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April 1, 2002

Teaching Evil

Steven Menashi on Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan.
Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos.
Random House.
224 pages. $22.95

In the first phase of the war on terror outside Afghanistan, the United States dispatched some 660 military personnel to the southern Philippines. The last time Americans battled Islamist terror in the Philippines was after the Spanish-American War, when Gen. John Pershing commanded U.S. colonial forces in the islands. American anti-terrorism tactics have evolved considerably, it seems, over the past century. In his time, Pershing didn’t need to bother with reconnaissance operations. His forces captured some of the militants, executed them with bullets dipped in pig fat, and wrapped their bodies in pigskin before burial — a devastating contamination according to Muslim law. “You’ll never see Paradise,” one U.S. officer reportedly told the terrorists, dashing their hopes of martyrdom. Pershing’s approach is probably no longer in the army’s counterterrorism repertoire, but the result was that guerrilla violence ended — and failed to resurface even after Pershing left the Philippines to command U.S. troops in World War I.

The American response to Islamic extremism has not always been so harsh — or as effective. As fundamentalist violence surged in Iran in 1978, threatening to topple the shah’s pro-American government, President Jimmy Carter was less than decisive. He voiced support for the shah, but pressured him not to crack down on revolutionary forces — out of concern for the human rights of Islamist radicals. Carter may have satisfied his own peculiar moral sensibilities, but the result was the destruction of an American ally in the Middle East and the advent of a state patron of terrorism so vicious as to constitute one-third of the axis of evil in the modern world. “One cannot ask of an ally that it commit suicide in the name of human rights,” Michael Ledeen remarked at the time.


Robert D. Kaplan’s Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos is an impassioned plea for less Jimmy Carter — and more John Pershing — in U.S. foreign policy. Kaplan believes there are important lessons to be learned from thinkers of pre-Christian antiquity — Thucydides, Livy, Cicero, Seneca, Sun Tzu — and their modern disciples, such as von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes. The advice could not come at a more opportune moment, as the country finds itself amidst a global war against terrorism — a war led by a president whose own favored political philosopher (Jesus Christ) is decidedly unpagan.

Kaplan has actually served as an informal advisor to the current administration. Well before September 11, President Bush read one of Kaplan’s earlier works, Eastward to Tartary (Random House, 2000), and was impressed enough to invite the author to the White House to talk global strategy. Kaplan and Bush may have had an interesting discussion, but judging from the opening chapter of Warrior Politics, Kaplan had few original insights to share. In his new book, Kaplan raises the old canard about globalization exacerbating income disparity (in fact, average wages in the developing world increased threefold relative to U.S. wages from 1960 to 1992), and he believes the resulting inequality will augment political unrest. He also relates what was conventional wisdom even before September 11: Not traditional warfare, but terrorism and cybercrime will be the principal threats in the Information Age. Additionally, writes Kaplan, “populist movements” animated “by religious and sectarian beliefs” will be a source of instability — especially as new technologies become widely available. Kaplan even suggests that “natural disasters like floods and earthquakes” may occur again in the future. His predictions aren’t especially revelatory; it’s all stuff we have heard before — but, of course, that’s precisely the point. “There is no ‘modern’ world,” writes Kaplan, “only a continuation of the ‘ancient’: a world that, despite its technologies, the best Chinese, Greek, and Roman philosophers might have been able to cope with.” The world’s future challenges will be the same as its past challenges — only on a new playing field — because human nature remains the same. In the fifth century bc, the Greek historian Thucydides observed that human behavior is guided by such impulses as fear, self-interest, and honor. And so it is today.

Thus, Kaplan argues, effective leadership requires an historian’s sensibility. Churchill, who both made and wrote history, is Kaplan’s exemplar; his awareness of the perennial problems of human history enabled him to recognize and manage those problems. Churchill foresaw the threat posed by Hitler, Kaplan recalls, while his countrymen still believed Germany could be neutralized through appeasement. Today, as sundry elites fret over the possible U.S. intervention in Iraq, it is instructive to remember that similar elites recoiled with moral revulsion at the idea of deposing Adolf Hitler, who was the democratically elected leader of Germany. And, for that matter, to recall that Roman politicians derided Fabius Maximus’s (ultimately successful) war of attrition against Hannibal. “It is better that a wise enemy should fear you than that foolish friends should praise,” said the self-assured Fabius.

Kaplan explains that “a Churchillian foreign policy,” by which he means an effective one, recognizes “how the struggles of today are strikingly similar to those of antiquity.” To drive the point home, Kaplan draws frequent parallels between ancient and modern conflicts. He compares Hannibal to Hitler, and Franklin Roosevelt to the Roman emperor Tiberius. He likens the shifting alliances between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War to the uneasy relations among France, Russia, Germany, and Britain before World War I. The Athenians failed to conquer Syracuse, Kaplan writes, “because — as with our Vietnam policy in the early 1960s — unwise leaders tried to conquer too much, too far away.” The historical analogies are initially interesting, but become tiresome and forced. Still, we get the point: While the human problems have remained constant, our moral outlook has not. “The postindustrial West seeks to deny the persistence of conflict,” says Kaplan, but history doesn’t end so much as repeat itself. “The concern of the Republican Right with ‘values’ and that of liberals with ‘humanitarian intervention’ may be less a sign of a higher morality following the defeat of communism than of the luxury afforded by domestic peace and prosperity.” The world continues to be a brutal place. And if we are to survive within it, we must act brutally and sometimes support brutal regimes. To the extent that prevailing Judeo-Christian ethics obscures this understanding of the world, it is an exercise in self-denial. Kaplan proposes that we cease our dissimulations and scuttle all the values rhetoric, which smacks of a perilous naïveté: “With their incessant harping on values, today’s Republicans and Democrats alike often sound less like Renaissance pragmatists than like medieval churchmen, dividing the world sanctimoniously between good and evil.”


Kaplan aims to depart from such moral orders, and to stake out a new — or, rather, an old — way of judging the world. Kaplan’s “pagan ethos,” which he claims was shared by Machiavelli, Churchill, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides alike, is “a morality of results rather than of good intentions.”

In one Churchillian moment that Kaplan does not discuss, the British, having decoded Nazi military communications, discovered German plans to bomb the city of Coventry. But Churchill took no action to warn or protect Coventry’s citizens: If the Germans were to realize that Britain had cracked their code, Churchill reasoned, they would surely change it, seriously impeding the British war effort — and costing even more lives in the long run. President Bush faced a similar dilemma September 11, when he ordered the military to shoot down United Flight 93 to prevent further terrorist attacks. (As it turned out, they didn’t do so.) Opponents of the president’s decision might insist that “the ends do not justify the means.” But even that maxim, which is now so clichéd a part of our moral vocabulary, appears foolish in the face of real-world events.

And so do many American good intentions. “According to the State Department manual for consular officers,” the New York Times reported September 27, “participating in the planning or execution of terrorist acts would bar a foreigner from getting a visa, but ‘mere membership’ in a recognized terrorist group would not automatically disqualify a person from entering the United States. Nor would ‘advocacy of terrorism.’ ” Justice Department guidelines prohibit the fbi from so much as purchasing a militant organization’s newsletter to monitor it for threats of terrorist activity. The civil libertarian impulse that drives such policies is of course salutary, but civil liberties mean little when the state is unable to protect them. At some point one is faced with a choice not between liberty and order, but “between liberty with order and anarchy without either,” as Justice Robert Jackson once observed. The Bill of Rights shouldn’t be made into a suicide pact.

Kaplan embraces this realist worldview. He takes his bearings from the worldly realities of political power rather than by abstract ideals of rights or justice, adopting as his motto a line from Hobbes’s Leviathan: “Before the names of Just and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power.” Surely, people who have actually lived under anarchy — threatened by marauding warlords, terrorists, and the like — were scarcely consoled by the notion that they possessed “human rights.” “Human rights,” if they can be said to exist at all in a state of anarchy, are utterly useless there. What’s needed is a way to enforce them. “Projecting power comes first,” says Kaplan, “values come second.” A good leader would never allow “petty scruples” to compromise regnant authority.

At one point, Kaplan concludes that “human rights are ultimately and most assuredly promoted by the preservation of American power” — which is a curious assertion for him to make, since, if Kaplan had his druthers, American power would divorce itself from a special concern for human rights. He wants U.S. foreign policy to seek stability alone. Liberalizing the world is not only impracticable, according to Kaplan, but often dangerous: “It is political freedom itself that has often unleashed the violence that liberal societies abhor.” Kaplan thinks authoritarian rule often provides a needed antidote to ethnic and religious strife, whereas democratic rule might be too ineffectual or beholden to factional interests (he applauds military coups d’etat in Uganda and Pakistan for restoring civil order).

As might be expected, Kaplan sanctions brutal tactics for maintaining order. He praises King Hussein for imposing martial law on Jordan in 1957 because the democratically elected government was “becoming increasingly radical”; Hussein’s bloody crackdowns on Palestinians in 1970 and the 1980s were also admirable because they “saved his kingdom,” despotic though it may have been. Similarly, the United States should not press for human rights in Tunisia, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, China, or virtually anywhere. Such a moralistic policy, says Kaplan, would weaken established regimes and foster instability. Yet, amidst his general endorsement of despotism, Kaplan for some reason condemns Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. It’s unclear why he does so: Kaplan plainly approves of military coups, has no special fondness for democracy, and doesn’t mind brutal tactics. And Pinochet even had noble aims: He saved Chile from communism and eventually surrendered his authority to a democratic government. But Kaplan somehow concludes that Pinochet employed “excessive” violence.

Kaplan cannot explain how he reaches such a judgment, however. He clearly does not want his argument to endorse any and all regimes; Kaplan strives to affirm that his “morality of consequence” is, in fact, “moral, even if it is not Judeo-Christian.” But he has left himself with no ethical ground on which to stand. Kaplan regards ethics as an essentially private matter. Moral ideals may be decisive for the personal consciences of private citizens, but they compromise the hardheadedness policymakers need for an effective foreign policy. The “separation of private ethics from politics” is the heart of warrior politics: “for if there is such a thing as progress in politics, it has been the evolution from religious virtue to secular self-interest.”

With the admission that political thought has progressed to Kaplan’s ideas, it becomes clear that Warrior Politics does not represent the return to a forgotten “pagan ethos” of classical antiquity. Kaplan may see himself standing outside the liberal tradition, reproaching naïve humanitarians from the no-nonsense perspective of the ancient pagans, but he remains within that tradition. The pagans had their own gods and values that permeated their social order. Even Thucydides condemns the Athenians for “allowing private ambitions and private interests . . . to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies.” Kaplan, in contrast, adopts the liberal idea that ethics as such should be confined to the private sphere, and that politics should concern itself with the satisfaction of self-interest. Humanity’s primary interest, says Kaplan, is stability. He wants to neutralize conflict, to compel people to live away from each other’s throats. He aims no higher than this: “Philosophy,” Kaplan explains, “is about the resolution of forces, and in foreign policy that leads to the search for order.”

Kaplan’s philosophy may constitute a sort of political wisdom, but it’s a far cry from the moral understanding of the ancients. If our politics rests fundamentally on self-interest, then how can one expect the heroic selflessness Kaplan admires in Churchill and others? If the ultimate goal is self-preservation, why should anyone risk his life? The “heroic outlook” Kaplan attributes to the Greeks was possible precisely because they recognized a purpose higher than themselves.


Kaplan differs from the actual pagan philosophers of antiquity by arguing that man is not, in fact, a political animal. Rather, heads of state must maintain political society by force, against the people who would otherwise revert to their antisocial, violent natures. Any idea of justice exists only within the imposed order. Because the assertion of force is primary for Kaplan, he falls victim to a Machiavellian temptation: to justify power only by reference to itself, for reasons of state. Nothing exists prior to the state to delimit its behavior. Kaplan insists, borrowing an idea from Isaiah Berlin, that his Machiavellianism represents an ethical alternative to Judeo-Christian values. But the only moral lesson he teaches is that power should be unconstrained by ethical qualms in achieving its own protection — which, upon reflection, turns out not to be a moral lesson at all.

Kaplan learns from Machiavelli that values, “good or bad,” are “useless without arms to back them up.” That may be true, but Kaplan fails to emphasize that we need good values. Indeed, he insists that we need no values at all. In Kaplan’s world, we should seek power for power’s sake.

Kaplan’s critique aims at the wrong target. The difficulty with the Judeo-Christian tradition is not its values, but that it often lacks prudence in promoting them. In the end, one who declares, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” is both pompous and foolish: pompous because the destruction of the cosmos by his value system does not persuade him even to question those values, and foolish because in such a state of generalized anarchy, justice has no effect. Thus, Kaplan’s assessment has particular force with regard to rigid religious precepts that make no allowance for day-to-day realities. (One is reminded of an old Nipsy Russell line: “He who turns the other cheek gets hit with the other fist.”) Kaplan cautions us not to be so sanctimoniously naïve as to ignore the reality of power politics, which is good advice. But we also should not be so brazen as to lose sight of our moral aims. Power that serves only itself is a monstrous thing.

In truth, the lessons of Warrior Politics are not as alien to our idealistic democracy as Kaplan wants to suggest. “Democracies,” wrote Victor Davis Hanson in his The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999), “can produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men.” Far out of proportion to their physical resources, democratic societies have unleashed military campaigns unparalleled in their lethality and effectiveness. Brute aggression, it seems, cannot match what arises “when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement.” All of which holds out the possibility that even the righteous may be able to outpagan the pagans.