Leading Article: Trapped in the trappings of power

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The Independent Online
YASSER Arafat already sees himself as president of the nascent state of Palestine. He is reported to be yearning for the symbols and trappings that would go with that office: his face on the currency and postage stamps and, of course, a national airport for state visits.

This will disappoint those who have romanticised him as leader of an oppressed people. He turns out to be rather more human than he ought to be. But vanity has always been one of the driving forces in politics. Sometimes it can be usefully harnessed. Probably it helped to draw Arafat towards agreement, and it may do the same for Gerry Adams, who shows signs of yearning for respectability.

These are gains. But one of the general rules of politics must be that those who are most enchanted by the trappings of power are the most likely to abuse it. The phenomenon is especially conspicuous in Africa, where men such as 'Emperor' Jean Bedel Bokassa and President Mobutu Sese Seko came to regard the state as their personal property. The vulgar ostentation of the Nazi regime in Germany also comes to mind, but that at least accurately expressed Nazi ideology.

Worse in a way, because so hypocritical, were the Communist rulers of Eastern Europe, who preached equality and sacrifice while surrounding themselves with Western luxuries. There was logic in what they did because they could buy the loyalty of their underlings with graded privileges, but in the end they contributed to their doom by cutting themselves off from their people and destroying even their own belief in themselves. An old joke used to go the rounds in which Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, is showing off his opulent lifestyle to his aged mother, who asks nervously: 'But Leonid, what will happen if the Communists come?'

Few statesmen are wholly immune to the trappings of power. Nelson Mandela looks like a possible exception, having been ennobled by his sufferings in prison. President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, although he enjoys his cars and his castle, is protected by his subversive sense of humour. Arafat seems made of weaker stuff, and is not known for a sense of humour. He may have to learn the hard way that the more he tries to build up his stature with visible symbols, the more he will undermine it.