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From our vault: A fantasy geezer gathering to die for

One day recently we were sitting at the Daily Maverick headquarters, perhaps having one coffee too many. So when the subject of Niccolo Machiavelli and his famous “it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved” statement came up, we said, how about organising a special gathering, a dinner maybe, of all the dictators and strong men of yesteryear, the men so tough they refuse to die. Perhaps we call it ‘The Vampire Ball?’

Well, ok, so we were sitting there, trying to remember what happened to some of those former masters of the universe, clearly past their power lunch dates, but they were still around, perhaps patiently clipping their bond coupons, drawing their state pensions, or – in a few cases – they’ve fallen upon really hard times and are now (with apologies to Tennessee Williams) dependent upon the kindness of strangers. This gathering would be people we’d really like to hear from — if only to hear what they had learned in the interim about Machiavelli’s famous dictum — and what they might have done differently, if they knew then what they know now. So we started to build a  guest list for an imaginary dinner (sadly, Margaret Thatcher won’t be able to attend, but she’d be the perfect guest for such a gathering, if she were in better health) of the formerly powerful with some real inside baseball tales to tell us.  

We’d have to host this at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, ground zero for the behind-the-scenes powerful in Washington for decades.  Think of it as the Washington version of the Rand Club in its heyday – but with top-of-the-heap politicians, not Rand lords, as members and clientele.

We’ll need a host and who else other than Henry Kissinger? He’s perfect. He’s 86 years old, he’s still got that trademark guttural accent, but he’s still active with his consulting firm, Kissinger and Associates, helping regimes and businesses get themselves out the fixes they had gotten themselves into. One of the strategic – and tactical – heavyweights of the Cold War, he’s old enough to have been in the US Army during World War II after fleeing Nazi Germany and to have been put in charge of denazification in several mid-sized German cities during the occupation.

Photo: Kissinger at his most important, with Chinese ruler MaoZedong and his Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai. Towards the end of Nixon’s tortured reign, he was said to have ordered military forces NOT to obey President’s orders.

Even after Henry retired from government, he was an occasional presidential consultant  – including some time with George Bush (the younger). So Henry gets to sit at the head of the table. Any objections?  Hey, he’s been around. He knows the burial sites for all the bodies.

So, who else comes to our party?  Well, how about Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo, Argentina’s 43rd president? Remember him? Videla is now 84 years old. He came into power in the coup that pushed out a totally incompetent, implausible president, Isabel Martínez de Perón – Juan Peron’s second wife and the successor to Peron in his second tour of office. Videla was not a nice guy. The charge sheet for his litany of human rights abuses, kidnappings, forced disappearances, and torture, doesn’t even include the usual economic mismanagement mess.

Photo: Videla with another very, very nice man, Paraguay’s monster-strongman, Alfredo Stroessner, who, thankfully was kicked out after full 35 years in power (1954-1989) and died in 2006.

Videla even has some history with Kissinger. When he was Secretary of State, he held his nose and dealt with the Videla regime for its anti-communist stance, although this changed when Jimmy Carter took office after the 1976 election. Then Videla got a brief second bite at the apple when Ronald Reagan took office four years later, but, with the return to democratic rule in 1983, the new government prosecuted Videla for those kidnappings, forced disappearances, the torture and murder of activists, political opponents and their families in secret concentration camps. They put Videla under house arrest for years until October 10, 2008 – and now he is a “guest of the state” in an Argentine military prison. Well, at least Videla and Kissinger will have lots to talk about, especially since Videla doesn’t get around much any more.

For some variety, how about Yasuhiro Nakasone?  Have you forgotten him already?  Nakasone is 91 years old now.  The Japanese have the world’s largest collection of people over the age of 100 and Nakasone looks like he might get there too. His career also began in World War II where he was an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy. He was prime minister when Reagan was president and their relationship was so close, the media and politicians in both nations called it the Ron-Yasu relationship.  He was also prime minister when the Japanese economic juggernaut seemed like it was about to overwhelm America. His government was an exemplar of Japan Inc. hubris – when they boasted the grounds of the Imperial Palace were worth more than all the real estate in the state of California.

Photo: Yasuhiro Nakasone is still going strong, pictured here with then South Korea’s new President Lee Myung-bak in 2008

Nakasone once called Japan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” off the coast of East Asia, making the Chinese more than a tad concerned, and he also managed to insult a generation of American ethnic minorities when he explained that a key to Japan’s economic success was the fact that the nation wasn’t weakened and diluted by all those lesser breeds. Japan’s own ethnic minorities weren’t too pleased about this comment either. Of course after he left office, he set up a think tank in Tokyo that does good work on international integration and peacekeeping – so you never really know.  Nakasone and Kissinger clearly have stuff to catch up on and he and Videla could trade stories about the vicissitudes of political staying power.

So, who’s next? How about somebody like Jiang Zemin?  Did I hear you say, “Who?” Have you already forgotten about the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989? Jiang had a bit of a hand in stopping that and as a reward, he became the top dog there. Jiang is now 83 years old, but he’s been out of politics since 2005 so he already knows how it feels to be outside the golden circle of power. 

Photo: Jiang Zemin and his successor, and current Chinese Leader, Hu Jintao exchanging friendly toast in September 2009. Their relationship wasn’t quite as friendly as long as Jiang Zemin was President of the Military Commission, the body that according to some is the real seat of power in China.

Jiang’s the guy who came to power once the Chinese Central Committee decided Deng Xiaoping had been too soft on those pesky demonstrators. However he seems to have developed some non-traditional economic views when he ran the industrial powerhouse of Shanghai – and the Chinese economic miracle really began its take-off during his watch.  He criticized his predecessors’ time (i.e., pre-1992) as “hard on the economy, soft on politics.” Or how about the odd fact that he once quoted Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” – in English, in full – to a group of Chinese student protesters. One really wonders what they made of that lecture.

Now, how about bringing on board a relative youngster like Mengistu Haile Mariam to this party? He’s only 72, but Mengistu has been out of power for years, since 1991. He now lives quietly just north of here in Zimbabwe (Well there’s Jean Paul Aristide here on something like the same deal, but he’s too young for this particular crowd). Of course Robert Mugabe is no callow youth either, but he’s still in power – at least as of this writing – so he’ll have to come to next year’s party, perhaps.

Photo: This one’s a gem: The 1986 East German Communist Party’s Congress. In the first row one can spot Mengistu, Erich Honecker, Mikhail Gorbachev (fresh from declaring Perestroika and Glasnost) and Egon Krenz (far left) who was the Party leader in 1989 as the Berlin Wall was falling down.

Mengistu was responsible for Ethiopia’s Red Terror in the late 1970s. And, after a long rebellion against his rule, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe and he’s been there ever since, despite an Ethiopian court verdict that found him guilty, in absentia, of genocide.

Mengistu’s rule also coincided with the particularly pointless Ogaden War. When he fled Ethiopia in 1991 as rebels rolled into Ethiopia’s capital, Mengistu took a really big, really extended family of several dozen into exile with him and Mugabe made him a permanent guest of the state. Since he’s been there, he’s apparently been able to get a little part time consulting work there – he offered advice during the forced expulsion of people from Harare in Operation Murambatsvina. Maybe he should sit next to Jiang so they can talk about what really works in economic growth?

Photo: Ho Chi Minh (second from left) and General Vo Nguyen Giap (far right) plan the Dien Bien Phu siege in 1954. French losses were monumental: 2293 killed, 5195 wounded, and 10998 captured.

There is no way we can leave out the next guest – General (really retired) Vo Nguyen Giap from Vietnam. This guy’s had serious staying power. He’s now 98 (!) and still going. “Who’s that?” you say?  This is the man who beat the French at Dien Bien Phu and then he turned around and wore out the Americans in the second Vietnam War. None of his opposite numbers as American or French commanders are still around, save for Henry Kissinger!

Here’s a man who led armies to beat two major powers, through virtually continuous warfare from 1945 through to 1975.  A full career.  He has to sit at the right hand of Henry Kissinger. They must have lots to talk about from the old days, right?

Photo: General Giap in 2008 with Brazil President Lula

So, who’s left? Well there are people like George H. W. Bush (he’s 85 years old), or Mikhail Gorbachev, although he’s only 78, or perhaps even Helmut Kohl; but they can just meet for cocktails among themselves and talk about how it was when the wall came down and nobody knew what to do next.

No, we must include Wojciech Jaruzelski instead. Jaruzelski was the last Polish communist leader and, then, briefly, the first president (in a relatively honorary position) once the Communist government was overthrown in 1989. Working his way up through the Communist Party and the army, Jaruzelski ultimately came to power just as the Solidarity trade union under Lech Walesa was organizing Polish workers against Jaruzelski’s regime and people like Pope John Paul II were pressing on communist rule from the outside. Maybe he and Videla – or Jiang – can talk to each other about what it feels like to be brushed aside by history.

Photo: Wojciech Jaruzelski at a 2008 conference, then aged 85

One final guest would be perfect – if we could just wake him up for dinner. Who else than Ariel Sharon? But, unfortunately, as a result of a stroke he suffered at the beginning of 2006, he is in what is medically termed a “persistent vegetative state.”  But we can pretend of course.

Photo: Then Israeli Major General Ariel Sharon (L) escorts former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (2nd R) and army Chief of Staff Haim Bar Lev (R) along the Israeli-Egyptian border in 1971.

Sharon’s military career – a career that began when he was just 14, even before Israel became a nation, as well as his hard line stance toward the Arabs – made him popular with many Israelis once he entered politics. Of course he was found to have personal responsibility for the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, so his reputation has some rough spots – at the very least. At the same time, one of his decisions while he was president was to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and to remove all the Israeli settlers there – making the right wing pretty unhappy with him as well ultimately.

What would he contribute to our little outing, if he could make it? Well he would be the only one of our guests who hasn’t had a prolonged retirement or exile into the political wilderness – save, perhaps, our host, Henry Kissinger. So let’s roll up Sharon’s hospital bed and put him on the other side of Kissinger. He and Kissinger  – and General Giap, too – had the art of political survivorship down cold.

The Italian political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, posed that classic question in his masterwork on political manipulation and mobilization, “The Prince”, where he asked: should a prince choose to be loved or feared?

Machiavelli’s answer, of course, was that it was much better to be feared than loved. People like Giap, Jiang, Sharon, and Kissinger all understood this precisely. Their evaluation of Machiavelli’s dictum would be one heck of conversation to eavesdrop on, if we could somehow make it happen – and much more interesting than some of those high-minded conferences we all get to attend, akin to those Miss World competitions – you know the ones where everyone says they are favour of  “bringing about world peace”?

By J. Brooks Spector


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