Friend and Enemy, East or West:
Political Realism in the work of Usama bin Ladin, Carl Schmitt, Niccolo Machiavelli and Kai-Ka'us ibn Iskandar

Darius Rejali
Associate Professor
Political Science
Reed College
January 2003

Copyright (c) 2003 by Darius Rejali, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author and Historical Reflections is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Historical Reflections and the author at

Friend and Enemy, East or West

How do you decide who is your friend and who is your enemy? This question becomes all the more important in political life where mistakes can be fatal, and not just for you but for thousands of others. Using Usama bin Ladin's writings, I want to show certain inevitable problems that arise for political realists. Modern realists, East and West, are unable to answer these problems adequately. Their realism gives way to myth. Classical realists, East or West, have more persuasive answers, and their lessons are worth heeding in a polarized world.[1]

The Epistles of Usama Bin Ladin

In the late 1990s, Usama bin Ladin wrote two public letters that were posted on the Internet.[2] He wrote these letters to instruct young Muslims. While the Ladinese Epistles are couched in the distinction between the profane and the sacred, the driving force in these letters is the distinction between friend and enemy. In "Jihad against Jews and Crusaders" (February 23, 1998), bin Ladin urges Muslims not to fight among themselves. Other Muslims are not one's enemies. The true enemy is the enemy who is against "religion and life." It is the individual duty of "every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it" to fight the enemy, "to seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait with them in every stratagem (of war)." The question is to figure out who is the true enemy today.

Bin Ladin begins with what is "known to everyone." For over 50 years, US policy focused on several objectives in the Middle East: guaranteeing the security of Israel, achieving an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, guaranteeing safe and stable access to Persian Gulf oil, preventing Soviet expansion (during the Cold War) and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (after the end of the Cold War). Bin Ladin puts a different spin on these, but acknowledges them never the less. "No one," he says, "argues today about three facts." These are: (1) that US forces used the Arabian Peninsula as a base to make war against other Muslim nations as well as secure access to Saudi oil; (2) that Americans are reinforcing sanctions against Iraq leading to the suffering of the Iraqi people; and (3) the Israelis and Saudis fear Iraq, and so the Americans are focusing on it as the strongest Arab state.

Having established that he is a political realist, bin Ladin asks what is to be done as crusader armies fight over Muslims "like people fighting over a plate of food." He invites a dialogue: "in light of the grave situation and the lack of support, we and you are obliged to discuss current events, and we should all agree on how to settle the matter." Bin Ladin has his own view, that it is the duty of every Muslim to "kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military." And therefore, "we call on Muslem ulema [sic], leaders, youths and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them."

It is easy enough for bin Ladin to equate pagans with enemies of Islam, but on closer examination this will not do. To persuade his listener, bin Ladin has to show that the US is not just any pagan state (for then the argument would apply equally to the Russians, Chinese and Indians). Rather, he must show that the US is the true enemy that attacks religion and life.

Adopting the voice of the women and children of Iraq, he implores Muslim men to save them from the deliberate suffering caused by US led sanctions. This is attacking life. As to religion, bin Ladin argues that the US wages war against the true Islamic state, the Caliphate. The United States aims to "fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade of occupation of the Peninsula." By supporting sovereign independence of various artificial states, the Americans are also attacking Islam.

Bin Ladin's analysis complicates the pagan-enemy/Muslim-friend dichotomy. It now appears that there are Muslim statelets that side with the pagan enemy (and so Muslim enemies or at least enemies that appear to be Muslim). On the other hand, bin Ladin cautions his friends not to fight among themselves, for the Muslims that appear to be one's enemies in reality are one's friends. And how should one relate to other pagan states, say the Chinese, who sometimes set themselves up against the Americans? Are they one's friends too? And what about their enemies?

These problems only deepen in the "Ladenese Epistle" (August 23, 1996), a much longer examination of the theme of the friend and enemy. The epistle urges people to "push the enemy – the greatest Kufr ["disbelief"] – out of the country." As in the later letter, we know immediately who the enemy is (the "Zionist-Crusader Alliance and their collaborators," "the USA and its allies under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations"). They spilled defenseless Muslim blood and caused suffering around the world. But at once one has problems in determining one's friends. One's friends of course are from "the people of Islam," but who are they? Bin Ladin offers three answers, none very persuasive.

(1) Your friends are your relatives. The people of Islam are not simply tied together by their obedience of Allah, but by their marriage and kinship relations. Even if one granted bin Ladin's peculiar additional criterion here, it is not so easy to determine who is or is not a friend in "a family" that comprises millions of people.

(2) Your friend is the just teacher. "The right answer is to follow what has been decided by people of knowledge." Unfortunately, there are false teachers. Shari'a colleges graduate students "to mislead and confuse the nation and the umma (by wrong Fatwas) and to circulate false information about the movement." How then to distinguish between true and the false ulama (religious scholars) who justified the killings? By what sign shall you know them?

Bin Ladin argues that one knows the true ulama because (as Locke once said) he had withstood a long chain of abuses and made many efforts at peaceful remonstration. And you shall know the true enemy because he attacks "truthful Ulamah [sic] and the righteous youth." To know the true enemy, one needs to know the true teacher. And the true teacher is known because true enemies attack him. Yet much depends on one's perspective, for every man has friends and enemies, and thinks that he is the fount of truth. Bin Ladin concedes national media has presented true ulama as false ones. Muslims have resorted to killing and arresting truthful ulama. Local rulers have for a long time been able to persuade many that they are just and Muslim. And the scandals have repelled people away from the true way.

(3) Your friend is the person who makes you feel safer. False friends are unable to protect the country or your family. They spend hours at "fireplaces in clubs discussing eternally." They are "those who in spite of being lost think they are at the goal." But it turns out that this is not a very clear criterion either. Some true ulama endlessly discuss among themselves, "wasting the energy of the nation in discussing minor issues and ignoring the main one that is the unification of the people under the divine will of Allah."

Although, bin Laden concedes, true ulama are not waylaid by these things, they sometimes make costly mistakes. Some are drawn into armed struggles foolishly at unfavourable times and places. Some neglect guerilla warfare though open warfare "is to be avoided at all costs unless there is a huge advantage to achieve and greater losses on the enemy side." Some have well meaning but unintelligent aims that put one's family and self in a worse state than before. For example, some mistakenly think that they should fight the enemy by blowing up the oil, and this is not permitted: "it is a great Islamic wealth and a large economical power essential for the soon to be established Islamic state."

It is no easier when it comes to determining one's enemies. People are clearer about who their enemies are, but then tend to focus on those at hand, their immediate enemy. Since the colonialists fragmented the Muslim world into small little countries, many compete against one another for artificial reasons. "In the shadow of these discussions and arguments, truthfulness is covered by falsehood and personal feuds and partisanship created among the people increasing the division and weakness of the umma; priorities of the Islamic work are lost while the blasphemy and polytheism continue its grip and control over the umma." There is a domestic enemy that hides in the ranks of militaries and perpetuates atrocities in the name of true Muslims. "In order to create a friction and feud between the Mujahideen and yourselves, [they] might resort to take deliberate action against personnel of the security, guard and military forces and blame the Mujahideen for these actions."

But, says bin Ladin, the lesser enemy is not really the public enemy at all but simply your personal enemy. Think carefully. "Internal war is a great mistake, no matter what reasons are there for it" for the enemy "will control the outcome of the battle for the benefit of the international Kufr." It is better to distinguish between lesser and greater enemies. "To repel the greatest of the two dangers on the expense of the lesser one is an Islamic principle which should be observed." Muslims are required, he says, to ignore the minor differences among themselves. The ill effect of ignoring these differences, for a period of time, is much less than the ill effect of occupation of Muslim lands by the international Kufr.

On this basis, one can join others in public friendship. It is permitted, he argues, to fight alongside others "even if the intention of some of the fighters is not pure, i.e. fighting for the sake of leadership (personal gain) or if they do not observe some of the rules and commandments of Islam." Likewise, it is permitted to fight alongside pagans against the greater enemy. Bin Ladin cites the 14th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya to the effect that "even the military personnel who are not practicing Islam are not exempted from the duty of Jihad against the enemy." One may take then pagan friends in fighting the true enemy. "It was the tradition of the people of the Sunnah (Ahlul-Sunnah) to join and invade – fight – with the righteous and non righteous men." When the pagan king, Amrob Ibn Hind tried to humiliate the pagan Amroo Ibn Kulthoom, the latter cut the cut off his head with a sword. Even pagans, implies bin Ladin, know how to behave when confronted with the public enemy.

Whatever else one can say about the Epistles, these documents envision a conflict between two ways of life, a struggle that can only end with the utter destruction of one side or the other. Bin Ladin enjoins others to stop their private feuds and join the struggle against the public enemy. He affirms public friendship in the fight against the enemy. But somehow such easy calculations run into trouble. Bin Ladin began simply, by equating friends and enemies with those who were Muslims and those who were pagans and followed Kufr. Yet this solution fell apart rapidly. The public enemy turned out to be sometimes Muslim, while sometimes a public friend does not have to be Muslim or tied to us by kinship. He may not practice Islam. He may violate religious laws. His intentions may not be pure. He may be righteous or non-righteous. Even pagans, provided they acknowledge the public enemy, count as public friends.

Political Realism and the Friend/Enemy Distinction

How is it that a rational person with clear convictions runs into so much trouble? Bin Ladin's troubles do not arise out of his peculiar view of Islam or the historical circumstances he finds himself. Rather, they arise out of his commitment to a reductive political realism, the notion that the world can be clarified solely in terms of friends and enemies. To understand the dimensions of this way of thinking more fully, it is helpful to turn to the work of Carl Schmitt. Writing in Germany in the 1930s, Schmitt gives us the clearest exposition of the theme of friend and enemy.

For Schmitt, the friend-enemy distinction was the sole criterion of the political. It is true, Schmitt conceded, that humans engage in conflict about many things, but not all these conflicts are political ones. For a conflict to count as political, it must embody the opposition of friends and enemies.

Schmitt offers two arguments, one historical and one analytic, in defense of this thesis. The analytic argument asserts that every field depends on a core opposition. One could not conceive of economics, the dynamics of markets for instance, without the opposition of producers and consumers. Inquiring into art would not be possible without the opposition of the beautiful and the ugly. Ethics would make no sense without the judgement of what is good and what is bad. And what would religion be without the distinction between what is sacred and what is profane?[3]

So too, in politics, we cannot proceed, argues Schmitt, unless we decide who is our friend and who is our enemy. Politics, on this view, is an autonomous field of inquiry, one that must be treated as such despite a constant temptation to reduce it to economics, ethics, religion, and art. When this happens, when for example as in modern liberalism, all politics turns out to be about interests of consumers (voters) and sellers (politicians), then politics for all intents and purposes have ceased. On the other hand, one can politicize any other duality, the sacred/profane distinction, for example, by making it turn, as bin Ladin does in relation to Islam, on an opposition between friends and enemies.

This brings me to Schmitt's second reason for arguing that the friend/enemy distinction is the heart of politics. For Schmitt, human plurality is a characteristic of our existence, and inevitably people will disagree about what is good and bad, sacred and profane. Men will, as Hobbes observed, fight for gain, glory and survival.[4] The friend-enemy distinction emerges out of these disputes, but for it to do so, some rudimentary understanding of collective life must exist. Feuds, personal quarrels and private vengeance are not political conflicts, for Schmitt. The enemy is always a public enemy, not a private one.[5]

The emergence of a public enemy is thus the first nascent step towards the formation of the state. But even before the state, it is possible to have public enemies, even if they are not as well defined as national enemies. Schmitt believes that conflicts between elites, or between elites or masses, or even between sects, kinship lines, ethnic groups and ideological groups can become political in the absence of the state. Due to their history, the British were the first to develop "the concept of the non-state enemy that does not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants and hence is truly 'total.'" [6]

Such disputes must meet some limited criteria. The conflict has to be not merely an opposition of interests (which, an economist might observe, can be satisfied, negotiated, or bartered) but an opposition of two different ways of life. Such oppositions are sharp, recognizing the other way of deciding what is good or bad, holy or profane, as so intensely alien, that they are "the other, the stranger." The public enemy is always a figure who is in some "specially intense way, existentially something different and alien."[7]

Put in these terms, the enemy defines the nature of one's way of life. Athenians value their freedoms because they are not Spartans or Persians, Americans because they are not British or (later) Communists. These oppositions are not just any kind of opposition, but oppositions that shape one's deepest understanding and intuitions about who one is. Fear of the enemy is thus intense, emotional, and instinctive.

Indeed, in redeeming one's own way of life against the other collectivity, men will choose war "in the extreme case." Once we have chosen war, it is not simply a matter of having our interests satisfied. We have judged that the enemy "intends to negate his opponent's way of life" and therefore we must repulse him to preserve our "form of existence."[8] What Rome did to Carthage, what Moses did to the pagans and the vestiges of their customs among Israelites, and what the Mongols did to Persian Nishapur, these for Schmitt constitute the inevitable dynamic of the friend/enemy distinction. Schmitt would not have been surprised that in the modern world, this ontological opposition would take the form of genocide. This could be expressed in terms of clash (the Stalinists against the kulaks, the Khmer Rouge against the urbanites) or in terms of ethnicity (the Hutu massacres of Tutsis and the Nazi genocide of the Jews). It is really irrelevant to Schmitt since what happened in all these cases is that two ways of life were pitted in such a way that the conflict could only end in violence. To compromise would be economical, but not political. The friend/enemy distinction presupposes the "utmost degree of intensity of a union or a separation, of an association or dissassociation."[9]

As Schmitt makes clear here, a friend is a public friend. Regardless of what I may think of him (his ethics, sexual life, sense of beauty, religious practice), the public friend shares my way of life, belongs to my collectivity as I conceive it (by race, religion, ideology, or kinship). My commitment to the public friend rises above my private interests, friendships and ethical commitments. Like the hatred of the public enemy, the public friend demands the greatest intensity of union and association. It demands sacrifice and solidarity in the name of our common way of life.

All this may appear to suggest that for Schmitt the political can only characterize international politics, that is, the opposition of sovereign states in war or their alliance in public friendship. But this is not quite true. For one thing, Schmitt's own view of history precludes this. Before the international state system formed, many collectivities engaged in deciding which were their friends and enemies. What has changed with the state is that the political has emerged as an "objective" arena in itself, exerting real pressures independent of religion or ethics for internal peace.[10] But "this requirement for internal peace compels it in critical situations to decide also upon the domestic enemy. Every state provides, therefore, some kind of formula for the declaration of an internal enemy."[11] Schmitt himself was obsessed with the domestic enemy under the political conditions of his own time. He argued that certain types of groups, simply by the nature of their (often intensely violent) way of life, were incompatible with the Weimar constitution, and so should be banned from the parliamentary process. To put it differently, the state could – if it deemed it necessary – act against domestic as well as international enemies.[12]

The Answers of Modern Realism

I am not arguing of course, as many do these days, that radical Islamic thought is a kind of Fascist or totalitarian thought. If the distinction of Friend/Enemy is in fact the criterion for making thought fascist, then there is indeed a great deal of fascist thought going around these days and not only among Muslims. The question I am inquiring into is more universal, one that is rooted in the essence of realist thought. If in fact the distinction between friend and enemy is a real, inevitable and necessary feature of politics – and much realist thought in international relations would hold to this – by what means does one decide who is a friend and who is an enemy?

Schmitt's answer is to ask one to reflect on one's own past. Schmitt, and many others after him, often reflected on Theodore Däubler's poem, "Sang an Palermo"

The enemy is our own question as a figure.

And he will hunt us, and we him to the end.[13]

"The question" here cannot be your personal psychological question; it has to be phrased in a manner that resonates through the ages. If Americans recognized Usama bin Ladin as the public enemy, it is because he is a figure from our own past. Our "own question" is: can a society born of religious dissent and built on toleration survive? This is not my question or yours, but presumably a question for all Americans. Enemies correspond to our own questioning myths. To an Iranian, Usama bin Ladin could not be the public enemy. The myths that animate that society are quite different, and they point to different enemies (Saddam Husayn, the Taliban, the Shah, and America). Bin Ladin, by appealing to the Caliphate, is animated by yet a different question: can Muslims survive the nightmare of pagan domination and secularism? And it points to a different public enemy.

It is tempting to put Schmitt's answer like this: we know the public enemy when we know ourselves. Figure out your question, and you will know the public enemy, domestic or international. But that is not quite right. We so easily deceive ourselves about our question that it takes the enemy, thrust on us providentially by history, to confront us with "our own question" and force us to "answer in doing".[14] Schmitt's answer is rather: "tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are."[15] A great leader proves his merit because he helps us grasp this self-knowledge by drawing out this confrontation. Schmitt praised leaders, like Mussolini, who used myth to mobilize people against the public enemy. Mussolini used the myth of ancient Rome to motivate popular support and maintain a strong state. He would no doubt find bin Ladin's appeal to the Caliphate equally praiseworthy. In these instances, among others, "political thought and political instinct thus prove themselves theoretically and practically in the capacity of distinguishing between friend and enemy."[16]

Even on Schmitt's own terms though, the use of myth to locate friend and enemy is not an easy one, and one that is easily abused. Schmitt himself seems to have drawn the distinction between myth well used and myth poorly used. While he praised Mussolini, he regarded the racially based Nazi policies as nothing but "a swindle."[17] Schmitt resisted the temptation to reduce the notion of enemy to "objective" markers such as race. He held to a constitutionalism that granted the state, not nature, the right to determine the identity of the public enemy and friend. The reason the public enemy was "objective" was not that it was written in the genes, but rather the institution of the state had the keenest sense of what, at that moment in history, posed the greatest danger to the common way of life. Schmitt was a Fascist, but he was not, in this respect, a Nazi. Still that raises a question: how can one know whether myth is well or poorly used?

Schmitt's response is that this is not the individual citizen's decision to make. Only the state has the rightful monopoly to determine who is a friend and who is an enemy. "In its entirety, the state as an organized political entity decides for itself the friend-enemy distinction."[18] The state is the inevitable expression of politics, the institution that transcends other groups concerned with ethics, religion, ideology and kinship, and forges a genuinely political association. States emerge as means of reducing conflicts (over property, ways of life etc.). States substitute for these private conflicts, the public enemy. They deny smaller associations the power to determine their enemies independently. What one surrenders to the state in the social contract is the power to judge subjectively what is necessary for one's own survival. This, for Schmitt, is another way of saying, "We cede to the state the power to determine who is the enemy of our way of life." It decides who is "objectively" the enemy. Above all, the state emerges historically as well as philosophically, as the institution that possesses a legal monopoly on violence. Either "it exists or does not exist. If it exists, it is the supreme, that is, in the decisive case, the authoritative entity."[19] Only it has "the right to demand from its own members the readiness to die and unhesitatingly to kill enemies."[20]

Ironically, Schmitt's solution is inadequate even for bin Ladin. Bin Ladin was asking what is an ordinary Muslim's duty in a world in which there is no legitimate state. How does he decide who is a friend and who is an enemy? Schmitt advises that he turn to the leader of his collectivity. This advice is not unlike bin Ladin's advice to find the true ulama and ask them. But this then raises the question: How does the leader (the religious scholar or the Caliph if we could find him) decide who is a friend and who is an enemy in practice?

It is all very fine and well to leave it to the institution, as long as the person in charge of the institution knows what he or she is doing. But what if the politician abused his power and named a private enemy as a public foe? Schmitt himself encountered this problem in the case of Hitler. In 1934, Hitler turned on many of his rivals, particularly leaders in the SA. Since Ernst Rohm and other SA leaders had plotted against the state, Hitler was right to name them as a public enemy. Hitler's actions were exonerated by reason of state. Other acts, however, such as Hitler's own private violence could not be exonerated.[21]

In explaining his own motivations for joining the Nazi Party (aside from gross opportunism), Schmitt apparently believed that "it is a duty under circumstances to advise a tyrant."[22] Yet, Schmitt did not appear to have any account of what this advice would be. He had, particular, no adequate answer to explaining how a ruler should be trained, and what a ruler should think about in selecting friend or foe.

What is interesting is how little modern political science has improved upon Schmitt's answer. Consider the dominant contemporary effort to locate friend and enemy today, Samuel Huntington's discussion of the class of civilizations.[23] Huntington begins by envisioning a clash between ways of life, conflicts at the broadest, most fundamental levels of group identity. Today, civilizations do not merely conflict; rather they have, as a result of encounter with each other, been put into question. They have yielded large social movements that identify their enemies as other ways of life. When these movements are militarized and take control of the state, conflict between enemies ensues.

But Huntington's effort is an exception to the rule. Most modern political scientists do not dabble in the business of advising rulers how they should think about selecting friend or foe, or what kind of training would be required to do that well. They advise as to the various means to engage the enemy (the relative effectiveness of diplomacy, sanctions or force), but not on ends. Still as in Schmitt, most political scientists view the state as the authoritative source of who is a friend and who is an enemy. Sometimes, as in Schmitt, the state is posited as a unitary rational actor, equivalent to a human being, who decides this question based on some calculation of its interests. At other times, it is viewed as a complex organization whose determinations may be explained by bureaucratic politics, limited information, historical experience, and psychological groupthink. In both cases, the state's stated preferences are taken as a given: they can be explained but not second-guessed.

And for their part, political theorists spend much time evaluating different theoretical justifications for the state, but they really have nothing to say about the training of rulers. Democratic theorists, committed as they are to the principle of amateurism, do not apparently think such training is required. Thus theorists, no less than empiricists, leave it to state institutions, theoretically justified and empirically explained, to figure out who is a friend and who is an enemy, who shall be sent to war and who shall die.

Three Touchstones of Classical Realism

East or West, classical realists took a different approach. I have chosen two rather different thinkers, Nicolo Machiavelli and the Persian Kai-Ka'us ibn Iskandar, if only to illustrate that, despite great differences in culture and orientation, there was consensus on several points. These were thinkers who, like Schmitt, accepted that the friend/enemy distinction was central to politics, [24] and who, like bin Ladin, appreciated as well how important it was to determine one's friends and enemies.

But what makes these thinkers classical realists is that they understood that the problem of friend and enemy was, foremost, a human problem. It could not be displaced into the realm of institutional decision-making. To be sure it could be trusted to some leader, but ultimately some human being had to decide, and the question was what kind of skills this person should have. And while these skills were especially relevant to rulers, they were no less relevant to ordinary citizens who confronted similar problems in their own lives.

Both Machiavelli's Prince and Kai-Ka'us ibn Iskandar's Qabusnameh focused on the cultivation of skills. In their respective traditions, they are considered exemplary advice books to rulers, what is known as the "Mirror for Princes" tradition, or what we would call in our more modern context, self-help books for rulers. Like other books in this tradition, they are not particularly interested in the theoretical justification of government.[25] They focus rather on the skills of statecraft, among them how to treat friends and enemies. Central to the practice of these skills was a grasp of three distinct problems, problems that modern realists cannot avoid yet consistently ignore. It might be helpful to lay them out analytically.

The first problem is that of the person who is hard to classify as either friend or enemy. At the outset of the Gulf War, in 1990, S. Kelley drew a cartoon in the San Diego Union Tribune. It shows an American soldier at a Saudi airfield with his gun pointed out toward the desert. The soldier shouts, "Halt! Who goes there…Friend or Foe? A bubble from the far right replies, "I'm Iranian." The soldier does not move. "That doesn't answer my question." Let me call this the problem of the non-friend. This problem raises the difficulty of resolving the world into those who are with us and those who are against us. Sooner or later, the problem of the non-friend rears its head, creating zones of ambiguity and indecision. "For one's friends, everything, towards one's enemies justice" is an old Brazilian saying, but there are a great many people who are neither and they still fall in the realm of public friendship.

While Schmitt spends a great deal of time explicating the public enemy, he spends little time explicating the concept of public friendship. Public friendship is in fact a far more problematic concept than Schmitt allows, but both Machiavelli and Kai-Ka'us are well aware of this. Machiavelli devotes the famous chapters on morality not on the treatment of enemies, but to the prince's relations with subjects and friends (amici). It is hardly noteworthy to argue that towards his enemies, a prince must sometimes be cruel, deceptive, and illiberal. What so scandalized his audience was that Machiavelli suggested that a prince might sometimes have to be hypocritical, unmerciful and ungenerous to his friends and subjects.

Classical realists understood that few political relationships could be understood as relationships of kinship (as bin Ladin suggests) or private friendships. Political relationships are ultimately relationships of dependence among people with varying interests and characters. Public friendship involves making amici, a term often translated as friends but is equivalent to allies (as opposed to true private friendship).[26] A prince requires both external allies and domestic support from his subjects (starting with his vizier and down to the populace). It is, says Kai-Ka'us, better to be "bereft of brothers than of friends" and "as long as men are alive, friends are indispensable to them."[27]

Among these friends, cautions Kai-Ka'us, "give a thought also to the people who are advancing towards friendship with you but are only quasi-friends, to whom you should make yourself well-disposed and affable, agreeing with them in all matters good or bad, and showing yourself favorably inclined towards them."[28] Public friendship involves a measure of hypocrisy for non-friends will not cooperate just because a ruler wants them too. Unlike private friendships, there is no altruistic motive at work because often their interests do not coincide with their own. Nor will it do to ignore these non-friends, class them as enemies because they are self-interested. "One's need is not always for good people; occasionally help in need comes from the bad ones, because what one can do cannot always be done by the other."[29] And, as Machiavelli observes, "For anyone who wants to act the part of a good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin for those he has to deal with will not all be good."[30] What is important, says Kai Ka'us, is not whether friends are good or bad, but what qualities and talents they have, and so:

Make friends with persons both good and bad and be affable with both classes of men, having sincere friendship with the good and making a show of friendship with your tongue towards the bad…Even though your connection with the wicked may displease the good, and, conversely your connection with the good displease the wicked, do you so order your life with both groups that the feelings of neither are injured by your actions. Yet do not attach yourself so closely to either group that the other becomes hostile to you; tread the path of wisdom and understanding and watch either side, thereby securing your safety.[31]

The path of safety does not necessarily require deception but it does require distrust. "Be your own especial friend and look before and behind yourself…Even though you possess a thousand friends, there will be none more friendly disposed towards you than yourself."[32]

Indeed, a second problem arises because one has too many public friends. Here again, this was illustrated in a recent cartoon. In December 2001, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Don Wright in the Palm Beach Post showed five Taliban standing shoulder to shoulder armed with machine guns and anti-aircraft missiles. The first says firmly "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The second points to the first and says, "My enemy is his best friend." The third says, "My enemy's friend has a friend who is my friend's enemy." The fourth asserts, "My friend's enemy is the enemy of my friends friendly enemy." And the last states, "the friend of my friend is the enemy of his friend's enemy's former friend."

I shall call this the problem of multiple actors. It is easy enough, to calculate enemies and friends in a universe of three actors. During the Cold War, modern political scientists were fond of modeling and predicting superpower behavior as a two-person game, Americans and Russians, and it was easy enough to assume that the goal of each side was world-dominance and each state would act to maximize this end. But reality is hardly such a limited universe, say the classical realists; politics is not a bounded game especially under conditions of uncertain information.

As the number of actors increase, not only is it more difficult to calculate who is one's enemy and who one's friend, it also becomes more difficult to calculate one's own political capabilities. It is well, says Kai-Ka'us, to strive to have more friends than enemies (he even suggests that the number of friends should be double that of enemies).[33] But he also notes that there is no percentage in playing the numbers game. For as the number of friends increases, so too does the possibility of inattention, neglect, deceit, and foolishness. A house with two mistresses is never swept, and a pot with two attendants never boils.[34] Many a prince, Machiavelli cautions, is surrounded by sycophants and judges himself safe only to find later that he is despised. After all, "his advisers will each think about his own interests."[35] And many a prince judges himself safe surrounded by paid armies but these men will "show off to your allies and run away with your enemies."[36]

The enemy of an enemy might be a friend. But he may also be a treacherous friend and a "treacherous friend" is just as dangerous as a powerful enemy.[37] The friends of your friends may also be friendly with your enemies, and "that may outweigh their friendship for you." Even "a foolish friend in his unwisdom can do [such harm] to you as a clever enemy could not." Alexander, it is true, gathered an empire by "winning over enemies by kindliness and gathering friends"[38] but "a thousand friends may be neglectful of their solicitude for you" while "that one enemy of yours will never forget his hatred."[39]

These dizzying efforts ultimately stymie in a nightmare of uncertainty and indecision. The problem of calculating friends and enemies yields a third problem, one that frustrates calculation to begin with, namely, the problem of appearances. "In general, men judge more by sight than by touch. Everyone sees what is happening but not everyone feels its consequences."[40] Sometimes the enemy disguises himself as a friend or the friend appears as an enemy. For example, bin Ladin opposes the pagan-enemy against the Muslim-friend. But he soon concedes that there are pagans who are friends, and Muslims who are really enemies. The "Enemy" thus includes both pagan enemies and friends; the "Friend" includes both Muslim friends and enemies. Each element in the opposition contains both elements of the opposition. What emerges is a negative dialectic, and if a yawning vertigo overtakes one at this point, this is surely understandable.

But this is not simply a matter of stripping appearance away to see people's bare motivations for these motivations can change. Politics is not simply about being a certain type of person (friend or enemy) but of becoming a certain type of person. Under different circumstances, the same person transforms into a friend or an enemy. Much depends on the skill of the ruler for it is a difficult alchemy. If you twist a rope up to a particular point, says Kai-Ka'us, the strands combine together, rendering the rope stronger; twist more, they are torn apart. Friends can become enemies and enemies, friends, and a wise man observes the proper measure in his conduct "whether in friendship or enmity."[41] Likewise, Machiavelli did "not embrace the public cynicism of the political 'realists'. That political negotiation could be conducted honestly, publicly, rationally and on the basis of interest alone, as if it were indistinguishable from economic negotiation, is not a realistic possibility. Political discourse will always include appeals to pride, honor, ambition, religion, loyalty, morals and principles."[42] And as long as such appeals are possible, not only can enemies appear to be friends but also enemies can be transformed into allies with the right skill.

The Answers of Classical Realism

Kai-Ka'us and Machiavelli did not resolve these three problems in the same way. Machiavelli offered answers that would have appalled Kai-Ka'us, or at least amused him. But, by the same token, their solutions share certain dimensions. Determining friends and enemies for both is not a matter of scientific calculation; political science is probably foolish, impossible and a waste of time. What is more important is cultivating an internal orientation of the self to deal with situations as they arise. Machiavelli championed virtu while Kai-Ka'us, drawing from Zoroastrian as well as Aristotelian sources, favored moderation. Cultivating oneself along one program or the other was the beginning of political wisdom.

That wisdom begins with how well one appreciates the three fundamental problems attendant to realist thought: the problems of appearance, non-friends, and multiple actors. Judged in this light, neither Machiavelli nor Kai-Ka'us would have thought much of bin Ladin's answer. If the Ladinese Epistles are ultimately unpersuasive and incoherent, it is because bin Ladin is either unaware or unable to resolve these three questions. The three problems serve as touchstones for classical realism, for if apparently 'realistic' thought shatters before them, one may well wonder how realistic it was to begin with. Much thought that passes as 'realistic' turns out to be nothing of the sort, and lacking in political wisdom.

For moderns, there is something attractive about Schmitt's answers. This is because he acknowledges the great subjectivity that governs a world of multiple actors, appearances, and non-friends. Schmitt concedes that nations need not be enemies forever and that it might be politically reasonable to treat certain actors as neutrals.[43] We simply can't know in advance and it would be foolish to tie the hands of statesmen. He leaves it to a great leader who engages some part of our founding myths in light of the circumstances. We are not qualified to answer it. The main lesson Schmitt draws from the three problems of classical realism is simply that these problems presuppose the friend-enemy distinction. No doubt, the classical realists would say, but this does not clarify how one go on to choose one's friends or enemies. Schmitt's answer is, in a word, evasive. Rather than answer the question, he simply displaces it from the citizen to the leader.

Machiavelli and Kai-Ka'us are – for all their aristocratic pretensions – more civic minded. They did not believe that political wisdom, the ability to tell public friend from public enemy, is something that only the true ulama or the Great Leader can know. Kai-Ka'us understood his advice to apply to all sorts of contexts, not merely the political life. And although Machiavelli was articulating a specifically political ethics, "his advice does apply outside the political sphere whenever private relations most resemble political ones" [44] – as he clearly illustrates in the Mandragola. It is no accident that even today Machiavelli's advice resonates with corporate executives, and The Prince can be found in business self-help sections in many bookstores. Public friendship characterizes all our lives, whether we choose to act politically or not. Much of what we want to achieve in our lives we cannot achieve alone, and we are often in situations of mutual dependence, with varying advantages and disadvantages, working out our plans with others.

What the classical realists aimed at was independence of judgment in the context of human dependence, what Schmitt calls public friendship. But Schmitt grounds public friendship in an odd way, not in a network of mutual dependence and convention, but in something fundamentally deeper, a way of life. A public friend is not merely someone with whom we are bound – either domestically or internationally – but someone who shares our way of public life. This shrinks the space of public friendship dramatically. Public friendship amounts to friendship with persons that think like us, live, marry and die like us, who conform as we do, just as the public enemy is someone who does not share these. It is no surprise that under these circumstances, Schmitt turns to founding myth (the question that pursues us) in identifying the public enemy, and entrusts that determination to an astute leader.

The classical realists did not trust myth as a guide in helping make the decision. Myth was for those who were incapable of political wisdom, but both Machiavelli and Kai-Ka'us thought there was a fairly broad class of citizens who could be cultivated. This was no doubt not as wide as we would like to see it today, but there is nothing inherent in the cultivation tradition itself that excludes people. Cultivation, unlike myth, is open to everyone.

There is then a lesson in the Ladinese Epistles, but not the lesson that Usama bin Ladin thinks. It is a lesson not for the Muslim who reads them, but for the realist. The distinction of friend and enemy may not be eliminated from politics, but this too is the case with attendant problems of multiple actors, non-friends, and mere appearances. The Ladinese Epistles show what happens when one ploughs ahead without paying sufficient attention to these problems. The more polarized the world, the easier it is for bin Ladin to make his case. To the uncultivated, he looks like political realism embodied. The more diversified the types and numbers of actors, the more the complexity of appearances is acknowledged, the more difficult it is for this kind of thinking to make a purchase or even to look vaguely realistic.

For the classical realists, anyone who cannot appreciate the place of public friendship, who reduces the world solely to true friends and dangerous enemies, is simply incapable of political thought. Politics is not a church as even bin Ladin is forced acknowledge when he somehow classifies pagans as part of the Dar al-Islam. It is neither a family nor a group of bosom buddies. It is not the mastery of myth nor a calculating science, but rather wisdom in public friendship.

Public friendship brings together people who may not share each other's interests and orientations. It begins with the recognition of mutual dependence, conformity to social convention that help us get along for the most part, and a care for public reputation. But one should not be so foolish to think that these boundaries cannot be broached. True friends signal this by setting aside formalities just as settled enmities require no pretense either.

But for the most part, politics – both domestic and international – is characterized by dependency and conflict, the willingness to accept slights and incivilities on the parts of others, the recognition that people are not likely to resemble us or find us particularly admirable. We should be grateful, in this respect, that, whether we are loved or feared, we are not despised – for this as Machiavelli observes is the worst fate that can befall a ruler or a country.[45]

It is a lesson worth remembering as we live in an age where people are confronted with simplistic solutions. In an age where information is incomplete and fear of the enemy is profound, what do people do when rationality fails? They reach for myth to cut through all the indecision. In the wake of 9/11, it is all too common to hear Americans ask, "Why do they (the public enemies) hate us?" and to respond "Because we are more tolerant, because we are so just, because we are so good. You hate our way of life, you are our enemy."

It is doubtful whether bin Ladin ever contemplated even for a second that American society was just or good, any more than a school bully taking lunch money wonders for a second whether being smart might have some virtue. But, nevertheless, al-Qaeda touches on the things we value most about our society and we project these in bitter reaction against the world. Schmitt would delight in such a reactive response. They confirm his view that thinking politically is simply a question of choosing friends and enemies in accordance with our founding myths.

But this is a temptation that one should strongly resist. Either we have good qualities or we do not, but all that depends on what we do, not how we cry out to the world or what myths we draw on to console ourselves. The latter is a sign of helplessness and self-doubt. Consider that a wise man never wonders what others may think of him; he is his own best friend and he is clear-eyed regarding about his own virtues and vices. He does not engage in wishful thinking about himself, nor does he overemphasize his subjective feelings over dispassionate analysts, nor does he draw poor inferences from limited facts or disparage alternatives he cannot face.[46]

There is, of course, a tradition of American foreign policy in line with classical realism. But there is no question that many Americans and their policy makers, no less than bin Ladin, are drawing the line: you are either with us or you are against us. The language is not religious of course, but it is nevertheless Manichean. Sometimes it is captured in phrases such as the Axis of Evil, and sometimes it is asserted in terms of barbarism. At Westpoint on 18 September 2001, a Gulf War general responded to a question about the state of the world in these terms, "The American people will depend on you and your fellow soldiers to step forward and stand between us and the barbarians."[47] And more recently, others have picked up the theme. "The threat," explains Richard Harknett, "is actually barbarism, which implies an effort to destroy as an end itself rather than as a means to pursue political objectives."[48]

What all this suggests to a classical realist is that generals and analysts have given up trying to understand the world about them and have chosen to fight it. For classical realists, even the enemy has interests, goals, and aspirations, and these elements have a history in which we not only played a part, but which we continue to shape. But if we cannot think clearly about all this, if all we can do is reduce the world to friends and enemies, then we have given up the ability to think politically.

Schmitt and bin Ladin would praise this reactive response, the response born out of ambiguity and anxiety, out of an uncertainty about whether our question has been answered (am I really that good?). Political myth responds to this reactive anxiety, herding it towards state purposes. No doubt it is easy to yield to the authoritative dictates of state authority, allowing it to designate who is for our way of life and who is against it. But when our leaders substitute myth for realism in determining who is the public enemy (whether the international or the domestic), all of us will suffer the consequences. For the truth, well known to classical realists, is that the world is bigger than all our philosophies and myths, and it has a remarkable capacity to escape our ability to hammer it into the way we want it to be.

[1] My thanks to Scott Woltze, whose interest in Schmitt stimulated my reflections on the friend/enemy theme. This article is one fruit of our discussions in the dark fall of 2001.

[2] The text is available on the internet at various websites. The version I have adopted was posted to the Washington Post website ( on September 21, 2001.

[3] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 25-27.

[4] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Book I.13 (p. 88).

[5] Schmitt, pp. 28-29.

[6] Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, trans. G. Schwab and E. Hilfstein (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 80.

[7] Ibid. , p. 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 26.

[10] Schmitt, Concept, p. 27.

[11] Ibid. p. 46.

[12] George Schwab, The Challenge of the Exception: An Introduction to the Political Ideas of Carl Schmitt Between 1921 and 1936 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989), pp. 94-97.

[13] Cited in Heinrich Meier, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy, trans. Marcus Brainard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 1, See also 44.

[14] Schmitt, cited in Meier, p. 46.

[15] Meier, p. 53.

[16] Schmitt, cited in Meier, p. 58.

[17] Schmitt, The Leviathan, p. xxix.

[18] Ibid. , pp. 29-30.

[19] Schmitt, p. 44.

[20] Schmitt, p. 46.

[21] See Schwab, p. 131-132; Woltze, p. 69.

[22] Schwab, p. 147.

[23] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

[24]For Schmitt's extensive and often unacknowledged debt to Machiavelli see Scott Woltze, Carl Schmitt and Niccolo Machiavelli: Ways of Thinking about Reason of State (Dissertation, Reed College 2002).

[25]See Aziz al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship (London:I.B. Tauris, 1997), pp. 83-114. That fact though does not make these works any less philosophically salient unless one is committed to the notion that unless it looks like Kant, it can't be philosophy.

[26] Ruth W. Grant, Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau and the Ethics of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 20. See Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince in Selected Political Writings, trans. David Wootton (Idianapolois: Hackett, 1994), p. 47.

[27] Kai Ka'us ibn Iskandar A Mirror for Princes: The Qabus Nama, trans. Reuben Levy (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1951), p. 127.

[28] Ibid., p. 128.

[29] Ibid., p. 129

[30] Machiavelli, p. 48.

[31] Kai Ka'us, p. 129.

[32] Ibid., p. 130.

[33] Ibid., p. 135.

[34] Ibid., p. 139.

[35] Machiavelli, p. 73.

[36] Ibid., p. 38.

[37] Kai Ka'us, p. 132.

[38] Ibid., p. 128.

[39] Ibid., p. 136.

[40] Machiavelli, p. 68.

[41]Kai Ka'us., p. 137.

[42] Grant, p. 52.

[43] Schmitt, p. 34-35.

[44] Grant, p. 25.

[45] Machiavelli, p. 71-72, 67.

[46] Jan Elster, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 35-41.

[47] General Barry R. McCafferty, Response to Questions of Cadets at Westpoint (xerox: 18 September 2001).

[48] Richard J. Harknett, "Barbarians At and Behind the Gates: The Loss of Contingency and the Search for Homeland Security", The Forum 1: 2, (2002) Article 1. See also Daniel Henninger "Civilization and Slaughter: "Concern" isn't enough when facing snipers, suicide bombers and rogue regimes," The Wall Street Journal (October 18, 2002).