Entry from December 9, 2008

In my last post I suggested that the longest-lasting legacy of the Iraq War might be the paralysis of America’s foreign and defense policy when it comes to dealing with even the most egregious and destabilizing of failed states or rogue regimes. In today’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen provides a good example of this paralysis precisely where I expected it to appear, in Zimbabwe. “What I would like to do,” he writes, “— not that you’ve asked — is have a Predator drone circle over Robert Mugabe”s luxurious villa until this monster of a dictator who has brought such misery to Zimbabwe runs screaming from his home and into the arms of his own people. What happens after that is none of my business.”

As so often with this columnist, you’ve got to wonder if he knows how silly he is being, or if this is just an unusually heavy-handed — even for him — attempt at humor. But somewhere beneath the badinage the serious reflection seems to be lurking that sending troops would be illegitimate but sending robots would somehow be all right:

If Mugabe were gone, chances are the situation would improve — although I am aware that removing Saddam Hussein initially made things worse in Iraq. I am aware, too, that deposing foreign leaders breaks all sorts of international understandings. Still, the man’s a thug, and thugs should be dealt with.

Except when they shouldn’t be, of course. Except when dealing with them leads to, you know, war. Mr Cohen re-reads JFK’s inaugural for “inspiration” but remembers that all that fine-sounding rhetoric led to Vietnam. In short, we can do nothing. “Mugabe is no fool. He knows the fight has gone out of us.”

Condi Rice routinely condemns Mugabe. Much of the rest of the world does, too. Yet he persists, using his security forces and the wise dispersion of graft to remain in power. The example of Iraq forbids the United States to act. We are all realists now. Our grand cause is to have none at all. Still, a single Predator could do wonders. At the very least, it would lift the shame.

The sad thing is that the Bush administration in Pakistan seems to have taken the same attitude to remote controlled death-dealing by Predator drone: somehow, we assume, if a robot does it, you can’t accuse us of colonialism or violating international law or any of the other things the administration has been accused of.

By the way, I should have mentioned among the international situations we are apparently unable to do anything about the Somali pirates of the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and, now, even the Indian Ocean. Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal compares them to the lawless and occasionally drone-hunted tribesmen of Pakistan’s North West Frontier and sees the only possibility that either will be prevented from further depredations lies in both regions’ being brought under international control — which is another way of saying that he sees no way that either will ever by prevented from further depredations.

Meanwhile, in The Washington Post, David Montgomery was finding it amusing to compare these pirates with the more familiar kind in our movies, televisions and theme parks. “Every pirate’s legacy goes through three phases,” he writes, lumping the Somalis with their historical and fictional counterparts:

First, there is the real historical pirate, as cruel, criminal and charismatic as he (sometimes she) may be. Then that buccaneer is transformed into a swashbuckling protagonist in multiple media. Finally, he ends his days as a figure of caricature and merchandise. Sir Henry Morgan (circa 1635-88) sacked Spanish possessions in Central America and tortured captives for clues to the location of more treasure. He became a character in a 1932 sea yarn by novelist Rafael Sabatini, which inspired Hollywood”s 1942 epic The Black Swan (Tyrone Power, Maureen O”Hara). Today he”s best known as the mustachioed dandy on bottles of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum. Yo ho ho. . . Until the Somali pirates came along, the pirate stealing the most headlines this century was Jack Sparrow, whose origins as an amusement park ride predate Johnny Depp and the billion-dollar-plus Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Yet real history — actual deeds, despicable though they may be — underlies our fascination with the Somali pirates. The foundation of all pirate romance and marketing is awe and a little bit of envy at authentic roguish derring-do. You couldn”t make up the defiant last-stand sword fight of Blackbeard (Edward Teach, circa 1680-1718) on a ship”s deck at Ocracoke Island, N.C. And it’s incredible that Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts (circa 1682-1722), one of the most “successful” pirates until now, reputedly commandeered 400 vessels in a three-year pirate career. But is it any more incredible than a handful of ragged ex-fishermen taking over an oil tanker and holding it for $25 million in ransom?

As with Richard Cohen, you’d swear that the guy was trying to be funny, but that the attempt at humor is so lame. This kind of thing, so typical of the way the Post treats popular culture, seems to be based on an assumption that the distinction between real piracy and literary or cinematic romanticization of same is unimportant or even non-existent. “Twenty-first-century pirates don”t wield a cutlass and a pistol,” he adds. “The Somali pirates are armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, global positioning devices and walkie-talkies.” Is this meant to convey information? If so, it is hard to imagine what reader would be in need of it. Rather, it seems to be just a bit of whimsical fatuity, treating an outbreak of criminality in a far corner of the world as if it were a change in fashion. Have you heard the latest in pirate gear? pistols and cutlasses are out, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades are in. That’s the Style section for you. Cool pirates are still “in” after all.

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