Sunday, March 20, 2011

I'm afraid I told you so

It seems that everyone's in full-frontal mockery mode about the Usual Suspects' reaction to Obama's "Civilize 'em with a Krag" moment.  I don't have much to add here; I don't think we have any business blowing up Libyan stuff - there's certainly no casus belli that I can see - but it seems pretty obvious that Obama isn't driving events here.  He's reacting to pressure from the Europeans, from the UN, from Hilary Clinton, from everyone.

He's changing his mind again.  I guess there's nothing wrong with changeable opinions, even at the extreme.  Even a Bill Clinton style "my only firm opinion is that what's good for Bill Clinton is what's best to do" gives us a certain amount of predictability.  We (and the rest of the world) can actually make plans about the future based on this.

That's not what we've got here, and I'm kind of sad to say that I told you so a year and a half ago.  It's quite disturbing to revisit this old post and not see anything of import that needs updating.  I sure wish it weren't so.

-------------------- Unready, 2 October 2009 --------------------

The Battle of Maldon is probably the second oldest epic poem in the English language (only Beowulf is older). It tells the tale of Earl Britnoth, who fell in battle against the invading Vikings in 991 AD. The poem is so old that it is in Old English, the still Germanic root of our current language. J.R.R. Tolkein was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, and published a translation of the poem.

A story this old only survives if it speaks to something deep in the soul of the people of the time. What spoke to them was how Britnoth's hearth companions - his bodyguard, his huskarls - fought to the death over their slain lord's body. Despite the victory, the Viking army was so mauled that it sailed for home. People remembered their sacrifice because it stood in stark contrast to the cowardly actions of the king.

The 970s were the high water mark of the Anglo-Saxon empire. King Edgar was overlord - Emperor, really - of lesser kings in a united Britain. The realm was powerful, feared, and so at peace.

Until Ethelred the Unready. Coming to the throne as a boy in 979 when his brother Edward was murdered, he had to rely on advisers to defend his kingdom during the 980s. It was a brutal era, and it didn't take long for predictors to start stalking the weakened kingdom.

Ethelred means "noble counsel", from the root raed (council, advice). The Anglo-Saxons were great lovers of puns, and it was gallows humor that gave his nickname: unraed - "no council" - from which we get Unready.
Ethelred! Ethelred!
Spent his royal life in bed;
one shoe off and one shoe on,
greatly loved by everyone.
Ethelred couldn't make up his mind - he couldn't formulate a plan and stick to it. And so he dithered: strong for a time until he met some minor difficulty, then weak when he could have pressed his enemies and won. They smelled blood, and what had started in the 970s as small plunder raids turned into all out invasions by Viking armies intent on inflicting the maximum damage possible.

They were after Danegeld - a ransom for them to go away. Rather than doing their own plundering, they got Ethelred to do it for them: collect taxes to pay them off. The problem, of course is well known. Once you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane. Ethelred found the price kept rising: 10,000 pounds (992), 16,000 (994), 24,000 (1002), 36,000 (1007), 48,000 (1012). At this point, the Vikings wanted the whole prize, and Ethelred had to flee to France the next year.

His cruelty - such as his order to kill all male Danes in his kingdom in 1002 - was something his people could tolerate; indeed, it was a cruel time. His fecklessness was a different story, because he couldn't provide what all leaders must: victory. He couldn't win. Coming to the throne too young, he never learned how to lead.

We're seeing this today, in the Oval Office. The Obama administration is long on promises, but short on victories. They rammed the "stimulus" through Congress (we can blame the Bush administration for the Bank bailout), but since then their agenda has stalled. Cap and Trade is languishing in committee, unlikely to pass. His Health care plan is a shambles, with five competing plans and a fragmented Democratic party that smells defeat in the 2010 elections. We see the echo of Ethelred here: no mandate to buy insurance (candidate Obama), a mandate that people must buy it (today), a required "public option" (April), no required public option (today).

His foreign policy is a disaster: retreat from the Russians (no missile defense in eastern Europe), no sanctions for Iran (even the French are disgusted), retreat from victory in Afghanistan, unable to convince the International Olympic Committee to pick Chicago.

The more people see him - at home and abroad - the less they fear him. Like Ethelred, he may have a ruthless streak, but in October - what should be the high water mark of his power and influence - he seems unready. He thinks too highly of himself but he doesn't know how to accomplish his goals, he keeps changing his goals, his enemies are increasingly confident, and he surrounds himself with unraed - bad council.

We've seen this story before, and it doesn't end well.
þa wearð afeallen þæs folces ealdor, Æþelredes eorl;
Then was the folk’s prince fallen,
Ethelred’s earl. All saw there,
his hearth-companions, that their lord lay.
Then valiant thegns went forth there,
men undaunted eagerly hastened:
they all wished, then, one of two things—
to leave life or loved one avenge.
Britnoth's headless body was brought back to Ely Cathedral, where he lies to this day. On his tomb is carved BRITHNOTHUS, NORTHUMBRIORUM DUX, PRAELIO CAESUS A DANIS A.D. DCCCCXCI. "Britnoth, Duke of Northumbria. He fell in battle against the Danes in the Year of Our Lord 991".

Sacrificed by a feckless leader. May we fare better.


Tom Stedham said...

Damn good post!

Anonymous said...

As a Northumbrian myself it does not surprise me that a hard Northerner stood and fought while a soft Southerner turned and ran. It was from Northumbria that the light of learning was brought back to England and it is no accident that it was monks from Durham founded Oxford University.