Reading Machiavelli in Iraq

Most Americans know Niccolò Machiavelli only from The Prince, a sixteenth-century “audition tape” he dashed off in lieu of a résumé to try to land a job. It’s a shame. Not only was Machiavelli the leading advocate of democracy of his day, but his ideas also had a profound influence on the framers of our own Constitution.

It’s even more of a shame because the corpus of Machiavelli’s remarkable work on democracy, politics and international relations is easily the best guide to understanding the dynamics at play in contemporary Iraq and its situation within the wider Middle East.

Iraq today is a place that Machiavelli would have understood well. It is a weak state, riven by factions, with an embryonic democratic system increasingly undermined from within and without. It is encircled by a combination of equally weak and fragmented Arab states as well as powerful non-Arab neighbors seeking to dominate or even subjugate it. Iraq’s democratic form persists, but its weakness, combined with internal and external threats, seems more likely to drive it toward either renewed autocracy or renewed chaos. It cries out for a leader of great ability and great virtue to vanquish all of these monsters and restore it to the democratic path it had started down in 2008–2009.

That course seems less and less likely with each passing month, and it may take a true Machiavellian prince—one strong and cunning enough to secure the power of the state but foresighted enough to foster a democracy as the only recipe for true stability—to achieve it. Unfortunately, in all of human history, such figures have been rare. It is unclear whether Iraq possesses such a leader, but the reemergence of its old political culture as America’s role ebbs makes it ever less likely that such a remarkable figure could emerge to save Iraq from itself.

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