Friday, 15 January 2010

Mr Hitchens and Mr Machiavelli

Earlier this week Michael J Totten posted part two of an interview with Christopher Hitchens, where they talked about Iran and possible military action. A snippet:
Hitchens: I would say, as I did with Saddam Hussein—albeit belatedly, I tried to avoid this conclusion—that any fight you’re going to have eventually, have now. Don’t wait until they’re more equally matched. It doesn’t make any sense at all.
Hitchens goes on to make clear his view that any military action should aim to change the regime, not just impede the nuclear enrichment program. But in the hop, skip and jump of this discussion, while some important points are made, others are missed altogether. The idea that the nature of the regime is the core problem rather than just nuclear enrichment in itself, I agree with, but that is not enough of a basis to argue for military action. You have to be able to argue that military action is likely to be the most effective and least bad option. However the proposal sketched out by Hitchens, to selectively target Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and remove it, then hand Iran back to the Iranians, seems rather fantastic, with no clarity as to the means of carrying it out, and no weighing of the potential downside:
We can simply say, “We’re not going to stay. We’re handing the country over to you. We’re not occupying. We don’t want to stay. We can’t wait to get out. And you’ve been de-Revolutionary-Guardized. Cry all you want.”

We will have done them a favor, and ourselves. We have rights, too. The international community has rights. The U.N. has rights. The U.S. has rights. The IAEA has rights. The Iranians made deals with all of them, and they broke them.
I have found it hard to organise my thoughts on this, because I generally admire Christopher Hitchens, but this left me incredulous. Some reasons why: I don’t believe that the US would have the ability to surgically remove the Revolutionary Guard even if the political will were there. The message “we don’t want to stay” can not be simply said, as recent history shows. And there is no substantial discussion in the interview of how this proposal interfaces with what both Christopher Hitchens and Michael J Totten regard as a revolution in Iran.

Iran’s Green Movement is larger than any ground force the US could muster. Iran’s Green Movement understands the regime infinitely better than the US. Iran’s Green Movement is engaged right now and costs the US nothing. And I would argue that Iran’s Green Movement is far more effective inside Iran right now than anything the US has to offer.

Hitchens’s argument that “any fight you’re going to have eventually, have now,” is found in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (chapter 3), and has some merit. However there’s more to learn from Machiavelli. Let’s imagine that it might somehow be possible for the US to eliminate the Republican Guard, and then quickly depart again leaving Iran in the hands of a new government. How might such a lucky new government fare compared to a new government brought to power through the struggle of Iran’s Green Movement? What says Mr Machiavelli?

Chapter 6 of The Prince is “about new kingdoms acquired with one’s own armies and one’s own skill,” of which Machiavelli writes, “those who become rulers through strength of purpose ... acquire their kingdoms with difficulty, but they hold on to them with ease.” In contrast, in chapter 7, which is “about new principalities that are acquired with the forces of others and with good luck,” he writes “those who, having started as private individuals, become rulers merely out of good luck, acquire power with little trouble but have a hard time holding on to it. They have no problems on the road to power, because they leap over all the obstacles; but dangers crowd around them once they are in power.”

Machiavelli, then, would expect a government installed by foreign forces to be less stable than one coming to power through its own struggle. This would particularly be the case were the foreign forces to depart without the newly installed government having established its authority. Consider the time it took for the new government of Iraq to establish its authority. The circumstances in Hitchens’s Iran fantasy would be different, but the problem of authority for a leader installed by soon absent American friends would be similar if not worse.

It’s notable how the Iraq government felt it necessary to strongly assert its nationalist identity in emerging from occupation, to such a degree that at times it almost appeared ungrateful to the foreign forces that had removed Saddam Hussein. Similarly the Green Movement in Iran bases its arguments and slogans not on fondness for the West but on being more concerned with national self-interest and independence than the current regime. They most certainly do not want to gain power through the intervention of foreign forces, as they realise this would severely weaken their authority.

The Green Movement must be given every chance to succeed. A strong, independent, democratic, stable Iran is in everyone’s best interest. Christopher Hitchens’s fantasy intervention is not the way to get there. Iran is not Iraq.

A little extra: Looking back at the last couple of years in Iraq, chapter 13 of The Prince seems relevant, “about auxiliary (foreign) troops, native troops, and composite armies,” where Machiavelli writes that:
“A wise ruler ... will always avoid using mercenary and auxiliary troops, and will rely on his own forces. He would rather lose with his own troops than win with someone else’s, for he will not regard it a true victory if it is won with troops that do not belong to him. I never hesitate to cite Cesare Borgia as a model to be imitated. This duke entered the Romagna with an auxiliary army, for his troops were all Frenchmen, and he used it to take Imola and Forli. But since he did not feel such troops were reliable, he then switched over to mercenaries, believing that using them involved fewer risks, and so he hired the Orsini and the Vitelli. But in practice he fount them unreliable, treacherous, and dangerous, and so he got rid of them and formed his own army. And it is easy to see the difference among these three types of army, for you only have to consider how the duke’s reputation changed, depending on whether he was relying on the French alone, on the Orsini and the Vitelli, or on his own troops and his own resources. With each change of policy it increased, but he was taken seriously only when everyone could see he was in complete command of his own forces.”

All quotations come from David Wootton’s translation, copyright © 1995 Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

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