»  National Review Online

May 15, 2008

  Seat-Warming Champions

Let us turn aside from our own quest for a new U.S. president, with his (what a relief not to have to write "his or her" any more!) pathetic eight-year term limit, and contemplate some serious cases of incumbency in supreme national office.

For starters, try this wee brainteaser:  Who is the world's longest-serving national leader, hereditary monarchs excluded?

That is actually a trick question, hinging on a "depends what you mean by" quibble. One arguably correct answer would be Kim Il-sung of North Korea, who was Prime Minister of that nation from 1948 to 1972, and has been President of it since. That's an extremely impressive total of 59.67 years in office — and that, for a chap who was already 36 when he first took charge of his country.

However, I am going to disqualify Kim on a technicality. Though he is indeed the Eternal President of the Hermit Kingdom, and is even explicitly designated as such in that country's constitution, he has in point of fact been dead since July 8, 1994, when the regrettable events described by Bradley Martin's informants took place:

The chief secretary … entered the office. Kim Il-sung had dropped off the bed, face first on the floor. The chief secretary raised him up, got the phlegm out of his mouth and asked for the main doctor. But Kim Jong-il had fired that doctor, saying he was too old. Only a young doctor was there. They arranged for two helicopters to come, but the one carrying emergency equipment crashed. The medical team couldn't help Kim Il-sung and he died … Because Kim Il-sung died in such a way, his chief secretary … shot himself in the head.

Probably a smart move. Stifling the sympathy one naturally feels on reading of such misfortunes at the very end of life, I am going to exclude Eternal President Kim from further consideration, only noting in passing that with the recent rise in world food prices, the nation over which his spirit presides is heading into an even worse famine than that of the 1990s. According to Bradley Martin's sources, vexation over his son's failure to do anything about, or even display any concern about, that earlier famine was a contributing cause in Kim Senior's translation from the plane of mere Presidents-for-Life to that of Eternal Presidents.

Of national leaders still corporeally among us, which ones currently head up the league tables for longevity in office?  Here are the top five as of this weekend, May 10-11, 2008:

Country Leader Years old In office
(years)
In office
(U.S. presidencies)
Gabon Omar Bongo 72.4 41.2 8
Libya Muammar al-Gaddafi approx. 66 38.7 7
Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh 66.1 29.8 5
Maldives Maumoon Abdul Gayoom 70.4 29.5 5
Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo 65.9 28.8 5

I note in passing that there is a pleasing diversity to these top five:  one each of Indian, Arab, and Arab-Berber origin, and two black Africans.

Do we have any issues with any of these thirty- and forty-year seat-warmers? Only with Yemen, really. That unfortunate business in Equatorial Guinea back in 1994, when the U.S. Ambassador had to withdraw after being accused of witchcraft, and retaliated by naming the country's leading torturers in his farewell address — that's water under the bridge.

For the most part, a Third World leader who's looking forward to his fourth or fifth decade in the presidential palace and anticipating the dinner invitation from his fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth U.S. President, is basically into the quiet life. Well past his really active years, all his enemies long since killed, cowed, bought, or exiled, and the numbered account at Credit Suisse more than sufficient for all conceivable needs of himself and his extended family for generations to come, your average entrenched despot is practicing the maxim his mother taught him in its Arabic, Dhivehi, or Fang equivalent: "Don't trouble trouble till trouble troubles you." He has attained despot wisdom, the political equivalent of Zen satori, enlightenment through long meditation.

The one exception here is President Saleh of Yemen. The particular issue we have with President Saleh is the matter of the U.S.S. Cole. Remember the Cole? That American destroyer that was fueling up at Aden, Yemen's main port, when an Al Qaeda patrol boat came alongside and blew a hole in it? Seventeen of our sailors died; thirty-nine were wounded. That was in the waning months of the Clinton administration.

There was sufficient time left un-waned for Clinton to swear that "If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable." Yeah, right. Busy with much more important matters — organizing the Marc Rich pardon, things like that — Clinton did nothing. George W. Bush came into office and likewise did nothing. Heck, the Cole attack hadn't happened on his watch. Following 9/11 our government roused itself somewhat. Two of the Cole attack planners were killer by a Predator missile overflying Yemen in 2002. Two had died in the original attack, which was a suicide operation. The remaining tally is:

That final five are the issue. They have all either "escaped" (read: been allowed to escape) or been released by the Yemeni government. FBI Director Robert Mueller flew to Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, last month to ask President Saleh if he wouldn't mind please rounding up and handing over these five terrorists. Saleh said he would really, really like to, but the country's constitution, which is followed scrupulously, to the letter, by all Yemeni government officials, has a ban on the extradition of citizens.

With that futile gesture, and the 2002 Predator attack, the U.S. administration apparently feels it has discharged its responsibilities. Reports the Washington Post:

Relatives of the 17 sailors who died on the Cole said they are furious at Yemen for releasing the plotters. But they expressed equal disdain for their own government.

The families have fought for years to obtain information from the State, Defense and Justice departments about their inquiries into the attack. "We never really got anyplace," said Andrew C. Hall, an attorney for the relatives.

You can understand our government's deep reluctance to have anything to do with Yemen. The place is a sort of Arabian Haiti. From The Economist, 5/10/08:

In the past few years, it has dropped to 153rd among the 177 countries listed in the UN's human-development index** … More than a fifth of its 22m people are malnourished. Yemen imports 75 percent of its food … the aquifers most people rely on [for water] may dry up within a decade … Since 2004 a miniature war has sputtered in the far north … tens of thousands of civilians forced to flee their homes … Unrest is rising in the far south, too …

Still and all, couldn't we just for once take our revenge against those who killed our people and crippled one of our ships? I know, I know, we're supposed to set an example to the world, an example of lawful procedure and civilized restraint, but really, what do such things mean in a place like Yemen? Are we all out of Predators? It's been two presidencies now — our presidencies, I mean — and will soon be three. Before you know it, it'll be a whole clutch of presidencies: a Gayoom of them, perhaps even a full Bongo. Why are these Al Qaeda vermin still breathing good air, and drinking up Yemen's fast-dwindling supply of water? We waiting for them to go to Iraq so we can kill them? Why would they do anything we wanted them to?

I wouldn't want to leave you thinking I'm down on our country. We may be hopelessly feeble at dealing with people who insult and murder us, and blow holes in our capital ships, but there are still plenty of spheres in which we lead the world.

There is, for example (to return to my opening theme) seat-warming. African and Arab despots and the proprietors of remote, inconsequential tropical archipelagos are bumbling amateurs when compared to our own noble U.S. Senators. For comparison with the table up above, here are the top five from the upper house of the World's Greatest Deliberative Assembly:

Senator Affiliation Years old In office
(years)
In office
(U.S. presidencies)
Robert Byrd D-WV 90.5 48.5 10
Ted Kennedy D-MA 76.2 45.5 9
Daniel Inouye D-HI 83.7 45.4 9
Ted Stevens R-AK 84.5 39.4 8
Pete Domenici R-NM 76.0 35.4 7

Messrs. Bongo, Gaddafi, Saleh, Gayoom, and Mbasogo, eat your hearts out.  These are the real pros!   U—S—A!    U—S—A!    U—S—A! …

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**  See pp. 351-354 of this — be warned — humongous file. I note that Haiti is up to number 146, so Yemen is actually in worse shape than Haiti, which takes some doing. Time for a new president, perhaps?