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Cheney vs. Putin: What Would Machiavelli Think?

July 22, 2009

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s recent attempts to correct (in his eyes) the public’s perception of the Bush administration’s treatment of the ‘War on Terror’ detainees is bordering on the bizarre. It would be humourous were it not for this man’s reputation as an extremely shrewd and cunning political player over several decades and the seriousness of the subject of torture. Some observers have commented that Cheney’s aggressive push to defend the Bush administration’s practices in fighting terrorism is actually an offensive effort to mitigate any investigative attempts by the Obama administration, namely Attorney General Eric Holder. In particular, Cheney may be worried about the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the endorsement of torture by the Bush administration.

Dick Cheney’s belief that the American public’s role is to elect politicians to office and then get out of the way to let them govern unimpeded (perhaps rule is a more appropriate word) undermines the United States Constitution. Adopted in 1787 in Philadelphia, the Constitution comprises three main branches of government: the executive (headed by the President), legislative branch (Congress) and a judicial branch (lead by the Supreme Court). Those who were responsible for creating this system of government had the vision to understand the need for checks and balances in order to foster – and preserve – democracy. Enter Dick Cheney, some 200 years later, a man with an apparent disregard – perhaps contempt – for his fellow Americans, an individual who systematically built his power base through the hoarding and controlling of information, and consistently maintaining iron-clad discipline on secrecy.

It would seem that Cheney would have been much more comfortable working in a totalitarian form of government, such as that in the former Soviet Union or now Russia. He could have mentored Vladimir Putin, who became acting president in December 1999 and held that office until May 2008. Although he is now Prime Minister, serving ostensibly under Dmitry Medvedev, Putin still exerts enormous influence on the new president – and Russian policy. One area where Putin and Cheney part company is the former’s success in creating a strong public persona among Russians. Despite a number of policy mistakes, accusations of sanctioning assassination attempts on political opponents, and one particular public relations blunder with the accident of the nuclear submarine the Kursk in 2000, Putin has managed to keep his reputation elevated. Poor Dick Cheney, he wants the media and Americans to believe that he had the public’s best interests at heart and that he (and George Bush, but not Colin Powell) knew best – just don’t get in his way.

So which of this two men would have most impressed Niccolo Machiavelli? ‘The Prince’ (written in 1513 but not published until after his death in 1532) was not necessarily an accurate reflection of Machiavelli’s beliefs on how republics and monarchies should be governed, due to the circumstances surrounding its writing. Nevertheless, The Prince is still widely quoted and open to interpretation, in turn providing opportunity for debate. Chapter 29, for example, looks at how a the ‘prince’ should avoid being hated and despised by his followers. Machiavelli urges that his actions show ‘…greatness, courage, gravity and fortitude…and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or to get round him….That prince is highly esteemed who conveys the impression of himself, and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against.’

In chapter 21, the topic is on how a prince should conduct himself in order to gain renown. ‘A prince is also respected when he is either a true friend or a downright enemy, that is to say, when, without any reservation, he declares himself in favour of one party against the other.’

Chapter 24 provides some illuminating insights into what may be in store for the current leaders of the United States and Russia: ‘…do not let our princes accuse fortune for the loss of their principalities after so many years’ possession, but rather their own sloth, because in quiet times they never thought there could be a change…and when afterwards the bad times came they thought of flight and not of defending themselves, and they hoped that the people, disgusted with the insolence of the conquerors, would recall them.’

There you have it, a few brief passages from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince.’ Are there parallels to current politics? Absolutely. And who would most impress Machiavelli: Vladimir Putin or Dick Cheney? That’s a tricky question. Perhaps neither, for Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was not just about the amoral pursuit of power. There is sufficient room for plenty of personal interpretation and adaptation to today’s politics. But I would think that Machiavelli would have been most intrigued with how the two men under scrutiny in this article have practiced their own forms of leadership over several decades and where they now stand in the public eye.

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