one side, and their two beautiful children on the other. They are gathered to welcome the family's new puppy - a personal moment clutched in the midst of a hectic schedule.

And life as President must be hectic. The Pakistani paper The News International recently reported: "Of the 60 cross-border Predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between 14 January 2006 and 8 April 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. The success percentage of the US Predator strikes thus comes to not more than 6 per cent." Rough justice.

But US papers at that time were full only of the First Puppy, who had apparently paid a secret visit to the White House a few weeks beforehand, wearing a Hawaiian garland in honour of Obama's birthplace. As for the bombing, a spokesman for Obama was firm: in this war, America cannot fight with "one arm tied behind its back". And so the news focus went back to the search for a name for the pooch, and a solution to the problem of providing Medicare for the poor.

As Niccolo Machiavelli whispers: "It is as well to ... seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may change to the opposite qualities (and) do evil if constrained."

How can it be possible to uphold the moral values of the community at home and yet operate with very different ethical values abroad? Why is a family blown to smithereens in Pakistan by a Predator bomb of any less moral worth than Obama's own family smiling on the White House lawn?

For many politicians, the reluctant answer comes from the philosophy of utilitarianism - that is, "the ends justify the means". However, that won't suffice if we want to understand Obama. For here is a leader who:

- announced firmly the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo - while authorising the continuation of a worldwide network of other "secret prisons";

- cancelled, in a flurry of publicity, the discredited legal memos of the Bush Administration authorising "torture" - while setting in train a search for new methods of "enhanced interrogation";

- condemned the greed of Wall Street unequivocally - and then appointed the architects of financial deregulation, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, to take charge of his economic team.

Is this the art of the compromise-seeker, or a different kind of art altogether? Recall, too, a candidate who assuaged American Jewish doubts with a dramatic reversal of existing policy to support Jerusalem as "the undivided capital of Israel", and then disowned the comment, citing "poor phrasing". This is also the man who appointed his bitter rival, Hillary Clinton, whose foreign-policy values he was elected to oppose, as Secretary of State.

No, the explanation is surely more profound. Barack Obama - former community organiser, quintessential negotiator, compromise finder and cool, unflappable enigma - is a "Prince" in precisely the sense of the most controversial political philosopher of them all, Machiavelli.

US politicians abhor philosophers as a rule (especially European ones), but sure enough, in Obama's The Audacity of Hope (2006) - a political manifesto structured around an account of his first year in the US Senate - we learn that, in search of his mother's values, Obama studied political philosophy. He is a follower of Machiavelli not merely in spirit, but in a scholarly and philosophical sense, too.

Some conservative political commentators in the US have also made the connection, claiming to find in Obama a kind of demagoguery, the charisma Machiavelli called virtu, a man who exhibits a "confidence (so much) more than human that he can attain all he desires". And indeed, Obama has impressed many with his inspirational chant, "Yes, we can". But having charisma and being a demagogue do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Nonetheless, Michael Knox Beran, an author and lawyer, warns in a recent essay in the urban affairs quarterly City Journal that Machiavelli intends the Prince's virtu to be a tool to forge public-spirited communitarianism out of rivalry, division and selfishness - just as Obama sees it. Beran also argues that the underlying flaw of the collectivist ideal is its incompatibility with ethical and constitutional limitations. Indeed, Obama has argued that his opponents represent "absolutism, not conservatism", driven by a preference for "absolute truth" over "communal values". This commitment must be jettisoned, Obama urges, if we are to solve today's problems and change our lives. In so doing, he notes (correctly) that the US Constitution is itself "a rejection of absolute truth", constructed out of compromises over issues such as civil rights and political power.

The refusal to be bound by moral rules, Machiavelli advises his Prince, is a tactical necessity. Subservience to traditional morality prevents rulers from being sufficiently ruthless in the pursuit of their goals.

Machiavelli's writings are primarily a historical and contemporary political analysis of how power is won, maintained and lost. Fifteenth-century Italy had many examples to offer - mainly to do with misrule. Authority rested on corruption in elections and the use of violence and deceit to manipulate opinion. Machiavelli examines history for examples of certain incidents and notes the consequences, good or bad, for the ruler. He then forms a hypothesis that is tested and either confirmed or disproved. It is in this context that Machiavelli sets out the means to achieve certain ends, irrespective of any virtue or merit in those ambitions. In like manner, Obama has his own love of historical parallels and reads avidly the works of the "great leaders", including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

The Prince is Machiavelli's more famous book. But it is the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy that, although less celebrated, is a longer and more substantial work. It contains additional (liberal) ideas dropped from The Prince with the aim of pleasing the Medici, but even so, there is no essential contradiction between the works.

In both Machiavelli's and Obama's writings, republics flourish when they respect customs and traditions; when town dominates country; when a large middle class exists; when popular power is institutionalised; and when there is plenty of civic spirit. Above all, both men share the sentiment that adaptability to circumstances is the central virtue of republican government. "A republic or a Prince should ostensibly do out of generosity what necessity constrains them to do," writes Machiavelli. "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Rahm Emanuel, Obama's White House Chief of Staff, recently echoed.

Machiavelli's most important and original points are usually considered these days to relate to the dry matter of the analysis of the conditions for republican government, but he also allows himself to spend much time and many pages discussing military tactics - an interest Obama shares. When an enemy is seen to be making a big mistake, "it should be assumed that it is but an artifice", Machiavelli warns Obama, before describing "the rival merits of fortresses and cavalry".

And, despite his reputation for cynicism, Machiavelli stresses that injustice threatens the foundations of society from within, and urges that it always be combated, wherever it appears and whoever it affects. This thinking drove Obama to outlaw abusive interrogation methods on his first day in office.

Perhaps Machiavelli's most controversial and unscrupulous claim is that if a prince must choose to be either feared or loved, it is better to be feared, for "love is held by a chain of obligation which (for) men, being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails". Obama seems to be delivering the same lesson in his execution of teenage pirates in the seas off Somalia, the annihilation of rebellious tribesmen in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, and even on Death Row in the US, where he speedily confirms executions.

Here, Machiavelli's advice for princes includes guidance that could not have been better tailored to the American mind, commenting that when "a Prince is obliged to take the life of any one, let him do so when there is a proper justification and manifest reason for it; but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony". Mind you, as Machiavelli also notes, "the pretexts for seizing property are never wanting" either.

Of course, duplicity is not just a Machiavellian trait - many societies depend on just such a contradiction, resorting to the claim that the end justifies the means, even if the means falls below publicly held standards of morality. Even Plato allowed it in his "noble lie", used to explain citizens' different upbringing and roles. Machiavelli is simply enunciating plainly what most governments prefer to keep secret. "Everybody sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are," Machia-velli says of his Prince. The enigma that is Barack Obama could not be better summed up.

Yet, "doctor of the damned" or not, Machiavelli returns time and again to the perils of ignoring injustice. He urges princes to "consider how important it is for every republic and every Prince to take account of such offences, not only when an injury is done to a whole people but also when it affects an individual". Typical of this concern is his retelling of the story of the Greek noble, Pausanias, who was raped by one of the King's other favourites, only to see his attacker later promoted. The victim vents his anger against the King by killing him on the way to the Temple, even though this involves "all manner of dangers" and results in Pausanias' own demise. The story purports to demonstrate that it is not in the Prince's interests to allow the injustice. We should understand Obama better if we realise that having achieved power (on the way eschewing "unworthy" tactics), he is now intent on achieving "glory".

Machiavelli adds that he could "discourse at length on the advantages of poverty over riches, and how poverty brings honour to cities, provinces and religious institutions, whereas the other thing has ruined them; if it had not already been done so often by others". Instead, he offers a rarer insight: "In all human affairs one notices, if one examines them closely, that it is impossible to remove one inconvenience without another emerging ... In all discussions one should consider which alternative involves fewer inconveniences and should adopt this as the better course; for one never finds any issue that is clear cut and not open to question."

In this thought is the kernel of the governing philosophy of Barack Obama.

Martin Cohen is a researcher in philosophy. His latest book is Political Philosophy from Plato to Mao (Second edition 2008).


In his superb 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, no particular philosophy is offered.

In fact, Obama says he sought as a youth to reject the values he had been fed from "TV sitcoms and philosophy books". TV sitcoms and philosophy books? Cereal packets and High Court judges? It is a strange combination and a worrying aside.

Morality is absent from The Audacity of Hope, too, with one exception - it refers to the work ethic seven times. Obama presents himself as a technician, an organiser. He just doesn't "do" ethics.

Asked his opinion about the "beginning of life", he declined to reply, saying that it was "above his pay grade". That's a witty response, of course. It would be even funnier if he weren't the American President.

Indeed, the early days of the Obama Administration seem to reveal a tin ear for ethics. The constitutional right of Americans (at least) not to be spied upon was thrown away with the Cybersecurity Act of 2009, which goes far beyond anything ever contemplated by the Bush Administration.

Its most controversial provisions allow the Secretary of Commerce access to "all relevant data concerning such networks without regard to any provision of law, regulation, rule, or policy restricting such access".

This is a far cry from the heady optimism of The Audacity of Hope, where Obama says: "What troubled me was the process - or lack of process - by which the White House and its Congressional allies disposed of opposing views; the sense that the rules of governing no longer applied, and that there were no fixed meanings or standards to which we could appeal.

"It was as if those in power had decided that (constitutional limits) ... were niceties that only got in the way, that they complicated what was obvious (the need to stop terrorists) or impeded what was right ... and could therefore be disregarded, or bent to strong wills."

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