“Out of his surname they have coined an epithet for a knave, and out of his Christian name a synonym for the Devil.”

—Thomas Babington

For those readers who know very much about Niccolo Machiavelli, the most striking feature of Michael Ledeen’s new book, which tries to explicate a number of Machiavelli’s precepts with contemporary examples drawn from world politics, business, and sports, is the illustration reproduced on both the book’s dust jacket and its frontispiece. The picture is that of a young, bearded man dressed in what appears to be Renaissance costume; since nowhere in the book is there any explanation of who this man is, the reader might suppose it to be Machiavelli himself But it is not. There are four known representations of the 16th-century political thinker, historian, and statesman—two portraits and two busts—executed during his lifetime or made from death masks, and none shows him with a beard. Nor does the gentleman in the picture resemble Machiavelli without the beard. Who he is and why his picture is included remains a mystery.

In fact, the portrait is suggestive of the superficiality that is the major flaw of both of these books. While Mr. Ledeen is an academic historian and political scientist, his field is contemporary European and Middle Eastern politics, not Renaissance studies or political theory, and his interpretations of Machiavelli are often as awkward and ill informed as one would expect from a specialized mind suddenly confronted with an unfamiliar subject. As for Mr. Morris, the well known political consultant and foot fetishist, it is impossible to take him or his book seriously, although thankfully he has almost nothing to say about Machiavelli other than to exploit his reputation for craftiness and ruthlessness to serve his own purposes.

Mr. Morris tells us in the first sentence of his first chapter that “The fundamental paradigm that dominates our politics is the shift from representational (Madisonian) to direct (Jeffersonian) democracy,” a sentence that misuses the word “paradigm,” misrepresents the ideas of both Madison and Jefferson, and is untrue on its face. Two pages later, trying to justify his claim, he tells us that “Referenda, initiatives, and even recalls of elected officials increasingly dominate policymaking.” Tell that to the supporters of California’s Proposition 187, which ended public benefits for illegal immigrants and was immediately blocked by a federal judge. Or to the Colorado voters who supported Amendment 2, an equally successful ballot measure banning affirmative- action programs for homosexuals at the state level that a federal court also immediately struck down. Aside from the sheer falsity of Mr. Morris’s claims for the triumph of “direct democracy,” it quickly becomes clear he lacks even the foggiest concept of what “Jeffersonian democracy” means. “Soon,” he solemnly intones, “interactive TV-computers will allow national town meetings with direct balloting by tens of millions of people—the very core of the Jeffersonian vision of small-town democracy at work.” Mr. Morris evidently thinks that passive mass plebiscites conducted through electronic media are identical to what Jefferson had in mind when he discussed the members of small, rural, organic communities deliberating and conducting their own government. Mr. Morris may be a whiz at getting nincompoops and scoundrels elected to high office and making sure they remain popular, but that does not make him a Jefferson or a Madison, let alone a Machiavelli.

Despite its flaws, Mr. Ledeen’s book is far more interesting, and in several places it is almost convincing. Though Mr. Ledeen is generally known as a neoconservative (actually, ex-social democrat) journalist writing on foreign affairs, those who recall the Iran-Contra scandal during the latter days of the Reagan administration may remember him as the man who reportedly transmitted the Israeli offer to fund the Nicaraguan Contras in exchange for the supply of arms by die United States to the Khomeini regime in Iran, then at war with Israel’s major enemy, Iraq. For some years, Mr. Ledeen has enjoyed a reputation of being closely involved with both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Israeli intelligence services, and he certainly is knowledgeable about global huggermugger of all descriptions. His book might have been more interesting had he applied some of this expertise to illustrating Machiavelli’s realpolitik; alas, what he offers us instead consists mainly of anecdotes about the late James Goldsmith and Bill Gates, Vince Lombardi and Michael Jordan, Shaka Zulu and Robert E. Lee, and various other figures who pop into his mind. Lessons drawn from the exploits of these figures are then generalized by invoking one or another of Machiavelli’s precepts. In some cases, this is amusing, but in others Mr. Ledeen is simply in error in his interpretation of what Machiavelli meant, and he sometimes significantly distorts Machiavelli’s meaning.

For example, toward the end of the book, he recounts the story of Cesare Borgia and his lieutenant Remirro de Orca, but he misses the point of the story as Machiavelli told it in chapter VII of The Prince. Borgia, having just conquered the Romagna, appointed de Orca to bring order to the area; after a year of draconian rule, de Orca was successful, but he had made himself and Borgia unpopular. Machiavelli writes of Borgia:

Recognizing that past severities had generated a measure of hatred against him, he then determined to free himself of all popular suspicion by demonstrating that if there had been any acts of cruelty they had proceeded not from him but from his minister instead.

Borgia’s recourse was to have de Orca executed by being cut in half and then to display the two halves of the body publicly, thus showing that the culprit who had ruled so brutally had himself been brutally punished.

Mr. Ledeen, however, tells us that “Machiavelli writes enthusiastically about the punishment or execution of corrupt persons, best of all if they are carried out in a spectacular manner so as to drive home the message to the people.” De Orca was not “corrupt” at all, however, but merely followed Borgia’s orders; Borgia did not execute him for punitive reasons but as a kind of public relations stunt, to win the favor of the citizens by punishing a harsh and oppressive ruler; and Machiavelli does not tell the story because he is “enthusiastic” about physical brutality but to make a point concerning how new territories acquired by conquest should be governed so as to win the support of their residents.

Time and again, Mr. Ledeen uses similar examples drawn from Machiavelli, almost always in ways that exaggerate and even exult in the brutality that Machiavelli believed was occasionally necessary for political order. Mr. Ledeen describes Moses as “Machiavelli’s favorite hero,” though this is clearly wrong (Cesare Borgia was Machiavelli’s favorite hero; Moses is mentioned only a few times in all of Machiavelli’s works), and offers an enthusiastic account of how Moses ordered the slaughter of some 3,000 people who had rebelled against him. Moses may not be Machiavelli’s favorite hero, but he certainly seems to be Mr. Ledeen’s. Ledeen has more references to him in his index than to any other single leader.

What soon becomes fairly clear is that Mr. Ledeen’s real concern is not to apply Machiavelli to modern situations but to justify the policies of the state of Israel as well as American globalism—a necessary appendage to Israeli foreign policy—in general. Machiavelli is used mainly as window-dressing for whatever aggressive or deceptive actions Israel considers to be in its interests. Thus, quoting Machiavelli on the necessity of going to war and the disadvantages of postponing it, Mr. Ledeen tells us:

Since it’s going to happen sooner or later, it’s best to fight under the conditions most favorable to you. In the early eighties, Israel discovered that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Instead of postponing conflict with Iraq to a time when Saddam Hussein could attack Israel with atomic bombs, the Israelis struck first and destroyed die Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was inspired by the same Machiavellian logic.

One would have thought that the results of the latter example might weaken the force of the “Machiavellian logic.” The attack on Pearl Harbor involved Japan in a disastrous war with the United States that it could not win. Mr. Ledeen has abstracted a particular insight of Machiavelli and blown it up into an “iron rule” that not only rationalizes aggression and unprovoked slaughter but is ultimately suicidal for the state that follows the rule without considering circumstantial modifications of it.

If Mr. Ledeen’s grasp of international politics is bizarre, his understanding of domestic political necessities is even more so. He seizes upon Machiavelli’s dictum that, in a corrupt state, a dictatorship is often necessary for the restoration of virtue and political health, and he appears to relish the prospect of such a polity’ in the United States, which he obviously considers a sink of corruption: “Paradoxically, preserving liberty may require the rule of a single leader—a dictator—willing to use those dreaded extraordinary measures, which few know how, or are willing, to employ.” A few pages later, Ledeen writes:

Nuremberg was just what Machiavelli has in mind when he talks about the use of an almost regal power to save a corrupt republic; relentless prosecution of the old regime, followed by dramatic public executions of the leading criminals, thereby producing catharsis for the people and awe of the avenger who has temporarily come to set things right.

Not only the Nuremberg trials and entire postwar U.S. control of Germany but the administration of Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan are examples of Mr. Ledeen’s “restoration of virtue.” “MacArthur purged the warlords and imposed a democratic constitution, the success of which is plain for all to see.” Of course, the Nazi war criminals were not executed publicly, and there is a vast difference between imposing a particular kind of government on a conquered enemy and imposing one on your own people. Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln, a man who “found within himself both moral courage and a willingness to enter into evil—waging one of the bloodiest wars in history to advance freedom in America,” is also one of Mr. Ledeen’s heroes.

Lest anyone imagine that Mr. Ledeen’s glorification of dictatorship as the necessary curative for corruption is merely an academic exercise, a ten-page section of the book on “Clinton’s America: Corruption and Contempt” should be consulted. It is not so much President Clinton’s uncontrollable libido, questionable financial practices, political opportunism, and possibly murderous inclinations toward adversaries and inexpedient allies that suggest corruption to Mr. Ledeen as it is the President’s unwillingness to use military force to destroy Iraq and the Serbs. In the latter case, “as in Iraq, there was a concern verging on obsession with the possibility of American casualties.” Earlier, he faults George Bush and Colin Powell for not destroying the Iraqi government entirely during the Gulf War. Predictably, Mr. Ledeen cites an Israeli military expert as offering the proper model of military policy for the United States to follow, and he contrasts starkly the U.S. sexual integration of the Armed Forces with the practice of the Israelis, “whose armed forces some consider the best in the world, not least because of their exceptional morale,” and who take great care to segregate the sexes.

Although he does not say it in so many words, Mr. Ledeen clearly regards the United States as a corrupt regime that can no longer govern itself and requires a dictatorship that will, presumably, place certain people on trial, execute them in public, and probably leave the two halves of their corpses rotting in the sun for the edification and amusement of the people, the dictator, at that point unimpeded by “corruption” or any pesky “obsession with the possibility of American casualties,” will then proceed to obliterate Iraq and Serbia and any other nation that Israeli foreign policy requires. How or when non-dictatorial government might be restored must be the subject of one of Mr. Ledeen’s future books.

Of course, Mr. Ledeen is not far off when he accuses the American Republic of corruption, and not just in regard to Bill Clinton and his military policies. His case for dictatorship might be more compelling, however, if he betrayed any awareness of other respects in which the United States has been corrupted and if he had any concrete suggestions as to how, aside from mass executions, a dictatorship might restore virtue. Personally, I cannot see how dictatorship could do it, and in any case I know of not a single individual living today whom I would trust with the possession of dictatorial power in this country. The problem of corruption in the United States derives not from Mr. Clinton but from the entire political class—the ruling class—that has acquired virtually monolithic social and political power over the last 50 years or so. It is this monolithic structure that encourages corruption, and only when it is replaced with a different structure by another ruling class will the problem of corruption be resolved. Authoritarian leadership might conceivably help, given the right leaders, but by itself it would accomplish nothing and would probably only aggravate the problem. Historically, most dictatorships have been a symptom of civic corruption rather than a corrective of it.

Both Mr. Ledeen and Mr. Morris totally miss the larger point of Machiavelli’s political doctrine, which is an elaboration of republican government, centered around the concept of a balance of powers within a ruling class and the society it governs. Mr. Ledeen is correct when he says at one point that Machiavelli influenced the Federalist, but that influence consisted of this very principle of the balance of power, manifested formally in the Constitution in the mechanisms of the separation of powers and the system of cheeks and balances. It is precisely these mechanisms, formally in the structure of the state and informally in the balanced and non-monolithic structure of the elite, that ensure liberty and the rule of law and protect against corruption. The significance of Machiavelli is not that he teaches modern political hands some clever rationalizations of brutality and mendacity, a few neat political tricks and inside tips on how to win office without deserving it or how to make sure the United States exterminates Israel’s enemies, but that he was the first in modern history to revive and reformulate ancient republican doctrine, pass it down to the classical republicans who shaped British and American political thought for the next three centuries, and point the way to a scientific understanding of the nature of elites and their role in am political society. These contributions sail entirely past the heads of Mr. Ledeen and Mr. Morris, but then, writing serious books on serious subjects is a practice virtually unknown to republics that have become corrupt.


From the December 1999 issue of Chronicles.  

[Macaulay Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli’s Iron Rules Are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago, by Michael A. Ledeen (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 202 pp., $22.95]

[The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century, by Dick Morris (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books) 252 pp., $22.95]