THE BLOG
09/05/2013 03:47 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Obama's Machiavellian Moment

President Obama's plan to launch a military strike against Syria because of its deadly use of chemical weapons signals a moment of both clarity and contradiction.

Mr. Obama came to office vowing that the United States would not act "unilaterally" and without United Nations support -- which is exactly what will happen if Congress approves U.S. military intervention next week. His promises to elevate diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy earned him the Nobel Peace Prize -- yet he has failed even to persuade Great Britain, America's most reliable ally, to help uphold an international moral norm banning the use of these weapons. The president who once advocated a foreign policy befitting Mother Teresa has turned instead to Machiavelli: A spasm of political realism has seized the White House, and not a moment too soon.

This year, in fact, marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Machiavelli's The Prince, a work that speaks with special urgency in our own day. Europe's emerging nation-states of the 16th century were vying for influence over Italy's quarrelsome city-states. As a result, Machiavelli's world, his beloved Florence, was not so different from our own: There were wars and rumors of wars, assassinations, social unrest, and the collusion of unscrupulous rulers with corrupted religion.

Although scholars debate Machiavelli's true intentions, there can be little doubt that The Prince was an effort to help achieve political and social stability. This could only be accomplished, Machiavelli argued, through a style of statecraft that was unsentimental about human nature. "A man who wants to make a profession of goodness in everything," he wrote, "is bound to come to ruin among so many who are not good."

A prince, especially an inexperienced one, must be ready to choose violence over mercy if violence is required to restore order, Machiavelli warned, or else the forces of barbarism will overwhelm him and his political regime: "He will be more merciful than those who, because of too much mercy, allow disorders to continue, from which spring killing and plundering, for these usually harm the whole community."

Apply that principle to the crisis in Syria: Mr. Obama's feeble attempts to broker a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces -- despite the documented atrocities and chemical attacks against civilians -- have only emboldened the regime. What else explains Bashar al-Assad's breathtaking decision to launch this latest massive chemical weapons assault at the very moment that UN weapons inspectors were in Damascus?

A once-powerful diplomat who fell from grace, Machiavelli is viewed today as the ultimate political realist, the thinker who divorced politics from morality. Yet he saw firsthand how weak and naïve rulers succumbed to violent and ambitious men. He observed the pious pretenses of the Catholic clergy, who manipulated politicians to serve their own will to power. Europe's political leaders, despite their Christian heritage, had mostly turned their backs on civic virtue when The Prince went to press.

For Machiavelli, the good intentions of a statesman were not enough. As he liked to put it, "si guarda al fine" -- one looks at the outcome. It can be argued that what Machiavelli ultimately sought was a more just and stable society. Quite often, he believed, the only way to achieve it was through pragmatism, shrewdness, deception, and ruthlessness. This is probably what Machiavelli had in mind when he famously wrote that "it is much safer to be feared than to be loved if one of the two has to be lacking."

A fair judgment of Mr. Obama is that he has sought to be loved by the international community, even by nations that threaten the interests of the United States. From Moscow to Mesopotamia, that policy is in tatters.

Thus, the crisis in Syria -- a moral and religious crisis -- seems to have delivered a dose of realism. Repudiating the foreign policy promises that got him elected, Mr. Obama is prepared to go to war over the objections of the UN Security Council, without the majority support of the American people, without a NATO mandate, without an international coalition of any kind. Is he right to do so?

Machiavelli was keen to distance himself from those who had "imagined republics and principalities for themselves which have never been seen or known to exist in reality." Mr. Obama has spent much of his administration engaged in this brand of imaginative thinking -- hoping that international peace, security, and human rights could flourish without a demonstration of American military strength and leadership. Instead, he has strengthened the hand of our enemies and turned potential allies into cynics. "Obama is full of talk," Uma Hama, a wife and mother in the Syrian city of Homs told a reporter. "He's so weak and useless."

Mr. Obama's beatific vision has collided with the images of the bodies of children, scores of them, cold as stone, wrapped in sheets and lying side by side on the floor of a hospital outside Damascus. Perhaps it is time to give Machiavelli his due.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of Gospel of Liberty: John Locke and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (forthcoming).