Megalomania is one of those incurable diseases that has afflicted kings, generals, dictators, and politicians throughout history. Some historians have recorded that near the end of his young life Alexander the Great lamented that “there are no more worlds to conquer.” Caesar invaded Gaul in 58 B.C. to further his political ambitions. Napoleon was so anxious to become the emperor of France in 1804 that he snatched the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself. Near the end of World War II, Winston Churchill tried to convince Joseph Stalin to cease repressing the Soviet Union’s Roman Catholics. Stalin’s reply was an example of unbridled megalomania – “How many divisions does the Pope have?
The old idiom, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, has also proven to be true throughout history. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world before he was thirty. He died when he was only thirty-three. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March in 44 B.C., six years after his conquest of Gaul. A bit too much Gaul, perhaps? Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 with an army of half a million men. By the time 1813 rolled around, 22,000 French survivors of the campaign limped back home in defeat, done in by the Russian army and what some historians have called “General Winter.” Stalin didn’t live to see how many divisions the Pope had, but the world did. In June, 1987, Pope John Paul, a son of Poland, celebrated mass in the city of Gdansk with its citizens and a small band of steel workers who had bravely defied communist tyranny. Over a million people, or about fifty divisions, attended. The movement for freedom grew from there. In 1989, the communists left Poland, defeated by the fasting, prayer, faith, courage, and resolve of the Polish people.
Megalomania seems to be a historical constant. It’s in the air right now and it’s contagious. Its focal point seems to be Syria, but when the layers are pulled away the current world situation boils down to a contest of two competing wills and visions. To the east, Vladimir Putin has set his sights on a new and vigorous Russia. In a 2012 address to the Russian people, he unveiled a vision of geopolitical relevance that would once again place Russia in a prominent place on the world stage. He said, “We must not only preserve our geopolitical relevance, we must also increase it.” What did Mr. Putin mean by geopolitical relevance? He put it this way. “Geopolitical relevance means the ability to build different relations with different centers of power in the multipolar world, offering them what they need.”
This clearly puts him at odds with the west and Barack Obama, who also has a grand vision and what appears to be supreme confidence in his ability to make it happen. It’s a vision of a unipolar world with him as its unelected President. He’s made it clear wherever he’s been. In June, 2008 he told adoring throngs in Berlin, “This is the “moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it….” “This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons…” “This is the moment when every nation in Europe must have the chance to choose its own tomorrow free from the shadows of yesterday…” This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share its benefits more equitably…” “This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East…” “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet…” People of Berlin - people of the world - this is our moment. This is our time.” When he accepted the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination later that year the theme repeated itself - “This was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.”
If that isn’t megalomania in full bloom I don’t know what is! But, we decided to believe him and the flowery rhetoric got him elected and then re-elected. As the years have passed, the megalomania has become more pronounced. He has convinced himself that his intellect and charm are the trump cards in the high stakes bridge game of politics and international diplomacy. He’s decided that he, by executive decree, can “tweak” laws he doesn’t like. And in the recent debate and sabre rattling about military intervention in Syria he referred to America’s sons and daughters as “my military.” Some say it was a Freudian slip of the tongue and meant nothing. I don’t believe that for a moment.
About all that’s left for Barack Obama to do is to snatch the crown and drape the ermine robe of rule around his shoulders.
So there you have it. One man is advancing a vision of a renewed, relevant Russia. The other is trying to lay claim to the title of boss of the world.
Who’s going to win? If recent events are any indication, Vladimir Putin has a substantial lead in this race to the top.
How did that happen? Here in America we’ve been led to believe that Mr. Putin is crude, calculating, and manipulative. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has created and fostered the image of himself as the smartest man in any room at any time. The answer is clear. Appearances can often be deceiving.
To be sure, Vladimir Putin is an autocrat. He’s also ambitious, calculating, and manipulative. But he’s also an extremely intelligent man. While it’s true that he served in the Soviet Union’s K.G.B., it’s also true that he earned a law degree from Leningrad State University with an emphasis on international relations. His doctoral thesis – “The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources under the Formation of Market Relations,” is far from being the work of a village idiot.
Barack Obama does have his credentials. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He was the president of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a community organizer and as a civil rights attorney. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Not too bad.
Unfortunately for us, the bloom has come off the rose of Barack Obama’s superiority. Vladimir Putin has taken the measure of him. It started with Edward Snowden. Mr. Obama mismanaged that affair with what poets sometimes call the greatest of skill. When Snowden sought refuge in Moscow, Putin let the President twist in the wind before giving Snowden a year of breathing freely. In the end, Vladimir Putin, the autocrat, became a champion of free expression and Barack Obama became a K.G.B. like despot. Now we’ve got Syria. The President has been banging on the war drum (a tin one at that) for weeks. Then, thanks to a slip of the tongue from our Secretary of State, Vladimir Putin stepped into the gap, offering a peace proposal. The opening was wider than the hole the Kansas City Chiefs line opened with the sixty-five toss power trap in the 1970 Super Bowl. So, in addition to being a champion of free speech, Vladimir Putin, the cold, calculating autocrat, can now lay claim to being a man of peace and a significant player in world affairs while Barack Obama, the peacemaker, has become the trigger happy war mongerer. How the President allowed that to happen is almost beyond comprehension. But he did.
The President’s ambitious plans, grounded in his belief that no one can match his intellect, have gone up in smoke and flames, as Washington Post columnist George Will noted a few days ago:
“Barack Obama’s foreign policy dream – cordial relations with a Middle East tranquilized by “smart diplomacy” – is in a death grapple with reality. His rhetorical writhings illustrate the perils of his loquacity. He has a glutton’s, rather than a gourmet’s, appetite for his own rhetorical cuisine.”
It’s sad. It’s like watching a cat tease an unfortunate mouse or bird just before he eats it. Not long ago, Peggy Noonan put it even more succinctly in her Wall Street Journal column:
“A serious foreign-policy intellectual said recently that Putin’s problem is that he’s a Russian leader in search of a Nixon, a U.S. president he can really negotiate with, a stone player who can talk grand strategy and the needs of his nation, someone with whom he can thrash it through and work it out. Instead he has Obama, a self-besotted charismatic who can’t tell the difference between showbiz and strategy, and who enjoys unburdening himself of moral insights to his peers.”
I think this has rankled Mr. Obama. His ego’s been bruised. The crown’s been tarnished and the bloom really is off the rose.
Things are so bad that people are beginning to see the real Barack Obama. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson recently observed that “After five years of this, the world caught on, and sees juvenile and narcissistic petulance in lieu of statesmanship—and unfortunately a sinister Putin takes great delight in reminding 7 billion people of this fact almost daily.”
Even reliable media allies are turning on the President. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, for example, poured this salty tidbit into the festering wounds: “Unlike Bill Clinton, who excels at boiling down complex arguments to simple ones, Obama prefers to wallow in the weeds, reminding people that he’s the smartest man in the room and expecting their support because he feels he is only doing what’s complicated and right.”
We’ve had many warnings about the dangers of this kind of megalomania in the past. One that seems appropriate right now comes from the pen of John Jay (Federalist 4, written in the late 1780’s):
“Absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition… These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.”
John Jay knew what he was talking about. He and his fellow American colonists had just defeated the mighty British Empire in our Revolutionary War. If only King George III and the British parliament had seen it all coming. But, it was close to impossible. Megalomania tends to blind one to reality.
At the end of that war, tradition has it that the British played an old tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down,” a stanza of which follows:
“If buttercups buzzed after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside-down.”
The world does occasionally turn upside-down. Empires fade; new empires supplant them. “Wise” men are proven to be fools. Are we witnessing such a turning now? It’s early and the geopolitical wheel’s still spinning, but things aren’t looking good for the smartest man in the room.
What does all of this mean to you and me? Will sanity prevail in the end? Sadly, it all seems to depend on the whim and will of Barack Obama. That, and his hubris, have made these times that really do “try men’s souls.”