Polezni durak: A useful fool

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 16, 2018 US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting in Helsinki. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

In an opinion essay for Reuters after the Helsinki July 16 meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin with the rather frightening title ‘Trump has attacked US Intel agencies: Expect them to strike back,’ Tim Weiner references former CIA and NSA chief Mike Hayden’s acerbic comments on the incumbent president. Hayden poignantly used a Russian term ‘polezni durak’ to describe American President Donald Trump. ‘Polezni durak,’ he says means a ‘useful fool;’ mark you, not a ‘useful tool.’ A useful fool! Hayden says POTUS is a useful fool because he is “manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but (his) blind support is happily accepted and exploited.’ These are rather harsh words for the occupier of the White House, the supposed leader of the free world and the most powerful nation on earth!

Useful fool! It occurred to me while writing this essay that leaders could be ‘polezni durak’ to different interest groups, local or international, ethnic or national, cultural or political. The expression ‘useful fool’ is attractive because of its oxymoronic beauty. How can a fool be useful? Who is a fool? One of the many definitions of a fool is ‘a person lacking in judgment or prudence.’  A ‘harmlessly deranged person or one lacking in common powers of understanding’ can be described as a fool too. In Shakespeare’s drama, a fool was usually kept in the court as a jester to provide entertainment’. He may behave foolishly; but he is not a fool in the sense of lacking a proper sense of judgment. We may classify him as a useful fool, because he alone can tell the king what the latter does not want to hear and save the kingdom.

But in intelligence circles, the expression is infinitely degrading. A man who lacks a proper sense of proportion or history could betray his country or his race. Note the use of such words and expressions as ‘manipulation,’ ‘contempt’, ‘blind support’ ‘happily accepted’ and ‘exploited’ in the definition of a ‘polezni durak.’  Now it is unbecoming of an American president to be so insulted in public. Jimmy Carter was ‘naïve’ to the American press. Ronald Reagan was a president who left details to his subordinates; yet he always stuck to the script because he understood the entire picture. George Bush was ridiculed for his ‘Bushisms’. Bill Clinton could not get out of the Lewinsky conundrum in spite of his famed smartness. Obama almost withdrew America from the world; he was teased for his Muslim name, almost accused of being soft on the Islamic world. But he also stuck to the general script written by what America stands for. With Trump the matter has taken a new turn. Trump is re-defining America in an uncomplimentary manner. Or is this the new face of America, the America that blocks immigration, which preaches or endorses White supremacy?

Useful fool! A haunting expression! A fool in charge of the nuclear arsenal? A fool in the White House, not as a visitor but as the main occupant? Not in the real world. Sounds like a spy-movie concocted from the rich imagination of Jeffery Archer or Sydney Sheldon. What Sinclair Lewis had said cannot happen in America is now right before our eyes. How did the great Superman that is the United States of America sleepwalk into this macabre reality show? Can a wise people elect a foolish leader?

The word foolish featured greatly at Helsinki. POTUS described America as ‘foolish’ because of the strained relationship between Russia and America. He believed, took Vladimir Putin’s word and dismissed intelligence from 17 agencies mostly headed by his own appointees. I had to pinch myself to believe my ears. Our elders say that it is ‘a bastard who points at his homestead with his left hand’. What did Trump stand to gain berating his native land while inside the land of the greatest rival in superpower relations and political ideology? When he returned home to encounter a barrage of criticisms even from his own party members including House Speaker Ryan, he amended his speech a little like Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s eponymous drama. But when a reporter raised the question again right inside the White House, he moved back to his old position. What exactly is going on?

At the height of the Cold War, many presidents and heads of Government across the world became ‘polezni durak’ in the hands of America or the Soviet Union. Indeed leaders who refused to work with the superpowers had to contend with the famed ‘economic hit men’. Nations which were strategic to the overall interests of the superpowers had to become good boys. Well, it is true that the non-aligned movement ultimately provided a middle ground for apparently neutral nations. But President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, late President Manuel Noriega of Panama, late President Fidel Castro of Cuba, and a few others have a different if sour story to tell.

If indeed POTUS is ‘polezni durak’, it would be a great tragedy for the Western world and the way we used to understand the world. By attacking credible, properly elected leaders in the Western alliance Trump seems to be interested in himself; not in America. At last count he berated Justin Trudeau of Canada, Angela Merkel of Germany, Emanuel Macron of France and made jest of British Prime Minister Theresa May. The slogan ‘make America great again’ becomes hot air if Trump is under the control of enemy forces, whether by design or by default. I suppose some leaders in Africa would find cold comfort in the fact that foolish leaders are not the exclusive preserve of the African continent or the developing world.

Whatever it is leadership at any level is too important to be left in the hands of a fool or fools. The risk is that we all, both the good and the bad could become victims of foolish thinking and foolish politics. And that would mean disaster. It is to be noted that Trump is pushing back on Russian interference in 2016 elections as a way of establishing his legitimacy. This is neither here nor there because Trump did NOT win the popular vote. For America, when and how will the intelligence community have its pound of flesh (read dollars) back? This I am sure will give Mueller added impetus to stop a possible mole who is also ‘polezni durak’ from controlling the nuclear button of the free world. Indeed all nations of the world should prevent ‘polezni durak’ from the reins of power for the survival of the human race!

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