Any movie with Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI is bound to be good, even if his 1981 History of the World, Part I was a bit of a mess. Maybe it was supposed to be a mess, because the world is a mess and always has been a mess, but Brooks gets to deliver that one line everyone remembers from that elaborate bagatelle – “It’s good to be the king!”
It was, but only for a short time. The peasants revolted of course, and then it wasn’t good to be the king at all, and of course Brooks was doing a goof on the persistent notion that those in charge always seem to have, the idea that they’re actually in charge. They aren’t. Things don’t work that way, which was the whole point of that movie, and probably the basis for all comedy. Still, people don’t get the joke. Think about it. Every worker in America ends up fantasizing about being the boss, or being his or her own boss. As boss, they could do things right for a change. They could force others to do things right too.
That would be so cool, and then the inevitable promotions come along and that worker ends up in management with Mel Brooks giggling in the background. Damn. You can’t do what you want – there are cost and schedule restraints, and the market for your goods or services can suddenly turn elsewhere for better or cheaper stuff – and those who work for you don’t seem to be doing quite what you want, as they have ideas of their own, or personal issues. Fine – that happens. But fire them, and replace them with folks who are more submissive and compliant, and in a few months you’ll discover that those who seemed refreshingly submissive and compliant quickly turned out to be just as pesky as those you showed the door. There’s no winning. It’s not good to be king. That was the joke all along. People should pay more attention to Mel Brooks.
Dick Cheney and William Kristol and the rest of the remaining neoconservatives, and John McCain and the rest of the Republicans, should pay more attention to Mel Brooks. Their notion seems to be that if Obama is the boss he should act like one – he should slap down Putin for his nonsense in the Crimea and now eastern Ukraine, even if it means war – and he should have slapped down Assad in Syria, and told Malaki we were keeping our troops in Iraq no matter what Malaki or any of his folks said, and we should say the same to whoever ends up running Afghanistan now, and we should stop those talks with Iran on ending their nuclear weapons program, if that’s what it is. Tell them to stop it or we’ll nuke them to make them stop it – plain and simple.
That’s what leadership is, even if it means war again, or many wars again. Maybe no one wants another war or two, or three or four, but Kristol has said that a real leader would rally the nation to the great cause – every single young man in America, or every young single man in America, would drop everything and run off to enlist. Obama can’t do that because he’s a weak leader – he doesn’t know how to bend people to his will. He doesn’t know how to be boss. He’s hopeless. Dick Cheney’s new career is telling America just that – repeatedly saying that Obama is the weakest president he has seen in his lifetime – and this had made America weak. No nation will bend to our will any longer.
This notion took some odd turns last year, with Mitt Romney saying that Vladimir Putin is a far better president that Obama could ever be – then walking that back, and he certainly hasn’t said that lately. His point, however, was clear. Real leaders are bold. They do what they want and take what they want and set things right, no matter who is whining about what. Not that long ago that was the buzz – the American people agreed that Putin was cool, a great leader, and Obama was hopeless. Putin even sent the gay folks off to Siberia. He’s even a better Christian than Obama is, if Obama is even a Christian.
No one is saying that now, after Putin’s guys in eastern Ukraine shot down that passenger jet and killed three hundred men and women and (lots of) children, but that talk was in the air not so long ago, and that’s always been in the air. Back in 2006, when Iraq was falling apart, John McCain, in Manhattan for an exclusive fundraiser, explained what a real leader would do about that:
In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.
“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,'” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.
Hey, when you’re Boss of the World, when you’re in charge of things, they’d have to stop the bullshit. They’d have no choice, and now those on the right are saying the same sort of thing. Obama should tell Putin to stop the bullshit in eastern Ukraine, and tell Hamas to stop the bullshit in Gaza and just let the Israelis have it all and do what they want, and also tell Iran to stop their bullshit with those nuclear reactors and all those centrifuges, and as for Sunnis these days, Obama should just tell ISIS to stop their bullshit about building an new Islamic Sunni caliphate in the middle of a lot of actual countries over there. In short, show some leadership. Take charge. Be a man. It’s all very simple. They’d have to be submissive and compliant. They’d have no choice.
Mel Brooks is still giggling, because it really isn’t good to be king. Take charge and resentments grow and grow, until they explode, and you’re never really in charge anyway. Even last year’s hero on the right, Vladimir Putin, is finding that out. Things turned on him:
As a military trumpet sounded in tribute, the first bodies of victims from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday after an airborne journey from Ukraine.
Sixteen coffins were aboard a Dutch military flight and 24 aboard an Australian jet, both of which left the northeast Ukrainian city of Kharkiv after a solemn ceremony. They landed a couple of hours later at Amsterdam’s small Eindhoven airport to a somber reception from King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and others.
Black hearses pulled up on the tarmac to receive the coffins. A moment of silence was observed.
Wednesday was an official day of mourning in the Netherlands, with bells tolling throughout the country at various times of the day. Flags on all Dutch government buildings and diplomatic missions around the world were ordered to fly at half-staff.
These are the first of the hundreds of bodies that will be arriving and this is not what Putin intended. There weren’t supposed to be all these dead kids. He was the bold guy who took Crimea, because he could, and was going to take eastern Ukraine, and he would be awesome and make Obama look like a fool. His daughter lives in the Netherlands and now they want to deport her – they know what happened. They cannot do anything about him, but they don’t have to host this jerk’s daughter. Their own kids are dead.
Louis XVI eventually faced the same thing. Eventually it’s not good to be king, and at Business Insider, Bill Nichols explains the new panic in the Kremlin:
The one emotion most of us who study Russia never associate with the men of the Kremlin is panic. They’re not the type. They’re more like mobsters, prone to say “we have a problem,” rather than to freak out.
They think everything has a solution, although sometimes that solution might mean someone has to take nine grams of lead behind the ear.
They do not raise their voices – my experience is that most Russian tough-guys are mumblers, not yellers – and they get things done, even if the final outcome might lack a certain, say, elegance.
That’s why it’s unusual to see the government of Vladimir Putin, and maybe even Putin himself, panicking over the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight 17. For the first time in a long time, maybe even since Putin’s first election to power, the Russian regime has a problem it cannot solve, one that will cost the Kremlin in both money and reputation.
They were in charge, chipping away at Ukraine without leaving any fingerprints, but that’s changed now:
We have a mountain of evidence that the Russians were up to their necks in this. The BUK is a Russian system, found in both Ukraine and Russia, but it looks like the Russians brought some over the border, along with Russian military intelligence guys – the men actually running this “partition Ukraine” operation – and they taught some of the locals, including transplanted mercenary “separatists,” how to use them. The thing is, the BUK is really too complicated to use without adult supervision, and that’s especially true of a battery.
And now we get to the panic. Evidence is mounting not only that the BUK that killed MH17 came from Russia, but that the firing on the airliner was either supervised or ordered, or even operated, by Russian personnel.
If this is the case, the “lone rebel with an itchy trigger finger” theory goes out the window, and the “Russia is running a reckless and undeclared air war inside Ukraine” theory comes into sharp focus. Suddenly, an act of terrorism becomes an act of interstate war, directed with subterfuge and deniability… with the goal of dismembering the Ukrainian state.
Nichols imagines the briefings Putin got:
No, Mr. President, we will sweep any Ukrainian military jets from the sky. Yes, Mr. President, we will control their airspace, and paralyze them, until they accept partition, as we did with Crimea. No, Mr. President, we are professionals and there is no chance of error or detection. We have trained to fight Americans. This will be a piece of cake. …
And then a few weeks later, some somber-looking, sorry bastard walks in and says: Sir, we have a problem…
It was our stuff. Our missile. Our goons. Commanded by our officers. Yes, we’ve been caught on camera. Yes, there was some clumsiness on social media. No, we have not allowed anyone near the crash site, but we can’t hold it off forever. The men involved are in hiding. Except Strelkov, who has said the plane was full of dead bodies. (He freelanced that one, sir.)
How far does this go, Mr. President? Well, sir – and here the aide might shuffle some papers uncomfortably to avoid noting that the orders came from the very top – we can deny it all, but sooner or later the trail leads back through military intelligence to special channels in the military, to special channels here in the President’s office, to… well, you know…
The game is up, and Nichols is not surprised by their next steps:
Put out the story that Ukraine was responsible. Suggest the plane was off course and thus imply it was doing something nefarious. (Didn’t we work that angle in the 1983 crash?) Pledge our cooperation, but tell those idiots in Donetsk we want the black boxes in Moscow immediately. Don’t talk to the Western press. Send Churkin to take his obligatory ass-whipping from Sam Power…
But most importantly, keep doubling-down on everything.
Make sure the crash site belongs to us and no one else. Obfuscate as much as possible about who was doing what, and where. Suggest the Ukraine military planned this all along. See if you can dig up old stories about that Iranian plane the Americans hit, what was it? Iran 655? Yeah, work that for a while.
Yeah, we sort of did do the same thing in 1988 – we accidentally shot down a passenger plan and killed almost exactly the same number of people – but this is different. Nichols says the Russians’ mistake is a little different:
Panic in Moscow is hard to spot, but even from 6000 miles away, it’s easy to smell, and the metallic stink of fear is rising off the palace offices of the Russian executive as if from the gurneys in a cancer ward on the morning of an operation.
The only question, really, is how far Putin wants to go toward a trade war, economic collapse, further status as a pariah, maybe even open war, only in order to save face. The conventional wisdom is that he has to cut the insurgency loose.
Maybe. But if he doesn’t want to, he may settle for leaving a grinding conflict in place for now, in which he will claim that any real investigation and closure is impossible. He can then place his hopes in the West’s short attention span, and wait until all this blows over.
It won’t blow over:
I suspect the investigation, the tick-tock of the moments before the BUK fire, is already clear enough and widely distributed enough that we have the complete case against the “separatists” with a bill of particulars that stretches right to the rug in front of Putin’s desk.
And he knows it, and he knows that we know it. And until he finds a way to square this circle, panic – and more death – will be the order of the day.
Actually, all the signs are that he now knows he has lost control over the guys fighting his clever separatist war eastern Ukraine – those guys won’t even listen to him now. He’s not the good guy now and not even in control of things. Panic might be appropriate, but things had been going so well. Drat. It’s good to be king? That’s a joke.
The same sort of thing is happening in Gaza. The Israelis are in charge and they’ve had just about enough of Hamas, and they have all the power to wipe them out, and will do so. Their modern military is ten thousand times stronger than whatever ragtag crap that Hamas can come up with – mostly lots of high-trajectory missiles, ballistic missiles not guided missiles, rockets really, that can’t hit a damned thing except by chance, and ambushes and an occasional bomb in a café or bus. This will also be a piece of cake, although what has happened so far makes Israel seem like bullies. They do have the right to protect themselves – but the kill-ratio looks bad. That runs about two hundred to one, and there are too many dead Palestinian kids. It’s hard to get warm fuzzy feelings about Israeli heroes when four kids are blown away while playing soccer on a beach, or they blow up a Palestinian hospital. At least they don’t shoot down passenger planes, but they’re not as in charge there as they think they are.
Zack Beauchamp in this item takes a look at Israel’s new strategy in Gaza, based on the idea that “Israel would have to live with a certain level of threat but would use its military to occasionally weaken those threats and ensure they didn’t ever reach truly existential proportions.”
Beauchamp sees some flaws in that:
Obviously, Israel recognizes that the threats from groups like the Gaza-based militant group Hamas aren’t the same as the Cold War-era threats it faced from Arab invasions. So it’s developed a new version of its long-held threat management strategy, which is often called “mowing the grass.” It’s a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But that’s the basic analogy: Hamas, like grass, can’t disappear, but it can be regularly cut down to size. And, like mowing the grass, it’s implied that this is a routine that will be continued forever.
According to Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, Israeli academics based at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the basic difference between “mowing the grass” and Israel’s old strategy is that the end-goal has changed. In the era of wars with Arab conventional armies, Israel hoped that eventually “a long and violent struggle, punctuated by decisive battlefield victories, could eventually lead Arab states to accept the notion of Israel’s permanence.” In other words, Israel believed that its threat-management strategy would eventually lead to peace, which in cases such as Egypt it did.
Israel does not believe the same thing today about applying this strategy to non-state militant groups. Israel sees Hamas and other militants as “implacable enemies, who want to destroy the Jewish state and there is very little Israel can do on the political front to mitigate this risk.”
Fine, but “mowing the grass” will not make Israel safe:
Israel’s approach to Arab states worked, after a fashion, because it accomplished critical political ends. Some of Israel’s greatest enemies, such as Egypt and Jordan, gave up on the quest to destroy Israel. They’ve even signed peace treaties with Israel, making the Jewish state far more secure than it was during the Cold War.
But there’s no equivalent political endgame in mind here. Israel has no vision for how to “solve” the Hamas problem, which means rocket fire and periodic crises are inevitable for the foreseeable future. In both 2009 and 2012, Israel fought similar wars against Hamas, both designed to stop rocket fire out of Gaza. Yet here we are today.
In the New York Times, Gershon Baskin argues they got it wrong, because there is no military solution here:
The underground bunkers are protecting the Hamas leadership and its military commanders. Those taking the hits are the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Not a single important Hamas commander has been killed, but hundreds of civilians have paid with their lives. … The Hamas regime can be brought down by Israel; Israel has the capabilities to do this. But it will require a full reoccupation of Gaza for an extended period of time and in the end, I fear the Israeli victory in Gaza will look very much like the victory of George W. Bush over Saddam Hussein – and look at Iraq today.
Wait! George Bush was a “strong” president. He did what he wanted – damn the Geneva Conventions and international law. Could it be that that’s foolish? Don’t tell Dick Cheney.
Also in the New York Times, Daniel Levy argues that there always has been an alternative to Israeli big-stick strength:
Perhaps start by not denying another people’s rights in perpetuity, including the right to self-determination. Reverse the current incentive structure that reciprocates both Fatah demilitarization and Hamas cease-fires with variations on an Israeli brand of deepening occupation. There is no military solution, but Israel’s government refuses any political solution – neither it nor the governing Likud Party have ever voted to accept a Palestinian state. Hamas’s non-recognition of Israel is troubling, and so should this be.
Humans do not respond well to humiliation, repression and attempts to deny their most basic dignity. Palestinians are human. Palestinians will find ways to resist – that is human – and sometimes that resistance will be armed. … What would you do under such circumstances? Start by treating the Palestinians as humans, as you yourself would wish to be treated.
That would be a start, but Alex Massie suggests that might be impossible:
Israel’s tragedy – or rather, one strand of the several tragedies threatening Israel – is that it feels obliged to follow a course of action in which it cannot quite believe. It must do something, make some response to Palestinian provocation even though any such response offers at best a period of temporary relief and, quite probably, will make matters worse in the longer-term. But what else can she do? Doing nothing is not an option either.
The rockets fired from Gaza are a kind of trap. Hamas knows that and so does Israel and so do all the rest of us. But Israel will fight anyway because it cannot avoid doing so even though if fights on ground that is not of its choosing and on terrain upon which, in terms of international opinion, it cannot possibly win. It is futile and counter-productive and unavoidable.
It’s the trap of not being in control when, given who has what capabilities, you should be. That’s not fair and that’s not right, but Andrew Sullivan is not cutting Israel any slack here:
Hamas did not initiate this round of conflict. Netanyahu used the murder of three Israeli teens by a splinter Hamas group often at odds with Hamas proper to sweep across the West Bank, and imprisoning countless Hamas operatives and supporters who had nothing to do with the horrible crime. And he did so while suppressing the full facts at his disposal and whipping up the Israeli populace to a Putinesque degree. Equally, Israel is not a victim when it comes to the settlements. It can choose to end them but has instead chosen to accelerate them as its most important priority. This empowers Hamas as much as it undermines Abbas.
Those in power in Israel have always had these choices. They still do. They had a super-power willing and able to hold their hands through the entire process and an international community committed to Israel’s security in return for some basic equity for the Palestinians. Netanyahu didn’t only say no; he did all he could to humiliate president Obama and even back his opponent in 2012.
This cul-de-sac has always been a choice. And I’m tired of finding excuses for the inexcusable crime of the settlements – a permanent and constant provocation every day.
Now imagine Mel Brooks strutting around in that movie, in his powder wig and velvet pantaloons, blurting out that it’s good to be king. Now imagine Netanyahu doing the same thing, and Putin doing the same thing. It is the same thing. Now pretend it’s a comedy. That’s the hard part.