Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Folly on the Nile & The Calculus of History

At the conclusion of War and Peace, Tolstoy mocks the idea that strategies produce results,

"Napoleon could not have commanded an invasion of Russia and never did so. Today he ordered such and such papers to be written to Vienna, to Berlin, and to Petersburg; tomorrow such and such decrees and orders to the army, the fleet, the commissariat, and so on and so on..."
But none of these acts, Tolstoy says, went beyond being just papers, and papers cause nothing.

Rhetorically, Tolstoy asks: "Is the ferment of the peoples of the west at the end of the eighteenth century and their drive eastward explained by the activity of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, their mistresses and ministers...?" Leaders will assure us, he says, that their activity represents the activity of the people. In fact it is the other way around, the calculus of history is driven by the aggregation and coincidence of millions of individual impulses springing from a myriad of private fears and purposes.

Why did the French invade Russia? Because the impetus of the nation drove them there; and when the impetus was spent they receded back home. The letters and orders of Napoleon simply coincided with the will of the people; other letters he wrote, which did not, are simply forgotten.

Beholding the events in Tunis, Egypt and now Jordan, one could not but think of Tolstoy.

The parade of folly is hilarious. We are told (incessantly) that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth. We have missiles, and carriers and gizmos and whizmos that can detect and destroy an ant from outer space! And yet, our vast spy apparatus, data crunchers and warrens of analysts could detect nothing in the streets of Cairo?

Caught flat footed Obama, "the most powerful man in the world," president of "the most powerful nation on earth," could only manage to say that,

"As we monitor the situation in Egypt, we urge all parties to refrain from using violence, .... The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, ... The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals."[1]
This was officialeze for "Oh shit!" But note the curious bifurcation of "Egypt" from the "Egyptian people".

Four days later, on 29 January, we were informed that,

"At 1:00 pm today, the President convened a meeting of his national security team at the White House. ... The President was updated on the situation in Egypt. He reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt." [2]
A day later,

The Vice President and Bahraini King exchanged views of the situation and agreed to stay in close contact going forward. [3]

Not to be left out, Secretary of State, Hilarity Clinton upped the funnies by telling us that the United States has been working with our friend, Hosni, for the past 30 years trying to figure out ways to get democracy to happen in Egypt,

"And for 30 years, the United States, through Republican and Democratic administrations, has been urging the Mubarak government to take certain steps. In fact, we’ve been urging that a vice president be appointed for decades, and that finally has happened.

"But there’s a long way to go, Chris, and our hope is that we do not see violence; we see a dialogue opening that reflects the full diversity of Egyptian civil society, that has the concrete steps for democratic and economic reform that President Mubarak himself said that he was going to pursue...." [4]
Why does this sound like, "for 30 years I've been trying to get him to mow the lawn"? That Hosni! He just takes our billions and won't pursue democracy. It's so exasperating.

Lots of memos.... lots of memos...

Studiously not told us by the New York Times is that the abnormal silence blanketing Israel was due to the fact that Bibi and cabinet were huddled over their phones calling European capitals, frantically imploring them to "back Hosni; back Hosni; for G-d's sake don't desert Hosni." (Thank you, Haaretz) [5]

Of course, if Bibi was on the phone to Warsaw, he surely had time for a chat with Washington?

The elite at Davos were no different from the Israeli cabinet, only they were huddled over their cell phones in lounges and lobbies. One has to conjure up the scene. Davos is where the Elite and HinWis (High Net Worth Individuals) of the World gather together, as en famile, to take stock of their plundering and to conspire up ways to sack yet more loot from an exhausted world.

They all know, or know of or would like to better know, one another. They greet eachother in the plush and brass-fixtured hallways with hearty handshakes, cordial embraces and even kisses. They inquire after one another's daughters, yachts and "uh ... that thing you were doing in Brazil with Repsol...."

Now, they are anxiously trying to get through to their ministers, secretaries, bank officers and mistresses while they squeeze all the kisses, hugs and chez nous shmooze, into quick glances and twitches of a smile that will have to do for just now.

Last but certainly not silent are the pundits of the world like Thomas Friedman who, reporting from (yes) Davos, gave us a 15 minute demonstration of prognostications in oracle-eze, seeming to say something (anything!) but never quite...

It all serves to evoke the ancient refrain: dispersit superbos in mente cordis suis -- he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts.

None other than the master strategist, Nicolo Machiavelli, reminded his readers that the Prince for all his nefarious arts cannot succeed if he looses the goodwill of his subjects. A wise Prince ought then to know that, at some point in the calculus of history, there will always be a confluence of despair and disgust when goodwill is lost, assent is withdrawn and people walk away from their leaders.

Why is it that the proud and powerful always seem to forget that?

©WoodchipgGazette, 2011

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/statement-press-secretary-egypt
[3] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/31/readout-vice-president-s-call-bahraini-king-hamad-bin-isa-al-khalifa-dis