Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama The Machevil

Over at Parabasis, where I used to post periodically, friend of mine, Isaac Butler, has an interesting post about Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I that is extremely relevant to modern events.  Isaac writes that at the heart of the play lives a Machiavellian lesson:

The thing is, Shakespeare uses all sorts of means– including his fat Lord of Misrule– to make sure you the audience never forget that honor and Kingliness are a performance, and that Hal and the King know this.  They are able to cloak themselves in honor when it suits them, and toss the garb off when pragmatism is necessary.  They are in many ways awful people.

In response, I wondered whether Shakespeare had read Machiavelli, something that seems to be a bit of a historical debate, to which a commenter noted that Shakespeare was at least aware of Machiavelli’s work and ideas, for he directly references him in Henry VI Part III.  In Act III, Scene ii, Richard, in soliloquy, expresses that he’ll stop at nothing to obtain the crown:

Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,

And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions.

I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,

I’ll slay more grazers than the basilisk,

I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,

Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,

And like a Simon, take another Troy.

I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murtherous Machevil to school.

In other words, he’d be so Machiavellian that he’d school Machiavelli himself.  And of course this distinction between the perception of goodness and actual goodness is still of interest to us.  Last year, I named Obama Law and Security Strategy’s “Person of the Year” for his ability to convince people that he was reaffirming America’s commitment to the rule of law without actually doing so.  And this week, especially, the debate about trying foreign-captured terrorists in civilian courts produces a crack in Obama’s Machiavellian facade.  I’m with Jack Goldsmith.  The purpose of civilian trials is to demonstrate, to the domestic left and to international audiences, that there is no conflict between law and security.  But the fact that the U.S. retains the right to continue holding terrorists even if they are acquitted in a civilian court defeats the whole propagandistic purpose.