The American geopolitical prism is distorted in multiple ways, but none is more consistently evident than the strange idea that the actions of a nation can be understood simply by deciphering the thoughts and intentions of one man — even if we’re not always sure who The Man really is.
Iran — Ahmadinejad or Khamenei? North Korea — Kim Jong-il. Russia — Putin. Turkey — Erdogan. Syria — Bashar al-Assad. Egypt — Hosni Mubarak. Iraq — Saddam. Brazil — Lula. Venezuala — Chavez. Cuba — Castro. North Vietnam — Ho Chi Minh. South Africa — Mandela. Britain — Churchill. Germany — Hitler. Soviet Union — Stalin. China — Mao, Hu or who?
Reduce a nation to a single man and the task of understanding that nation’s cultural and political complexity will often be reduced to a question about how we deal with The Man.
Can he be trusted? Can he be befriended? Can he be bribed? Should he be kept at a distance? Does he need to be contained? Must he be killed?
For a few months in Afghanistan recently, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour became The Man — a representative of the Taliban offering the US a ticket home. That man turned out to be an impostor, while the word is that the man with one eye and his fellow commanders have no interest in laying down their weapons:
Sayed Amir Muhammad Agha, a onetime Taliban commander who says he has left the Taliban but who acted as a go-between with the movement in the past, said in an interview that he did not know the tale of the impostor.
But he said the Taliban leadership had given no indications of a willingness to enter talks.
“Someone like me could come forward and say, ‘I am a Talib and a powerful person,’ ” he said. “But I can tell you, nothing is going on.”
“Whenever I talk to the Taliban, they never accept peace and they want to keep on fighting,” he said. “They are not tired.”
Where does this obsession with The Man come from? Faith in personal salvation through Jesus Christ? The institution of the regal American presidency? The religion of individualism?
Whatever its origin, it skews America’s relations with the world — a world in which individuals, even those regarded as the authors of history, both shape and mirror the societies, cultures and historical junctures within which they operate. It is that which they mirror, to which we give far too little account.