Florence and the Drones

By DAVID BROOKS, New York Times

This winter I’m taking part in a great course at Yale called Grand Strategy. We’re reading strategic thought from Sun Tzu and Pericles straight through to Churchill and George F. Kennan. This week we read Machiavelli.

Machiavelli is a tonic because he counteracts the sentiments of our age. We’re awash in TV news segments celebrating the human spirit, but Machiavelli had a lower estimation of our worth. “For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain,” he writes in “The Prince.”

“It needs to be taken for granted that all men are wicked and that they will always give vent to the malignity that is in their minds when opportunity offers,” he adds in “The Discourses.”

The conventional view is that Machiavelli believed that since people are brutes then everything is permitted. Leaders should do anything they can to hold power. The ends justify the means.

In fact, Machiavelli was a moralistic thinker. He wrote movingly of his love for his city, Florence. His vision of a great and unified Italy was romantic and idealistic. He barely goes a page without some appeal to honor and virtue.

He just had a different concept of political virtue. It would be nice, he writes, if a political leader could practice the Christian virtues like charity, mercy and gentleness and still provide for his people. But, in the real world, that’s usually not possible. In the real world, a great leader is called upon to create a civilized order for the city he serves. To create that order, to defeat the forces of anarchy and savagery, the virtuous leader is compelled to do hard things, to take, as it were, the sins of the situation upon himself.

The leader who does good things cannot always be good himself. Sometimes bad acts produce good outcomes. Sometimes a leader has to love his country more than his soul.

Since a leader is forced by circumstances to do morally suspect things, Machiavelli at least wants him to do them effectively. Machiavelli is full of advice. If you have to do something cruel, do it fast; if you get to do something generous, do it slowly. If you lead a country, you have more to fear from the scheming elites than the masses, so you should try to form an alliance with the people against the aristocracy.

When you read Machiavelli, you realize how lucky we are. Unlike 16th-century Florence, we have a good Constitution that channels conflict. We have manners, respect for law and social trust that softens behavior, at least a bit. Even in the realm of foreign affairs, we’ve inherited an international order that restrains conflict. Our ancestors behaved savagely to build our world, so we don’t have to.

But it’s still not possible to rule with perfectly clean hands. There are still terrorists out there, hiding in the shadows and plotting to kill Americans. So even today’s leaders face the Machiavellian choice: Do I have to be brutal to protect the people I serve? Do I have to use drones, which sometimes kill innocent children, in order to thwart terror and save the lives of my own?

When Barack Obama was a senator, he wasn’t compelled to confront the brutal logic of leadership. Now in office, he’s thrown into the Machiavellian world. He’s decided, correctly, that we are in a long war against Al Qaeda; that drone strikes do effectively kill terrorists; that, in fact, they inflict fewer civilian deaths than bombing campaigns, boots on the ground or any practical alternative; that, in fact, civilian death rates are dropping sharply as the C.I.A. gets better at this. Acting brutally abroad saves lives at home.

Still, there’s another aspect of Machiavellian thought relevant to the drone debate. This is a core weakness in his thought. He puts too much faith in the self-restraint of his leaders. Machiavelli tells us that men are venal self-deceivers, but then he gives his Prince permission to do all these monstrous things, trusting him not to get carried away or turn into a monster himself.

Our founders were more careful. Our founders understood that leaders are as venal and untrustworthy as anybody else. They abhorred concentrated power, and they set up checks and balances to disperse it.

Our drone policy should take account of our founders’ superior realism. Drone strikes are so easy, hidden and abstract. There should be some independent judicial panel to review the kill lists. There should be an independent panel of former military and intelligence officers issuing reports on the program’s efficacy.

If you take Machiavelli’s tough-minded view of human nature, you have to be brutal to your enemies — but you also have to set up skeptical checks on the people you empower to destroy them.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/opinion/brooks-florence-and-the-drones.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130208&_r=0

Obama’s challenge: Thinking big

By David Ignatius, Washington Post,  November 2, 2012

“Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems” says the provocative headline in the current issue of MIT Technology Review. This package ought to go in President Obama’s reading pile as he ponders his January inaugural address and second-term agenda.

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of the MIT review, introduces his theme by recalling the high age of space exploration — the incredible decade in which the United States, from a standing start, achieved President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

“The strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology,” writes Pontin. That sense of awe has diminished, if not disappeared. There hasn’t been a human being on the moon since 1972. And as Pontin writes, “big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.”

The point of Pontin’s exercise, as you might have guessed, is to say that these big problems are, in fact, solvable, if the United States and other advanced countries will widen their ambitions, their public research budgets and their willingness to take risks.

The MIT review gathers a series of manifestos for big-think ideas that are feasible, now. The list includes plans for: carbon capture to slow climate change; genomic medicine to target the array of cellular malfunctions that go under the heading of “cancer”; solar grids to bring electricity to the world’s poorest people; robotic manufacturing and online education to mass produce knowledge and good engineering techniques; a new assault on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; and, yes, a mission to Mars.

Why aren’t these big ideas funded today? Pontin identifies one important factor as the decline in spending for energy research and development, which has fallen from 10 percent of total R&D spending in 1979 to just 2 percent today.

A second, more interesting cause is what Pontin says is a tendency among venture capitalists and other investors to look for small tweaks rather than big, disruptive technology breakthroughs. He quotes Bruce Gibney, a venture capitalist at the San Francisco-based Founders Fund, who offers a harsh explanation: “In the late 1990s, venture portfolios began to reflect a different sort of future. . . . Venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems. . . . VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead has become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances.”

Investors would respond that they’re still looking for the big ideas, so long as they are attached to a reasonable business model. (Indeed, the person who alerted me to the MIT discussion is Pradeep Ramamurthy, a former Obama administration official who now works for a private equity firm called Abraaj Capital.)

Here’s where Obama can make a difference in setting expectations about the future. As he reminded us so often during the presidential campaign, the past four years were largely about rebuilding the damage of the recession and managing orderly retreats from costly foreign wars. This was a period of low expectations, low returns on investment and low tolerance for risk. The president’s own cautious style was a mirror for that of Wall Street investors, who, whatever they might claim, were thinking even smaller than the president.

Can America think bigger during the next four years — not in the usual terms of expansive foreign policy but in terms of rebuilding its economic and technological mastery? It’s likely that Obama will get a budget deal that builds a sound macro-economic foundation for growth, but how will he build on it?

Here’s where a new White House partnership with business can be crucial: It would signal to the country that the president and the leaders of the nation’s biggest finance, tech and manufacturing companies are all going in the same direction. By the end of Obama’s term, America will be approaching energy self-sufficiency and will be a low-cost producer for products that use energy. It’s not crazy, given these fundamentals, to talk about an American revival.

But thinking big about the American economy will require stronger political vision. Except for occasional glimmers, Obama hasn’t shown the quality of sustained, strategic leadership that would make him a transformational president. His team won a political victory that was a piece of genius. Can the White House translate that momentum into a real agenda for governing and growth?

davidignatius@washpost.com

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/david-ignatius-obamas-challenge–thinking-big/2012/11/28/41c38afe-3981-11e2-8a97-363b0f9a0ab3_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines