Too Late for U.S. Action in the Middle East or North Africa

February 20, 2011

Some commentators are calling for President Obama to take decisive action either for or against the masses who are demonstrating in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc.   However, a modern Machiavellian would probably conclude that the time for action has passed.

Niall Ferguson provides a good example of the decisive action school of thought.  In his recent article in the Daily Beast, Ferguson suggests that President Obama should side with either the demonstrators or the regimes but not take a hands-off attitude.

The Machiavellian perspective is summed up in the following quotes.

“When [problems are] foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable; for it happens in this, as the physicians say it happens in hectic fever, that in the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been either detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure. Thus it happens in affairs of state, for when the evils that arise have been foreseen (which it is only given to a wise man to see), they can be quickly redressed, but when, through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy”.  

The Prince, Chapter 3

Incidentally, hectic fever refers to the fever from tuberculosis.

Niccolò also provides the following corollary.

I say, then, that since it is difficult to recognize these disorders in their beginning, because of the false impressions which things produce at the first, it is a wiser course when they become known, to temporize with them than to oppose them; for when you temporize, either they die out of themselves, or at any rate the injury they do is deferred. And the prince who would suppress such disorders or oppose himself to their force and onset, must always be on his guard, lest he help where he would hinder, retard when he would advance, and drown the plant he thinks to water. He must therefore study well the symptoms of the disease; and, if he believes himself equal to the cure, grapple with it fearlessly; if not, he must let it be, and not attempt to treat it in any way.

Discourses on Livy, Book 1, Ch 33

Before this incident, those who are now calling for action were not among the wise men who were warning us about an infectious wave of revolts in the Middle East and in Moslem Africa.  Had they or the professionals in the State Department or in the Intelligence community issued such a warning, the Administration might have been able to intervene while it was still practical to do so.  With early warning Obama might have been able to shape events by applying a small amount of influence.  Now any intervention would involve a vast amount of blood and treasure.  American now has neither and we lack those resources precisely because we heeded the advice of those who recommended that we take decisive action in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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