The Men Who Would Be Kings

Rumors that Vladimir Putin is sick or has been deposed, fueled by his recent absence from public events are a reminder of the very real defects of autocracy.  The problem, as Shakespeare noted, is that kings however well guarded, pampered and doctored eventually die.  Age, disease and mischance take their toll and often leave a country, so recently dominated by a single godlike figure, without any process of orderly succession.


For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Should Putin be lying incapacitated all agreements, ground rules, indeed the stability which flowed from his person would be placed in doubt.  Brian Whitmore at Radio Free Europe writes: “in a political system like Russia’s, where formal institutions are weak, court politics are paramount, and personal ties mean everything”. Everything substantial is founded on the will of Putin.   Once the foundation is undermined the entire tower totters.

In functioning democratic societies by contrast, the president or prime minister is merely an agent of “we the people”. If a stroke should take him, as it did Franklin Roosevelt, he would be instantly and seamlessly replaced by a designated successor, who might even be a mere former haberdasher and high school graduate. One moment nobody knew who Harry Truman was and the next he had the authority to drop the Atomic Bomb. A democratic leader does not derive power from himself; rather it derives entirely from strong institutions based on popularly mandated policies.

The advantages of a democracy are so great that Ross Douthat is not a little outraged and greatly mortified by the unabashed admiration of  the Obama administration staffers for “Caesarism” .

I think what Dan Pfeiffer, the outgoing White House advisor, has to say to Jonathan Chait in this exit interview deserves the scorn of anyone who cares about limits on presidential power. …

you just define “worked” to mean “changed public policy without the opposition being able to stop us,” in which case we’re just dealing with Caesarism justified by consequentialism, and Pfeiffer’s argument is the boasting of a successful machiavel, unmoored both from constitutional norms and his boss’s own once-professed ideals.

Presumably there are still binding limits out there somewhere; even the president’s courtiers would concede that much. But for now, with re-election already accomplished, with a Congress too dysfunctional to effectively fight back, it clearly feels pretty good to be — or serve — the king.


While it is great to serve the monarch and swagger in his shadow once the king is pierced with fate’s “little pin” his former courtiers face an immediate reversal of fortune. They are left wondering — as Putin’s henchmen might now be — what doom must befall them. For once the king is gone the people who formerly prided themselves as “above the rules” find they have no rules to shelter behind. As Whitmore observes  Nemetsov’s murder set a dangerous precedent because it tore up the last remaining unwritten rules in an otherwise lawless society.

the law doesn’t apply to those on the top. This was one of the reasons why the Nemtsov assassination was so shocking. Killing somebody this prominent — and certainly doing the deed blocks from Red Square — was against the rules.

As Ivan Yakovina, a former political correspondent for, wrote recently in the Ukrainian newspaper Novoye Vremya, “Moscow’s unspoken rules” forbid killing those other top politicians. Even those such as Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, who had gone into opposition.

The killing, therefore, was “a signal to all representatives of this class,” Yakovina added.

Who wants to be like Russia?  Alas, for some reason a substantial percentage of American voters hanker after that sort of arrangement.  They want a king, because the entertainment elite has convinced them its so much cooler to be ruled by celebrities than governed by themselves. The New York Times writes that Democrats See No Choice but Hillary Clinton in 2016.  In nation of more than 300 million pepole, why can no one else be found? Is it because she is best or because she is a Queen of the House of Clinton?

They shrug off questions about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email habits. They roll with the attacks on her family’s foundation, the big checks from foreign governments, the torpid response of her not-yet-campaign.

They have little choice: As Mrs. Clinton prepares to begin her second presidential campaign amid a froth of criticism and outrage, Democrats are not just Ready for Hillary — as supporters named one pro-Clinton “super PAC” — they are desperate for her.


The Hill says the next presidential election will be a coronation. Ignore the noise — Clinton will win in 2016, it writes.  As the Borg would say, “resistance is futile. You will be assimilated”.

Clinton has a built-in advantage — her gender. It now looks that she will use the glass-ceiling theme to connect with millions of people who think that the disparities in opportunity, income and talent-based achievement between men and women is not only unfair, but damaging to all women, two-income families and the economy in general. Some percentage of Americans, likely a large one, would like to cast a historic vote. When polling points to Americans wanting change, what bigger change than a woman as president?

Hillary will rule by divine right. The god of Politcal Correctness has commanded that in atonement for its past sins, America is condemned to vote for a succession of Firsts. The historic First Black President, the First Woman President, First American Indian President, First Illegal Alien President … ad infinitum, until the albatross falls from its neck.

But even loyal liberal Greg Sargent is starting to worry, if only because the Obama courtiers may not be much welcome during a Hillareign. “Maybe it’s time for a real Democratic presidential primary,” Sargent writes. Sure why not? You would think the “Democratic” party might occasionally remember Democracy.  But for now it is enamored of aristocracy.

Nowhere is the conflict between America’s roots and its elites’ barely hidden desire to become kings more clearly revealed than in the open letter sent by 47 Republicans to Iran. Tim Mak of the Daily Beast writes: “the Republicans’ much-maligned open letter to Tehran has forced the White House to admit an uncomfortable truth: The deal might not outlast the Obama presidency.”  Why? Because the deal is between kings and someone who is just a president.  Someone not yet himself a monarch.

beyond the theatrics of the open letter that 47 Republican senators sent to Iran, it features a core of truth: the Obama administration is negotiating a deal that cannot be guaranteed beyond the president’s current term.

The Obama administration was so outraged with the Republican attempt to undercut the president’s foreign policy negotiations that it sent the vice president, the White House press secretary, and others to attack the letter rather seriously—instead of treating it as the “cheeky” reminder of Congress’s role that GOP senators intended.

In the process of engaging, the Obama administration highlighted that any deal with Iran would be, like many other past international security initiatives, a “non-binding” agreement.


An executive agreement surely cannot outlast the term of a president any more than an agreement with Putin can outlive Putin.  When the Democrats accuse the Republicans of “treason” for pointing out the basic fact that the other branches must sign on to a binding deal, one might ask: treason toward whom? Obama or treason against the Constitution?  Or maybe they are one and the same now.

Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard, argues that Obama can fill this inconvenient power deficit by getting a grant of authority from the United Nations Security Council. That way all Obama has to do is getting his fellow kings on the Council to go along with the deal.  Then Journolist can be sent forth to cry “hear ye! hear ye!”

It is now clear that any deal with Iran will by its terms be a non-binding agreement. That means the United States will have no international law obligation to comply with the agreement, considered in isolation, and that only diplomatic and political considerations – which might not be trivial – will stand in the way of the next President backing out of the deal and reimposing U.S. sanctions. This is why I concluded yesterday that “in comparison with a binding executive agreement under international law, a non-binding agreement with Iran is easier to make (because the President can clearly do it on his own) and easier to break (because there is no domestic or international legal obstacle to breaking it).”

However, in my post with Marty Lederman, I also noted that “an entirely different set of arguments and concerns might come into play if the parties were to sign a non-binding agreement that becomes the basis for a legally binding Security Council Resolution.” Recall that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the following in his statement about the Republicans’ letter: “if the current negotiation with P5+1 result [sic] in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with the participation of five other countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council, and will also be endorsed by a Security Council resolution.” The P5 are the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council – i.e. the ones with the veto. (The “+1” is Germany.) Any deal that all five accept would thus also be a deal that could receive U.N. Security Council approval to eliminate U.N. sanctions on Iran. Indeed, though not emphasized in the United States, this appears to be the plan. The negotiations are in large part over lifting current U.N. sanctions; that is why the P5 are involved. Thus there is every reason to think that “a nuclear agreement between Iran the major powers would include the removal of all sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council,” as former Iranian nuclear negotiator Sirous Nasseri said yesterday in the Tehran Times. (By contrast, when asked about a Security Council resolution endorsement of the nonbinding agreement, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Tuesday: “I’m just not going to get ahead of how this would be implemented at this point in time.”)


They are clearly thinking about doing through the UN what they cannot accomplish through the Congress.

The American founding fathers were well acquainted with the world of kings and rejected it, feeling that a mighty nation founded on boring public consensus led by ordinary men would fare better than under a monarch; not perfectly, but better. The modern American elite has rejected this wisdom. They envy the kings of the world. Even the greatest servants of the American Republic are paupers by comparison to foreign autocrats. CNN Money has a chart comparing the richest American politicians to their Chinese counterparts. It is easy to see how the American political elite can be dazzled, not only by their wealth, but their unfettered raw power.

Poor by comparison

One Canadian liberal leader put the case starkly.

“There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime,” [Justin] Trudeau said, according to reports on the event. “I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about, of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted, that I find quite interesting.”

Give me the power and I will make the trains run on time. Make me Queen and I shall give you bread. Truly great men can resist the temptation to turn themselves into autocrats. King George III asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what George Washington would do after winning independence. “West replied, ‘They say he will return to his farm.’ ‘If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, ‘he will be the greatest man in the world.'” But we live in a lesser age. And modern pygmies would rather be gimcrack kings than be remembered as a president of the United States of America.  Should anyone succeed at “Caesarism” there might be personal glory in it a spell.  But Caesar would still live under the Hollow Crown and such a system would bring lasting instability to the magnificent — and regrettably ordinary — Republic.

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