Wednesday, November 2, 2011

America's Next Top Villain

Any way you slice it, this has been a bad year for those George W. Bush would have called “evildoers”. A Libyan mob executed Moammar Gadhafi after a US/NATO-led air campaign allowed rebel forces to drive him from power; Anwar al-Awlaki, al-Qaeda's heir apparent, was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen; and Public Enemy #1, Osama bin Laden was dispatched by the US Navy's SEAL Team Six in May. Of course it seems these days that the United States isn't happy unless we have some uber-villain to rail against, so as a service to you, our reading public, AWV will handicap the race to be America's Next Top Villain. Now let's meet the contenders:

Kim Jong-il, North Korea; Odds: 6-1
Megalomaniacal bad guy Kim Jong-il already seems like he stepped out of a James Bond flick, which is fitting since the Dear Leader is known to be a huge movie buff. On the surface, Kim has all the prerequisites for supervillainy: a highly militarized state, a thriving cult of personality, a penchant for making grandiose threats; but Kim is also near 70 and reportedly in poor health – and no one wants a supervillain who just up and dies on you. Plus North Korea is currently on one of its swings towards engagement with the world, Kim himself was recently in Russia trying to drum up trade between the two nations and negotiating a possible natural gas pipeline route. And then there's the nuclear weapons issue, Kim has shown that nothing keeps the United States out of your well-coifed hair like having a nuclear arsenal (a lesson Gadhafi failed to grasp). But North Korea is known for wild swings in foreign affairs. Kim is also attempting to groom his youngest son, Kim Jong-un for leadership, and nothing screams legitimate leader like drumming up a little military conflict with your neighbors, so Kim the Elder will retain his spot on the possible Top Villain list.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria; Odds: 5-1
Given the Libyan blueprint, casting al-Assad of Syria as the Next Top Villain makes a lot of sense. Just like Gadhafi in Libya, al-Assad has overseen a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters within his country, and, just like Libya, the opposition has used social media to implore the international community to come to their aid. So far though these calls have fallen on deaf ears; there has been no outcry for a Syrian no-fly zone or to provide aid to their rebel movement. Why is a good question: it could be because Syria has close ties to Iran (as well as some ties to Russia), or because they lack Libya's vast oil reserves, or because al-Assad just doesn't have the track record for international mischief of a Moammar Gadhafi. Heady with the success from the Libyan mission, it is possible the international community may rally 'round the “Free Syria” idea, though not terribly likely so al-Assad stays on the list at 5-1.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran; Odds: 5-3
On paper, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems like a shoe-in for the Next Top Villain post. Hawks in Israel and the US have been clamoring for military action against him for years: Israel fearing an Iranian nuclear bomb, the US angry over growing Iranian influence in Iraq, but the thought of the US engaging in another regional war in the MENA/Islamic world has thrown some cold water on the military action idea (and that was before Libya), as has Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program (see North Korea). Some experts believe that Ahmadinejad may be losing his grip on power in Iran anyway, the comically-bad plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US is taken by some as sign of a split within the Iranian leadership. Ultimately power in Iran is known to be in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei, which works against Ahmadinejad since a rule of thumb is that the Top Villain actually has to be the guy in charge. Still, given his record as an anti-West, anti-Israel irritant and the desire in some quarters for military action against Iran, Ahmadinejad has to remain the odds-on favorite for the Next Top Villain spot.

Joseph Kony, Lord's Resistance Army; Odds: 50-1
As the leader of a brutal, nihilistic cult, Joseph Kony seems tailor-made for the role of Top Villain. His Lord's Resistance Army -which earned its reputation for brutality by maiming innocent civilians and raiding isolated villages, killing all the adults while enslaving all of the children - is an easy group to despise (unless, of course, you're Rush Limbaugh). But the LRA has never shown itself to be a threat anywhere but in the hinterlands of Central Africa, and Kony himself has shown a remarkable ability to blend into the African jungle and avoid capture for two long decades now. President Obama recently showed his willingness to take on the LRA by dispatching 100 US Special Forces troops to aid Uganda in Kony's capture. But a Top Villain has to at least seem to pose a direct threat to the United States and also has to be someone that we can be reasonably sure that we can eventually take out. No president wants another decade-long game of hide-and-seek like we had with bin Laden; two factors that make Kony a real longshot for next Top Villain.

Vladimir Putin, Russia; Odds: 8-1
We'll go retro for our last pick. Since declaring that he would once again run for president, Vladimir Putin is being cast as a sort of Soviet-era Leader for Life for the new millennium. Republican presidential candidates are using Putin's announcement as a chance to blast the Obama administration for its “failed reset” of relations with Russia. Add to that Putin's own budding cult of personality (complete with bikini-clad female supporters and a comic casting him as a superhero) and his penchant for photo-op stunts like swimming in Siberian rivers or finding planted Grecian urns while diving in the Aegean Sea, and you have the theatrical makings of a true Top Villain. While a direct military conflict between the US and Russia is unthinkable, the two sides have shown that they can keep a Cold War humming along for decades, and a non-war “war” could be just the thing for American military forces depleted by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and under growing budget constraints. The reality of the situation though is that the US and Russia need each other more as allies than as adversaries, so a return to the Cold War now is unlikely. Odds of Putin becoming next Top Villain depend on whether Obama (10-1) or the Republicans (6-1) win the 2012 election; we'll split the difference and put Vlad in at 8-1.

Of course there are always the dark horse candidates: Hugo Chavez is famous for his anti-American tirades; Republicans trying to appeal to Cuban-American voters in 2012 could always push the Castro brothers to the top of America's hit list; Afghanistan's erratic Hamid Karzai could always go rogue on us, so the race for America's Next Top Villain remains open. We'll check back in a few months and see where things stand.

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