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Scott Graber

Vladimir got it wrong this time around

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It is Saturday morning and I’m in Port Royal. There’s fog this morning — actually more of a mist coming off the Beaufort River. This mist softens the edges our trees, blurs the detail of my wife’s studio, and obliterates the distant shore of Cane Island. It makes me wonder and eventually ask, “Alexa, what kind of day will it be?” And then the natural follow-up, “Alexa, will I be happy, content and largely free of anxiety today?”

Today’s Wall Street Journal brings a review of “Why We Fight,” a new piece of non-fiction written by Christoper Blattman (Viking, 388 pages. $32).

Mr. Blattman examines “punch-ups between two lots of sports fans,” gang fights, medieval sieges and then asks why men (not women) are so easily roused to violence? He is, however, quick to observe that total war — that is war between nations — is less common these days because the consequences of nuclear war are so terrifying. Blattman then says, “In my view there are no good or bad leaders, there are only constrained and unconstrained ones.”

This notion of “unconstrained leaders” takes us back to 1215 and King John of England. This is when angry barons confronted the King and demanded reforms. They were furious at John’s unceasing demands for money; and his near constant warfare to recover British-held land on the continent, especially Normandy. John’s churlish behavior led to what is now called the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta was 49 demands that dealt with justice (trial by jury), taxation and obligations to serve in the army outside the realm. It ended with a security clause providing a council of 25 named barons who were authorized to make war on the King if he broke the terms of the agreement.

But insuring — once the reforms were defined — that the King would follow the Magna Carta’s terms proved to be a hard, almost impossible task.

History reveals that it took the King two months to renounce the agreement which then provoked an invasion by the French in 1216. The invading French found an eager, friendly crowd of Brits waiting for them in London; and King John lost his crown and his kingdom when he died on Oct. 19, 1216. In the process John earned the reputation of a madman, murderer and perhaps the worst king in English history.

John’s heir, Henry, got rid of the invading French. But the nobles were still unhappy with the King’s unlimited power and the Magna Carta was revisited from time to time with political concessions exchanged for taxes. By 1236 this bargaining relationship had matured into a legitimate and customary way of doing business. Thereafter these periodic meetings with the King gained a formal name — Parliament.

Slowly, but surely, the power of the Parliament grew and the power of the King of England diminished. By the time that the Continental Congress got round to writing our own Constitution in 1787, we had bought-into the notion of restraining our King (President) by giving the Congress the same powers of Parliament.

But then the French Revolution came along (in 1789) and the free and frequent use of the guillotine gave our aging Constitution-writing founders second thoughts about passing too much power to the people — to the mob.

Governance by the people took further hits as weapons and warfare grew more and more terrible. Instinctively we knew that you needed to have one person in charge — almost a King — when war came calling. And in the 1950s when ballistic missiles became a real and existential threat having one person in charge (our President) seemed the only sane course of action.

The political history of the United States — at least its recent history — is a record that reflects a continuing effort to define Presidential power, where it begins and where it ends. It appears there has been no similar search in Russia or, for that matter, in China.

Vladimir Putin is not interested in consensus or the opinions of the Duma — his Parliament. For many years he has enjoyed unconstrained rule — not unlike King John before the Magna Carta. And like John in 1200 he believes that he is entitled to make war without input from anyone.

Russia has never embraced the concept of Parliament, collaboration, checks and balances or any kind of compromise. Russia is very much like England in 1200 when the King was unconstrained, universally feared and often wrong.

And it appears Vladimir got it wrong this time around.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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