The follies of youthful leaders wreak havoc on the world
The Black Death of the 14th century killed as much as 60 percent of Europe's population. A cause of the disease was the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but lacking microscopes, many at the time turned a keen eye on the Jews and killed them by the thousands. Still, somehow, the plague persisted, with the old and children dying off, but young adults often hanging on. What followed was a goodly amount of war. This is what young men tend to do.
Barbara Tuchman made that point in her 1978 book about that squalid century, "A Distant Mirror." Young men having grown up in an age of chivalry, tournaments, jousting and other precursors of the mayhem we have today — mixed martial arts, for instance — turned to war for recognition and to win the hand of some damsel whose father was not in debt. Chaos ensued, because as all but young people know, young people are fools.
As luck would have it, some contemporary examples come to mind. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, is a mere 33 years old. Since rising to become the kingdom's effective ruler, he's widened a war in Yemen, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, gotten into a snit with Qatar, imprisoned women's rights activists and — murder most foul — almost certainly ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist.
The murder itself was a teenager's way of apparently settling a score, and was immediately followed by an arrogant and clumsy cover-up. MBS revealed himself to be highly inept, stubbornly sticking to the story that the dead and already dismembered Khashoggi had left the building, amid mounting evidence to the contrary. The world has always had a weak spot for cruelty, but not for appalling incompetence. Even some of the businessmen around Donald Trump, the avaricious sword dancers of yesteryear, might hesitate to do deals with such a clod.
MBS' telephone pal in Washington is Jared Kushner, just 37 and, until recently, hugely inexperienced in Middle East diplomacy. He is now in charge of getting Israelis and Palestinians to stop killing one another. Kushner is Trump's son-in-law and also a real-estate mogul in his own right, having worked his way up in his father's business much as Trump did in his. As a business plan, it seems to be all the rage.
The world is full of other leaders who have yet to grow into their jobs. Kim Jong Un of North Korea is only 35 and armed with nuclear weapons. He, too, took the family path to reckless power, succeeding his father and, reportedly, executing his own dear uncle. I am even beginning to have some doubts about Emmanuel Macron, just 40. He rushed through an economic-reform package that is now bringing him loads of trouble in the street. That, coupled with his Louis XIV airs, has given him a life-threatening approval rating of about 26 percent. He may soon be gone.
Paradoxically, the youngest leader on the world stage may well be Donald Trump. He is 72, of course, but since ignorance is the functional equivalent of youth, he is forever young. The president's head is uncluttered with the facts, not to mention the contradictions and paradoxes that come with knowledge and experience. For instance, his anti-NATO posture was clearly based on not knowing the underlying reasons for its creation. Trump saw it solely as an anti-Russia alliance, which it always was in part, but to him Moscow was just a nice place to build a hotel — not an enemy at all. But the desire to keep the U.S. engaged in Europe was beyond his ken.
The young — their minds concentrated by the military draft — got the folly of Vietnam. But the apparent current conviction that young is better because it is young is a prescription for disaster. The young are flattered by a popular culture that cherishes them as customers, by a mass media that longs for their patronage and by politicians who beg them just to vote. It makes their young heads swim.
Age is not a panacea. The experienced people who led us into the Vietnam War could hardly have done worse. Iraq was no different. But the impetuosity and, often, rage of young men — the building blocks of all armies — have always been a cause for worry. Tuchman offered us a distant mirror — but the ones we are seeing now are strictly for vanity.
Richard Cohen's column is distributed by the Washington Post News Service.
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