Rufus Miles, who died in 1996 at age 86, is best remembered not for the role he played as a senior adviser to three US presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) but as the originator and namesake of the aphorism “Where you stand depends on where you sit”, known as Miles’s Law.
This law has it that the viewpoints you embrace and the policies you institute are determined by the place or position you occupy in the community, in society, in the workplace, in the world at large.
For Miles, the precept was inspired by watching the remarkable change in the personal views of one of his colleagues who had been moved from the Bureau of Budget and Management to a more exulted position in a federal agency — the man went from being a hard-nosed cost-cutter to a red-hot advocate of more funding.
Though clearly he was the same person, the new responsibilities he took on seemed to act as a trigger for changes in his view of the world.
The claim that the president of the United States is “the most powerful man on earth”, though by now hackneyed, remains valid. Joseph Robinette Biden made the transition two weeks ago from an average Joe from Delaware, who had embodied, even as senator and vice president, the upfront, unassuming directness of working class Americans, to becoming just that — the most powerful man on earth, in charge of the most powerful nation on earth, fashioning the actualities of its present and envisioning the potentialities of its future. Oh, yes, uneasy lies the head.
But what with the rest of the world?
Let’s face it, though the stereotype of the naive, puffed-up American — depicted in literature by Graham Green in “The Quiet American” (1955) and Eugene Burdick in “The Ugly American” (1958) — runs deep abroad, and many there accuse America of a gamut of villainy while pursuing its foreign policy goals, countless people around the world still think that America, well, counts as a global power broker.
Persona of Joe Biden
How much will the persona of Joe Biden, the decent, no-frills “dude” from Delaware, be changed by where he now sits? Your guess is as good as mine.
But, without a doubt a changed man Joe Biden will be as he goes about leading the one Great Power of our time. But like all Great Powers before it, this one too hides an inward fire within its belly that never leaves those who lead it unmarked. That’s the nature of the beast.
Recall in this instant the case of idealistic, pre-White-House Barack Obama, the hauteur of whose moral poise — not to mention the lyric power and unfailing subtlety of his rhetoric — captivated the world, and cold-hearted in-the-White-House Barack Obama, who chucked high-mindedness in favour of realpolitik. Moral poise? Some critics have identified his Syria policy during that country’s civil war as having been no less than a catastrophic moral failure.
The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States represented the fulfilment of decades of hope by the Delaware native son to serve as chief executive. Well, at noon on January 20, the hour met the man.
And in his inaugural speech, the new president did something his predecessor failed to do in his four years in office — he levelled with America. But will he level with the rest of the world?
Ostensibly decent man
Alas, where Biden stands will be determined by where he now sits, in a place that defines him as the most powerful man on earth. In case you haven’t heard, power — whether diffused in the past by avaricious men, say, in imperial Rome or colonial Britain, and now by an ostensibly decent man from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office — corrupts. Often absolutely.
Yet, will President Biden, against all odds, against one’s gut instincts, against Miles’s Law, somehow reinvent America and dispense with the not so benign role it has played since the end of the Second World War as the Great Power du jure, one that considers the whole world as its eminent domain to cut and paste as it pleases?
Tough question. Tough not just because we are still too close to the fact to say, but tough because predicting the future — an improbable undertaking that requires the parsing of an infinite number of variables — is really a fool’s errand. Though a principal adjunct of human perception, the future remains a tense of reality discerned only by prophets and poets.
Still, a columnist would be an outright optimist or perhaps gifted with self-deception were he to advance the hopeful view that America’s global role, even under a new, level-headed administration, is about to receive a makeover. Sad but true.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile