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Islamist terror. What would Machiavelli do?

Monday, 21 January, 2013

The death toll of hostages following the end of the four-day siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria now stands at 57. Today, Reuters is reporting that at least nine Japanese people were killed, while yesterday Algerian troops found the bodies of 25 more hostages.

The Prince There has been some criticism of the Algerian approach to Islamist terror and it has been aired especially in those outlets that prefer to call the terrorists “militants”, which is most of the Western media now, but the critical question we need to ask at this juncture is: What would Machiavelli do? Would he advocate appeasement, or would he declare war? As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of The Prince, now is the ideal moment to consult the great manual on statecraft for help with this vexing 21st-century challenge.

With uncanny timing, James R. Holmes, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, has just written an article for The Diplomat about this very issue, and the opening is even more uncanny: “So here’s how I open my seminars on the French-Algerian War: is it better to be loved or feared when combating an insurgency?” And what does he conclude in Machiavelli’s Paradox? Snippet:

“So Machiavelli would likely advise the counterinsurgent to assign force pride of place in his strategy, on the logic that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Inspiring dread among the insurgents and those inclined to join them sets the prince on the path to victory, creating space for measures that bolster the security and welfare of the populace. Fear leads love more than it replaces love on the prince’s menu of strategic options. But here’s the rub: Machiavelli warns the prince not to overuse fear as an instrument of statecraft, lest he sow hatred. For instance, he must resist the temptation to live by plunder, forcibly seizing property from its rightful owners. He must never execute an offender without ‘adequate justification and a manifest cause.’ Prudence imposes bounds on the use of cruelty — however necessary harsh measures may be to protect the regime.”

The Algerians got the first part right last week, but as the wretched state of their country shows, they need to spend more time in studying governance. Still, it’s unlikely that they’ll be using weasel words like “militants” anytime soon. That’s to be welcomed.

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