This Throne of Kings
by Michael Kinsley

Is anyone else bothered even a little bit by the idea that the war on terrorism has somehow put the United States in the business of installing a king in Afghanistan? Reinstalling, actually. His name is Zahir Shah, he's 87 years old, and he's been on an extended leave of absence since 1973. But he apparently has used up all his vacation days at last. Or, more to the point, we think he might be useful as a unifying figure during Afghanistan's transition from a hellish cauldron of feuding warlords to a prim parliamentary democracy, which is penciled in for the second half of this year.

The idea, presumably, is not that the king would actually run things but that he and his family could concentrate on the activities we associate with modern royalty—smiling and waving, committing adultery, getting divorced—while the real work of nation-building swirls on around him. We might not want a king ourselves. But Afghanistan, you see, is what one calls a "traditional" culture in which they take innocent pleasure in pretending that some doddering 87-year-old is better than everybody else because his father was, too. Still, the United States of America was long associated with the idea of rejecting kings. And that "branding strategy," as the business world calls it, worked pretty well. When we find ourselves installing kings instead, the course of human events has taken a strange turn.

When we have tried this sort of thing before, it has sometimes ended in tears. Half a century ago in Iran, a CIA agent shut his eyes, opened the Tehran phone book at random, and chose a family named Pahlevi. (Warning: slight exaggeration.) Before you could say "your majesty," the second so-called shah of Iran had convinced himself that his monarchy dated back thousands of years. He threw himself a huge party full of Hollywood celebrities—today's real royalty— to celebrate that misconception and soon was skewered on his scepter. Iranians decided that, on balance, they would rather be ruled by crazed religious fanatics.

Let's hope that someone has learned from that experience and that this time, in Afghanistan, we have checked the guy out on the Internet to make sure he is the real McCoy. It would be disappointing to learn that he was signed up based merely on his own say-so that he is beloved of his people and the meaningless coincidence that his last name is Shah.

Of course one shouldn't be too snobbish. The ranks of modern royalty are crowded with arrivistes. "King" Fahd, "Crown Prince" Abdullah, "Prince" Bandar and the thousands of lesser princes who fill the teeming palaces of Saudi Arabia are members of a royal family invented by Western diplomats in the 20th century. And the "royal" family of Jordan was cobbled together from the leftover scraps.

What's the difference between a desert tribal chieftain who probably couldn't get into the United States on a tourist visa and a royal prince who gets the full state-visit treatment plus quality time pretending to be interested in the landscape around Crawford, Texas? ("Endless flat, parched vistas—how extraordinary, Mr. President! If only we had something like this in Saudi Arabia. …") The difference is—well, here's a hint: It's a three-letter word beginning with "o." A royal prince is just a tribal chieftain sitting on a lot of oil.

As Maureen Dowd noted in the New York Times the other day, Prince Abdullah's visit with President Bush was the meeting of two dynasts. George W. Bush may even understand the dynastic principle better than he understands the democratic one. "One of the really positive things out of this meeting," Bush said afterward, "was the fact that the crown prince and I established a strong personal bond. We spent a lot of time alone, discussing our respective visions, talking about our families. I was most interested in learning about how he thought about things. I am convinced that the stronger our personal bond is, the more likely it is relations between our countries will be strong."

Bush may have been emphasizing the importance of the personal bond he developed with the prince because he couldn't actually remember any of the specific "things" he allegedly found "most interesting." Or he may really believe that a five-hour friendship between two men who talked about their families and "things" is the most important element in the relationship of two nations with many shared and diverse interests. Probably it's a bit of both.

Judging from small episodes like this and large ones like the recent bungled coup in Venezuela, you begin to suspect that George W. Bush doesn't get it about democracy. He uses the word but doesn't feel it in his bones.

Doesn't our president understand that there are two different kinds of nations in the world? There are nations where the rulers are determined by heredity—where the person in charge is in charge for no better reason than that his or her father was in charge before him. Then there are nations where the rulers are determined by democracy—where the person in charge is in charge because he or she got the most votes in an election among the citizens. And in this great divide, the United States stands proudly on the side of …of … Oh, never mind.

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