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February 1, 2004 - Justifying a Bush-Cheney-Rove Dictatorship

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The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now. 

By Carnes Lord.  Yale University Press, 2003.  275 Pages




Is this big-gun political theorist who is so important to the neoconservative right suggesting that a Machiavellian dictatorship run by Bush-Cheney-Rove is GOOD for the country?


The answer is yes. 

My friend in Manhattan, when not sawing away in the violin section of the Lawyers Orchestra of New York or the Park Avenue Chamber Players, wonders if this country is fast moving toward becoming a dictatorship.   He read the Franken book, and the Suskind book, and the Soros book.   He's actually worried now.   I told him to read Kevin Phillips' new book on the Bush family.   Why not go all the way?

He should not read this.


This book is reviewed by David Gordon in The Mises Review, Volume 9, Number 3; Winter 2003.  


Gordons review opens with a lively paragraph:


President Bush's invasion of Iraq made many observers gasp with amazement.  What could have motivated such hasty and ill-advised action?  Surely Iraq, a country of minor importance, posed no threat to the vital interests of the United States.  It soon transpired that a deep design lay behind the thrust into alien territories.  Neoconservatives such as William Kristol, who enthusiastically supported the invasion, wished to export Western-style democracy to the countries of the Middle East so benighted as to wish to govern themselves.  And these writers were rumored to have the ear of key policymakers, most notably, Paul Wolfowitz, in the Bush administration.  There was method in Bush's madness. 


Yes, we gasped in amazement!  Of course the towel-heads were so benighted as to wish to govern themselves - the fools!  We could fix that!  Was it madness?  Was there a method to that madness?  And what would that method be, pray tell?

Well, yes, the neoconservatives did not devise their plans for worldwide democracy out of nothing.  What was the source of their inspiration?  Ah yes, they looked for political wisdom to the writings of Leo Strauss, a historian of political thought who taught for many years at the University of Chicago.  Kristol, some alleged, was a Straussian; so was Paul Wolfowitz. 


It seems that Wolfowitz did do his PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago - on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  Wolfowitz argued that the United States needed to look beyond simply defending traditional allies against the communist bloc.  Areas with natural resources vital to our economy ought to be as much a part of a "strategic defense umbrella," and anybody with the capability to threaten those areas must be "regarded with concern" - and he suggested that "even the hint of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be a matter of the gravest concern."  This was the late sixties.  Then Wolfowitz and his classmate Richard Perle went on to work for "Scoop" Jackson and the rest is history.

There has been a lot of ink spilled saying the idea of a conspiracy of Strauss followers is just silly.  Wolfowitz barely knew Strauss in Chicago; and, besides, Strauss never supported the universal imposition of democracy. 

Gordon points out Strauss devoted the bulk of his work to detailed textual studies of Plato, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau and the like.  He hardly ever said anything about the here and now.  But Gordon points out that in his studies of the classics, Strauss did emphasize the role of a philosophical elite as advisors to those in power. 


The philosophical elite as advisors to those in power?  One does think of Wolfowitz and Perle and the like.

Which leads us to this book.  The author, Carnes Lord, is a translator of Aristotle who, by the way, occupied high positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.  Carnes Lord is known as a leading Straussian.  His Modern Prince, according to Gordon, "gives us an excellent picture of Straussian elite politics in action."

And that means this:

Lord wastes no time in letting us know where he stands.  Machiavelli must be our guide.  In particular, we must learn from him that the supreme form of political leadership consists of founding "new orders."  The founding prince molds his society according to his ideas: "Listen to Machiavelli: 'It should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders.  For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old order as enemies, and he has lukewarm defenders in all who might benefit from the new orders.'" (p.8, quoting Machiavelli)

The leader must innovate; but what sort of innovation earns Lord's praise in the American context?  It transpires that Lord's Machiavellian new orders do not amount to very much: he has merely dressed up in fancy language Alexander Hamilton's familiar program of a strong executive who follows a mercantilist economic policy. 

And then, of course, we get pages of economic theory and comments on Alexander Hamilton, trade and mercantilism. 

But after all that we do get to the non-economic stuff in the book - the good stuff. 

We get a discussion of how Roosevelt's attempt in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court was not an assault on constitutional government.  It was a justified attempt to repel a challenge to the Supreme Leader.  If the constitution, as interpreted by the "nine old men," blocks the way of the New Deal, must not something be done?

Well, that's one way of looking at it. 

And what if the press criticizes the president?  Might this not impede the leader's program of needed action?  Of course, there is the little matter of the First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech; but this is not important.  "The model of 'objective control' in civil-military relations may be said to have its counterpart in a bargain whereby government respects media autonomy and facilitates its coverage of national issues in return for the media observing certain fundamental norms of behavior and respecting certain government requirements.  The fundamental norms are political and ideological neutrality and a reasonable respect for the symbols and traditions of the nation.  The government requirements are protection of sensitive information and the integrity of government operations." (pp.18889)


The point here?  If the media do not agree to the bargain, the government will take them over. 

This worries the reviewer.  Is this big-gun political theorist who is so important to the neoconservative right suggesting that Machiavellian dictatorship run by Bus-Cheney-Rove is GOOD for the country?


But am I not here treating Lord unfairly?  Elsewhere in the book, he shows himself alert to the danger of executive abuse of power, and he sometimes speaks of the need to preserve the independence of the three branches of government.  Perhaps he is not so extreme as I have pictured him.  Only when a great leader like Lincoln or Roosevelt is faced with an emergency will Lord favor tossing the Constitution into the garbage pail. 

I would like to be generous, but unfortunately Lord gives away the game.  When he speaks of the executives having too much power, what concerns him is only a situation when the president is officially assigned too many tasks.  In doing so, he weakens his real power....



Lord's view, basically, is that leaders are free from the restraints of principle.  They are superior beings whose judgments are not to be questioned by the inexperienced. 

And it gets better. 

War is good.  People have this odd idea that, faced with a crisis, one should kind of try to reduce tensions and settle the issues in dispute peacefully. 


Lord, speaking for the neoconservative right, gives us this: "Particularly troublesome is the idea that visible preparations for war should be avoided in a crisis for fear such actions will lead to unwanted escalation.  ...There is a tendency today in some quarters to understand crisis management as a form of conflict resolution in which third parties set out to prevent or end violent conflict between other states.  ...Some conflicts are stubbornly resistant to mediation by outsiders, and there may well be cases ... where military action is the only realistic option for advancing the prospects for a political settlement and eventual lasting peace." (p.204)


The short version of that?  War insures eventual peace.  Yep. 

And you need crises.  A crisis atmosphere is in many cases desirable.  Otherwise, the leader cannot get what he wants: "In a larger perspective, one should bear in mind that crises can have their positive side.  They present opportunities not always available to policy makers to mobilize the country behind certain policies and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to firm action. ... [Crises] may also open avenues for skilled leaders to strengthen alliances, bolster the legitimacy of their regimes, and enhance their international prestige." (pp.20405) 

Carnes Lord is the man who provides the philosophic underpinning for the neoconservative crowd - William Kristol to Paul Wolfowitz to Dick Cheney - the guys who tell George Bush what to do, what to say, where to stand, when to smile, when to tell us to be very afraid, when to smirk, and when to pound the podium and grunt out words like, "Bring 'em on!"

And now you know. 



The Ludwig von Mises Institute where I found this review is new to me. 
Click here to read about who they are.