Belmont Club

Malice or Mala Suerte

By coincidence, the Republican presidential field touched an issue which has long intrigued the commenters on the Belmont Club.  Maya Rhodan of Time  describes how Republicans debated whether president Obama was “incompetent or nefarious.” Those who did not approve of the president’s policies were naturally interested in which.  Making the case for Obama’s incompetence was Donald Trump. The advocate for malice was Marco Rubio.

“I think we have a president who as a president is totally incompetent. He has no idea what he is doing, and the country is going to hell.”
Trump’s comments were in response to Rubio saying earlier that the president is taking actions to radically transform America and reduce its influence.

“Barack Obama views America as this arrogant global power that needed to be cut down to size,” he said.

“This is a president who views this country as a country that has been too powerful in the world and we create problems in the world. It’s one of the reasons why he has betrayed Israel — because he believes that if we create separation from Israel, it will help our relations in the Islamic world.”

It must be left to history to judge whether Obama was truly a failure and if so, which of the two causes, or both, drove the mistakes. But those who think the worst of the Obama administration should be happy if he were incompetent rather than bad.  To be really dangerous a historical personage has to be enough of a winner to build up a following. Hitler was the classic example. His apparent successes in the early war years provided the capital to fatally overreach. Similarly, Japan’s 6-month opening winning streak was enough to sustain imperial legitimacy until late 1945.  Without those abilities, neither would have gone very far. Of the three Axis Powers, Mussolini had the least competence and he was never more than a clown.

Because Obama consistently failed at most everything, he rapidly lost the ability to make the disastrous big bet.  In the twilight of his presidency, the administration is more impotent than actively dangerous, having squandered his political capital — and his nation’s prestige in the last seven years.  This suggests, irrespective of malice, that a good dollop of incompetence was present.  Incompetence is in many ways a self-limiting condition.

When Clint Eastwood, on the final night of the 2012 Republican convention, famously addressed an empty chair, the symbolism captured not just the worry, but also the limits of what an Obama presidency could do. It is providential that of all the times to have an empty chair in the Oval Office in the last 100 years, now is perhaps the best.  Former diplomat James Dobbins notes that “today’s enemies pale by comparison with Nazi Germany, imperial Japan or the Soviet Union.”  It’s a stroke of luck, though one which is not likely to last forever.

It may be that provided no Biblical disasters happen Obama will be remembered kindly by history as the man who exposed America’s weaknesses while essentially dodging the bullet.  Perhaps the 8 years will be just bad enough to serve as an innoculation; to make America realize the folly of its ways without enduring the harsh vae victis that typically accompanies such lessons.

Bad things occasionally have a way of turning into something positive, provided one survives them long enough to see the benefits.  The reason for this deserves some thought.  Most readers are familiar with the accidentally heroic role played by Gollum in the plot line of Lord of the Rings.  It was not Frodo who destroyed the Ring but Gollum who, through his own incompetence, tripped over the edge of the abyss and fulfilled the Quest.

Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. … Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

And so it did.  But why does accidental heroism exist?

There are accidental heroes in history because as Mike Crider tweeted “all true incompetence has a sort of randomness to it.”  A guy like Mussolini was never good enough to be successfully bad. Randomness causes botched villainy to emerge as a kind of accidental virtue. Whether through Gollum or Isaac Asimov’s character of the Mule, luck can frustrate not only good, but evil.  Lawrence Peter, author of the Principle by the same name wrote:  “sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

President Obama may have tried to appease the crony capitalists and allowed totalitarianism to spread throughout the world. But along the way he may have fatally wounded the European Union, wrecked the majority of Islamic countries and poisoned the public’s view of Wall Street.

To recap: why are things the way they are, however they are?  Rubio thinks it’s the smart people.  Trump thinks it’s the imbeciles.

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