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Man of the World

Michael Ledeen's adventures in history

MICHAEL A. LEDEEN enjoys writing about intellectuals who are also adventurers, thinkers who test out their theories in the din of political battle: figures like Gabriele D'Annunzio, the "poet-warrior" who led an insurrectionary Italian militia that captured the Adriatic city of Fiume in 1919; James Jesus Angleton, the Yale-trained literary critic who became the head of counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency; and, especially, Machiavelli, the political theorist and would-be adviser to the Borgia clan.

"Nobody else has dealt with the political and moral requirements of leadership with such brutal clarity as Machiavelli," Ledeen argues in his admiring book "Machiavelli on Modern Leadership" (1999). ". . . He spent most of his time in combat, on the battlefield or in the courtroom or the legislative chamber. He did not expect or desire to be carried off to scholarly libraries.

"The same combination of worldly and intellectual activity can be seen in Ledeen's controversial career. In addition to penning more than a dozen books, contributing countless articles to various journals, and holding court on foreign policy issues as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Ledeen has often come out from behind the writer's desk to participate in the rough-and-tumble of politics.

During the Reagan years, he served as an adviser to Secretary of State Alexander Haig and national security adviser Robert McFarlane, in which capacity he helped arrange meetings between the US government and Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, thus becoming a minor figure in the Iran-Contra saga. These days, according to The Washington Post, he talks frequently with Bush strategy guru Karl Rove. In the current debate over "regime change" in Iran, Ledeen is a major voice for an aggressive US policy to overthrow the mullahs, which he sees as but one small part of his vision of an American-led "global democratic revolution."

It's an impressive resume for a man who spent the early part of his career scouring Italian archives to research several serious scholarly works on European fascism. But what's the link between Ledeen the historian and Ledeen the swashbuckling advocate of a hard-line foreign policy?

Born in Los Angeles in 1941 to an engineer father and schoolteacher mother, Ledeen credits his upbringing as the source of his scholarly interests. "A fairly religious Jewish person growing up in the `50s inevitably did a lot of thinking about the Holocaust," Ledeen noted in a recent e-mail interview. "I spent 15 years studying fascism, trying to understand how something so awful could have happened, and obviously, resolved to fight it and similar things in the future."

After getting an undergraduate degree from Pomona College in Claremont, Ca., in 1963, Ledeen enrolled in the history program at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied under George Mosse, a giant in the field of European cultural history. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Mosse studied the manner in which fascists won mass support not through their ideas but through mastery of public spectacle. In addition, he traced the roots of fascist culture deep into European history. At the heart of Mosse's methodology was a commitment to historical empathy, to "seeing fascism as it saw itself and as its followers saw it."

Ledeen adopted Mosse's methodology, but used it to draw a quite different conclusion. A lifelong internationalist and socialist, Mosse always looked at nationalism with an outsider's eyes. By contrast, Ledeen displayed an activist's interest in deploying sacred nationalist mythology for contemporary political purposes. For Ledeen, early 20th-century European mass politics, rooted in a half-millennium-old cultural legacy, could serve as a wellspring for reinvigorating contemporary middle-class nationalism, particularly in the United States.

In his first book, "Universal Fascism" (1972), based on his doctoral thesis, Ledeen drew a strong connection between two seemingly different intellectual currents: the fascist cult of youth and the attempt in the mid-1930s to form a fascist international. Both tendencies, he demonstrated, grew out of the disillusionment of younger intellectuals with the first decade of Mussolini's reign. Since the Duce had failed to radically transform Italian society, his more idealistic followers now dared to hope that the younger generation all across Europe would form a confederation of radical nationalists that would reject the virulent racism of German fascism.

Ledeen further explored the cultural dimension of politics in his best work of pure scholarship, "The First Duce: D'Annunzio at Fiume" (1977). Here, Ledeen describes how the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio led a military coup to capture the port city of Fiume in 1919, which he feared would be handed over to Yugoslavia by the great powers in the diplomatic aftermath of World War I. Bringing romantic aesthetics to politics, D'Annunzio won the hearts of the city with a barrage of innovative rituals including "daily marches in the countryside, . . . speeches from the balcony . . . [and] dialogues with the crowd." Far from being a historical oddity, Ledeen argued, D'Annunzio helped invent modern politics: "D'Annunzian political style -- the politics of mass manipulation, the politics of myth and symbol -- have become the norm in the modern world."

Reviewing "The First Duce" in The New York Review of Books, the cultural journalist Luigi Barzini called Ledeen one of the best historians of modern Italy. But by then Ledeen had already abandoned academia for a career as a Washington journalist and political insider. He had also begun the now-familiar neoconservative trek from left -- he opposed the Vietnam War and voted for McGovern in 1972 -- to right. (Today, he rejects the label "conservative." "I have always thought of myself as a `liberal democrat' in the sense that Walter Lippmann used the word," he wrote via e-mail.)

An important way station on this journey was a curious formation called the Social Democrats, U.S.A. (SDUSA), an outgrowth of Norman Thomas's old Socialist Party that argued for strong labor unions at home and militant anticommunism abroad. A 1977 speech on democracy and human rights, reprinted in the SDUSA's journal, prefigured his subsequent calls for the United States to spread democracy across the globe."

Any discussion of America and human rights must begin with the recognition that this country was created in a revolutionary period and that the democratic revolution -- of which America is but one element -- is, by its nature and of necessity, universal," Ledeen declared. ". . . It is crucial for us to remember that the 18th-century revolutionaries and statesmen who created this country recognized that it is impossible for [democracy] to flourish if it is limited to a small corner of the world. The revolution, in other words, must be exported."

These themes resonated in the 1980s, when many one-time members of the SDUSA (including Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Carl Gershman, current president of the National Endowment for Democracy) allied themselves with the Reagan administration. The call for the United States to be at the forefront of a global crusade to spread democracy became one of the defining features of neoconservative ideology, a heady brew of American nationalism and an internationalist crusade for democracy that transcended traditional left-right divisions.

But there is another, less ringing, strain in Ledeen's thinking. "To be an effective leader, the most prudent method is to ensure that your people are afraid of you," Ledeen wrote in "Machiavelli on Modern Leadership." "To instill that fear, you must demonstrate that those who attack you will not survive."

Ledeen is especially contemptuous of leaders he regards as weak and corrupt, such as Bill Clinton. In a 1999 article in the scholarly journal Society, he warned of dire consequences if Clinton were not impeached. "New leaders with an iron will are required to root out the corruption and either reestablish a virtuous state, or to institute a new one. . .," he wrote. "If we bask in false security and drop our guard, the rot spreads, corrupting the entire society. Once that happens, only violent and extremely unpleasant methods can bring us back to virtue."

In a March 2003 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Ledeen dismissed worries that the American public would lose heart if there were too many casualties in the then-imminent Iraq war. "All the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people and that we love war. . .," Ledeen declared. "What we hate is not casualties but losing."

The Ledeen enigma -- extolling democracy while calling for iron political discipline -- can be traced back to what he has called "the usual Machiavellian paradox: Compulsion -- or necessity, as he terms it -- makes men noble, and enables them to remain free, while abundant choice is dangerous, leads to chaos, and leaves men at the mercy of their enemies." Ledeen fears that some elements of society have forgotten the virtue of such compulsion. "The generals, the businessmen, and the athletic coaches know this, but the political leaders and journalists often forget it."

Ledeen, however, claims his own politics are perfectly mainstream. "I think of myself as a fairly typical American," he claimed in the e-mail interview. "I hate tyranny, and I dread mass movements because they often produce the worst sort of tyrannies, the ones that genuinely inspire passionate followers. I love freedom and clearly have a strong anarchist streak, which I come by honestly. My uncle Izzy Brody was a Russian anarchist who came to America in search of freedom, and found it."

Jeet Heer is a regular contributor to the National Post of Canada and the Globe. Dave Wagner's latest book is "Hide in Plain Sight," a history of the Hollywood blacklist.

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