The economics of cruelty: Bush-era torture memos fail the Machiavelli test

This past week, the United States Justice Department released four memos showing that its lawyers approved of the Central Intelligence Agency's use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques. President Obama hailed the move, stating that America needs to move beyond "a dark and painful chapter" in its history by exposing what actually happened.

These memos open up a difficult question of the role of cruelty in world politics. While some pundits will endlessly argue for the wisdom of the CIA's tactics, others will position it as one of the morally darkest episodes in American history. The truth is, perhaps, a little less clear-cut.

One of the first advocates of realpolitik, Niccolo Machiavelli, has gained a reputation for being evil. However, for all his cold logic, he had a very real understanding of the necessity for apparent immorality in the pursuit of good governance. In one of his most controversial statements, he endorsed cruelty, noting:

"Therefore a prince [. . .] ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only."

In the long run, Machiavelli argues, cruelty is often more merciful than kindness, as it clearly delineates boundaries, establishes the leader's dominance, and avoids the kind of divisions that can ultimately tear a society apart. While Machiavelli exhorts that a leader must strive to not be hated, he also notes that a truly effective leader must be feared.

Like Machiavelli, economics has often been accused of being fundamentally cruel. After all, a focus on cost and efficiency effectively circumvents thorny moral questions, shifting the conversation to mathematical sums, instead of ethical considerations. In the end, economics, like Machiavelli, is focused not on what is right, but on what works.

Sometimes, these things go hand-in-hand. For example, although some pundits continue to criticize President Truman's decision to drop the bomb, history has amply demonstrated that he made the right choice. In destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he quickly put an end to World War II; by comparison, a more "merciful" land assault on Japan would have caused far more death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. Also, by demonstrating the power of the nuclear deterrent, Truman established America's dominance in the world, at least until the Soviets tested their own nuke four years later.

In an economic context, Truman's decision was also viable. Unused weapons, particularly ones as expensive as Fat Man and Little Boy, are a waste. Add in the cost -- both in lives and in treasure -- of a conventional assault on Japan, and it's clear that Truman saved the United States a fortune.

This moral and economic balancing act cropped up numerous times in the twentieth century. For example, President Reagan's decision to build an insanely huge nuclear stockpile threatened the safety of the world and decimated other federal programs, but ultimately brought an end to the Cold War, producing the peace dividend that helped fuel the global boom of the '90s. Similarly, there may well be some truth to President Nixon's assertion that North Vietnam held off on an invasion of South Vietnam because of its fear that Nixon would nuke them.

On the flip side, President Carter's unwillingness to endanger his soul arguably made him a less effective leader. His commitment to peace yielded great rewards at Camp David, but may have also led to the extended horror of the Iranian hostage crisis. This debacle could arguably be blamed for many of America's subsequent problems in the Middle East, and for untold expenditures in armaments and lives.

While history will ultimately be the greatest judge, it would appear that President Bush's willingness to allow "enhanced interrogation" was neither morally good nor economically wise. To begin with, "stress positions," "waterboarding" and prisoner humiliation all compromised the upstanding image of America's military. More importantly, photos of hooded prisoners, naked dogpiles and smirking soldiers galvanized both political and military resistance to America. In the short term, these behaviors might have extended the war; in the long term, they may have an almost unimaginable cost in terms of America's worldwide effectiveness.

As President Obama settles into the toughest job in the world, one of the biggest problems he will have to come to terms with is the fact that, as president, he will probably have to tarnish his soul to protect the bodies of his fellow Americans. The best path, perhaps, lies somewhere between Presidents Carter and Bush: while the one may have valued his morals too highly, the other didn't seem to value them at all. Let's hope that Obama is willing to sell, but will be careful to get the best price.

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