News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Iran and the US, a Machiavellian Reading

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Iran and the US, a Machiavellian Reading

I've always distrusted the idea that the Bush administration's means to introduce democracy in the Mideast. At times, I've almost despaired of this because I want democracy to succeed but I see that if that's what Bush wants then it simply cannot be true. This last statement is more than simply a visceral dislike for the man of few words from the Texas plains--it's a reaction to the uses and abuses that word democracy has been used to promote throughout the world. ...

My own distrust of that word reflects sentiments voiced by eminent historian JGA Pocock's comments on fundamentalism and foundationalism:

In our own time, the notion of representative government is in some measure in crisis, because it is harder and harder to believe that those we elect to govern us do in any sense represent us. Accordingly, if we identify ourselves with them, we are giving ourselves to them, and if we don’t, we are allowing them to rule us. The political class begins to look like an oligarchy of professional politicians, who from time to time oblige us to legitimate their rule by choosing between the alternatives they determine and present to us.

Politicians, regarded in this light, look less like representatives of citizens than they look like what the early modern world called courtiers—brokers of power and influence who are useful to the citizens because they know and command means of access to those who possess power, but who are part of the structure by which the citizen is governed. Some say there is no other way of governing a modern society, but the method of government is nonetheless early modern. There are moments at which the president of the United States looks like an early modern monarch; we want to know who is giving him counsel, how he chooses his counselors, who controls his household, and the means of access to his person. These are the questions one asks about the politics of courts and palaces, and they seem applicable to the politics of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pocock is noted for his tracing through history the Machiavellian thinking on the modern republic and its influence on the American Founding Fathers.

As Pocock notes in the passage quoted, what one means by democracy depends on many things. One's use of the term cannot simply mouthe it without having some historical understanding of what democracy is. This historical understanding itself must be clarified--what you understand as an abstraction does not necessarily mean that you understand its lived, experiential actuality. In this regard, I am very skeptical of Pres. Bush's own assertions about "democracy"--what in his life or political career might lead me to believe that he knows what democracy is? Indeed, coming from one of those oligarchic families that Pocock suggests might run the US, suspicions about Mr. Bush's understanding of freedom and equality--key democratic values--become more pertinent.

Of course, Pres. Bush's own understanding of the democratic virtues of freedom and equality may not be the best criterion for determining the reality of non-reality of US democracy. When politicians bandy this term about, they often assume that their audience knows what they mean because they live it. Yet this appeal is perhaps fallacious since it could conceivably only reflect the experiences of those who have a voice to say, "yes, American democracy is great." On the other hand, there might be those whose experience of American "democracy" is not voiced and does not make its way into the discussion.

I have written several times that some in the Israeli government openly reject the notion of democratic in the Mideast. Their line of thinking seems to be democracy means opening up the Mideast to movements and political factions that will inevitably be anti-Israel. There's some evidence for the first part of this belief, especially with recent open election wins by various Islamic jihadist groups such as the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and the more radical wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Again, however, the rest of the assertions by these same officials ignore significant changes within those very extremist groups. Both groups condemn violence. There's some evidence that the Palestinians are on the verge of recognizing Israel's right to exist, a significant break from previous platforms of the more violent groups within the Palestinian political landscape. Unfortunately, recent incursions by Israel into Gaza, its imprisonment of 25 percent of the Palestinian legislators, and bombing of Palestinian infrastructure leave little doubt that the moderates in Palestine can maintain their hold on power--an occasion that Israeli strategists no doubt are hoping to bring about.

The calls for democracy in the Mideast by western powers therefore seem hollow to many Moslem and Arab citizens. Until there's some acknowledgment of a framework that identifies the essential outlines of a "democratic" government, there's little hope for rising above the suspicions that the west, especially the US, is not simply begging the question with a definition of democracy that accords with their own self-interests.

Indeed this seems part of what Iranian dissidents themselves, for example, understand:
``The best thing the Americans can do for democracy in Iran is not to support it," Baghi, the activist, said recently in his office, next to a stack of his politically risky published books -- ``The Tragedy of Democracy in Iran," ``Clerics and Power," and a study that criticizes the government on its own terms, using Islamic teachings to indict Iran's justice system and its arbitrary arrests and executions.

Receiving US aid -- whether cash or simply public statements of support -- could destroy democracy advocates' chances of building grass-roots credibility at home, say Baghi and many other Iranians critical of their government. They prefer to steer their own course, pushing for gradual change and navigating a middle ground between accommodation and conflict with the Muslim clerics who rule Iran.
These dissidents understand what machiavelli long ago pointed out--that each republic will reflect the virtue or character of its constituent members. For Machiavelli, this meant that each socio-cultural grouping has unique characteristics that will color and determine the features of the government that they create. In this way, therefore, Machiavelli recognized that there are probably as many forms of republic as there are different peoples.

Machiavelli's reflections on politics and the republic could be gone into in detail here. Most relevant in the present context, perhaps, are his observations about the role of religion--or not--in forming the basis of a truly free and equal political framework. It would also prove helpful to explore Aristotle's "mixed government" model that Machiavelli appropriated and expanded on.

But these issues must wait for some other time to come under discussion in these pages. For the moment, I'd note the Iranian dissidents' reluctance to receive help from the US in their political efforts toward freedom. This reluctance to form relationships of dependence is uniquely Machiavellian. As he pointed out, freedom is most valuably understood as a state of non-dependence. This independence from relying on others for one's own freedom--and these dependencies can include everything from economic, to social, to cultural attachments--characterizes the capability to meet the exigencies of time and necessity on one's own terms.

According to JGA Pocock, describing the Renaissance Humanists’ understanding of Aristotle’s political philosophy as it relates to the individual and his or her dependence on others:
Particular men and the particular values they pursued met in citizenship to pursue and enjoy the universal value of acting for the common good and the pursuit of all lesser goods. ... The polity must be a perfect partnership of all citizens and all values since, if it was less, a part would be ruling in the name of the whole, subjecting particular goods to its own particular goods and moving toward despotism and the corruption of its values. The citizen must be a perfect citizen since, if he was less, he prevented the polity from attaining perfection and tempted his fellows, who did for him what he should have done for himself, to injustice and corruption. To become the dependent of another was as great a crime as to reduce another to dependence on oneself. The dereliction of one citizen, therefore, reduced the others’ chances of attaining and maintaining virtue, since virtue was now politicized; it consisted in a partnership of ruling and being ruled with others who must be as morally autonomous as oneself. ... – Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, p. 75 [my emphasis])
It seems then that the Iranian dissidents have understood one of the basic points of democracy: non-dependence. They see any attempts by the US to impose itself and its will–“in their name”–would form a dependent situation that would defeat and corrupt the democratic project from the start. Of course, my statement assumes that the US in any way intends on “helping” the Iranian dissidents. As my previous comments show, one can suspect otherwise, adding the further qualification that US interests in the region are imperial and related to commercial interests far more than they are to “spreading freedom.”

In this respect, Machiavelli’s own concerns about dependence and the corruption that follows revolve around the need for self-defense. Assuming that any vibrant republic must expand, he asserts that an army is needed to maintain the push outward–the military ethos itself helps maintain what he calls the virtu or spirit of the republic alive.

As JGA Pocock interprets Machiavelli (in the Discorsi, Machiavelli writes:
If it is the castles and retainers of the gentiluomini [gentlemen] that make them a cause of inequality and corruption, the uncorrupt republic must be a state lacking military dependencies and one characteristic of “equality” must be that all warriors are alike. There must be the political conditions which permit the arming of all citizens, the moral conditions in which all are willing to fight for the republic and the economic conditions (lacking in the case of a lord’s retainers) which give the warrior a home and occupation outside the camp and prevent his becoming a suddito, creato, or mercenary whose sword is at the command of some powerful individual. The economic independence of the warrior and the citizen are prerequisites against corruption. If these conditions are lacking, a city which eschews expansion and cuts itself off from the world may still limit its armies and its citizen body and escape corruption ... ibid, p. 210
Machiavelli’s comments here are not for a form of libertarianism. He is too much an Aristotelian, whose model of political activity assumes the interdependence of all on the proper working and virtue of a living and viable political entity. What one should hear, however, or at least suspect those areas in present-day American politics where economic dependence and the military-industrial complex play such a large part behind the scenes of US domestic and foreign policy.

You could also note the dependence of this standing army on the apparent will of “some powerful individual.” With the continuing assertion of commander-in-chief powers and “executive privilege,” it does not seem too much of a stretch to find in the Bush administration’s unprecedented use of the military-industrial complex in all its forms–operational, intelligence, and so on–lay the basis for suspicions that the US republic’s freedom and virtue are presently under attack–not by foreign powers or agents but by those commercial and political interests in the US who wish to assume unto themselves power that does not belong to them.

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