Wisenheimer: Does John Kerry Mean What He Says?

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2003

Senator John Kerry’s call not too long ago for a “regime change” in Washington has created quite a stir. Republicans have blasted the timing of his statement, arguing that any criticism of a sitting president should be muted when the country is at war (a stricture the Republicans did not observe when the United States was involved in Kosovo).

In reply, Sen. Kerry rejected what he called “phony arguments” from the GOP that political candidates should mute their criticism of the commander in chief. “This is a democracy,” Sen. Kerry said in Iowa “We could be at war a year from now. Would we put the election on hold?”

But if the term “regime change” has any meaning beyond merely partisan rhetorical cuteness, Sen. Kerry’s call for one in the United States ought to open him to more than the charge that his timing is bad. If he means by “regime change” what the Pentagon means by the term, he is really nothing less than an opponent of republican government. We’re constantly told how smart Sen. Kerry is. Can it really be that he doesn’t understand the real meaning of what he said?

“Regime” is a French word derived from the Latin regere, to rule. Political philosophers from the time of Socrates have argued that there are a finite number of political systems by which rule can be exercised. For Greeks philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, rule was shaped by a politeia, a constitution. While politeia can be translated as constitution, it can also be rendered as “regime.”

The Greeks identified six regimes, three good (rule on behalf of the common good) and three bad (rule in the interest of the ruler alone) according to claims to rule by the one, the few, and the many. The bad regimes were degenerate forms of the good ones.

The good regime based on the rule of the one is kingship. The bad form is tyranny. The king rules in the interest of the people as a whole. The tyrant rules in his own interest. The good form of rule by the few is aristocracy, which means literally rule by the best (aristoi). The degenerate form is oligarchy, rule on behalf of a corrupt minority.

The good form of rule by the many is the republic or government balanced among the one, the few and the many. The Greeks applied the generic word for constitution — politeia — to this form. The Latin translation of politeia is res publica, from which “republic” is derived. Res publica can be rendered as “commonwealth” in English. The bad regime of rule by the many is democracy, which the Greeks understood as rule by the mob, or ochlocracy.

Based on this analysis, the president and the Pentagon are using the term “regime change” properly. They are seeking to replace a vicious tyranny with some other, more benign, form of rule. Is this really what Sen. Kerry wants for the United States — to replace the regime put in place by the Founders? Does he really desire the overthrow of republican government — the American commonwealth?

I doubt that this is true. What I am sure he really means is that he wishes for a change of administration — the replacement of George Bush by John Kerry.

Sen. Kerry makes much of his right to speak freely on topics of great importance. He surely possesses this right — the gift of a Constitution designed to protect the natural and political rights of American citizens. But he puts me in mind of the sophist (sophistes) of Socrates’s time. The sophist was one who used rhetoric not to seek the truth, but to achieve personal power. I’ve always thought a good translation of sophistes is “wiseacre” or “wisenheimer.” These descriptions seems to fit the junior senator from Massachusetts.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.