It's Time for Obama to Study Machiavelli and Learn to Fight

News & Politics

It may have come as a shock to my "Flower Power" generation, but human nature has changed very little since the beginning of recorded history. This is especially so when it comes to war and politics. That's why Tzu Sun's 6th-century text, The Art of War is still required reading for military brass, and why Niccolo Machiavelli's 14th-century leadership handbook, The Prince is as informative today to those who wish to govern as it was five centuries ago.

Now don't get me wrong. Both these guys were about as amoral as it gets. Neither was a fan of taking prisoners, either on the physical or political fields of battle. Still each man knew his enemies. They each understood something my Marine Corps drill instructor pounded into my head way back in 1965: "If you find yourself in a fight, remember this...there's no such thing as a fair fight. There's only the fight you win or the fight you lose."

I only mention this because I'd like to suggest that President Obama, who I assume has read The Prince at some point in his academic life, curl up with the book at Camp David for a brush-up. He's in the hole he's in right now because he violated some of Machiavelli's prime-est of prime directives.

Here, let me get Barry started on this review (Machiavelli—aka Mac the Knife—quotes are in italics):

"I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.

So far, so good. That's exactly, nearly word for word, what Barack promised us during the campaign.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

And again, spot on Big O. He's been telling us this for a year now, so we assumed he understood none of this would be easy -- which, as the old saying goes, also means, "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."

The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.

Oops. Barry dropped that ball, hasn't he? Mac the Knife would never have missed the opportunity to strike when his enemy was at its weakest.

There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.

Oops #2. Obama tried to avoid going "to war" with Republicans and conservative Dems, thereby allowing them time to unbraid him and his health care reforms and financial reforms. As Mac warned, "Tardiness robs us of opportunity," And so it came to pass, advantage the enemy.

Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits.

Yeah, well, there we go. Obama had to know he was going to have to step on a lot of powerful and sensitive toes in order to get his health and fiscal reforms passed. And he should have gotten about it the second he took the oath of office. He should have leveraged his "a new broom sweeps clean," momentum to get the bloodshed over with. Instead he tarried, and now he's stuck doling out all that pain in drips and drabs -- like pulling off a bandage real slow instead of quickly. As a result he will be hated by more, for longer:

He who does otherwise (slowly,) either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavor of them may last longer.

Big O should have had a greater respect for the enemies he knew would have to be vanquished. After all, these maundering Huns - the health insurance companies, Wall Streeters and big banks -- had enjoyed decades of unfettered looting and pillaging. And they would not go quietly. Then Barack became the new sheriff in town. But, rather than laying down the law, he just laid down -- one big-ass mistake, according to Mac the Knife:

The innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders (read "conservative Dems") in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.

But Obama came to us as the prophet preaching a "new era of bipartisanship." And, we the people, exhausted and disgusted by more than three decades of virtual political and social gridlock, longed for the same. But simply singing "Give Peace a Chance," while the enemy gins up another rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," is something Mac the Knife would find absurdly naive:

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether the innovator can rely on himself or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers (read "hope") or they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never accomplish anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.

The Knife understood people like Obama, who come to high office with highfalutin' notions of reforming, not just government, but human nature itself. And, need I tell you, Mac had little patience for it:

Those who -- solely by good fortune -- become princes from being private citizens, have little trouble in rising, but much in keeping atop; they have few difficulties on the way up, because they fly, but they have many when they reach the summit. Such stand simply upon the goodwill and the fortune of those who has elevated them- the two most inconstant and unstable things. Neither have they the knowledge requisite for the position; because, unless they are men of great worth and ability, it is not reasonable to expect that they should know how to command, having always lived in a private condition; besides, they cannot hold it because they have not forces of their own which they can keep friendly and faithful.

Barack Obama is not a likable guy by accident. He's gotten where he is today through a combination of awesome brain-power and a sparkling personality. As such he values likability over causing offense. Yet, at the same time, he wants to do good while in office. But, if he takes my advice and re-reads Mac's book, he'll understand that eventually he's going to have to give up one or the other:

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil...The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.

Finally, there's the machinations of the enemy forces. Republicans and those invested in the status quo are not interested in being liked, or even respected. Instead they are interested in being sure nothing restricts their looting and pillaging as usual. As such they will fight dirty...oops...wait, there's no such thing as a fair fight. I almost forgot. Which explains the so-called "Tea Party" folk.

Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that deceivers will never lack victims for their deceptions.

And so there you have it. We are still, at the core, a vicious, deceitful and conniving species. And nowhere more than in the political arena. I wish it were otherwise. I wish we'd evolved beyond all this. I am sure Barack Obama wishes so as well. But if wishes came true, 50 million Americans would not be without health insurance, and bankers and Wall Streeters would be satisfied to earn millions while staying within the law and bounds of good taste.

But none of that is so. When I testified before Congress in 1991, I warned they should not repeal Glass-Steagall until someone could assure them that the laws of human nature had been repealed first. They did it anyway and, well, you know the rest of that story.

All I'm saying here is not that Obama can learn anything uplifting from Machiavelli's open-eyed advice about ruling; just that most of it still applies. He is in the hole he's in right now because he decided to pretend it didn't.

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