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POLICY AND THE CHALLENGE OF BRILLIANCE

If brilliance was all that mattered, then the country with the largest supply of brilliant minds should not have problems jumping out of challenges. This, however, is not the case because brilliance often has at least two symbiotic limitations; first is an oversupply of arrogance and disdain for others and second it affects the application of common sense. Subsequently, the brilliant who know they are brilliant act immature, ignore the concerns and opinions of others, and assume that those others are not as brilliant as themselves. To some extent, brilliance is relative because it is affected by the geopolitical ecosystem of a place. Irrespective of the relativity, the perceived brilliant often have little time for Socratic humility in search of knowledge. The absence of humility is probably out of mischief or senses of insecurity which makes brilliant but insecure minds holding responsible positions dangerous to society and state.

The contradictory phenomenon of brilliance co-existing with awkwardness on policy matters happens in small countries like Kenya and large ones like the United States of America. Despite having brilliant and often behind the scenes advisors, policy makers are at times captive to institutional mandarins, or are the source and part of the backfiring misadventure. Brilliant US President John F. Kennedy was captive to backfiring CIA projects in Cuba. The disdain for others enabled brilliant Henry Kissinger to overthrow an elected government in Chile in order, he reportedly quipped, to stop the foolishness of voters from threatening US interests.

The awkwardness appeared brilliant in the context of the Cold War and even afterwards. The US overthrew governments in Iran, Guatemala, sabotaged Vietnamese elections, and plotted to assassinate problematic foreign leaders. David Halberstam, in The Best and the Brightest, captured the contradiction of brilliant Kennedites blundering into Vietnam. They knew they were brilliant but being full of self-righteousness, they ignored both ‘common sense’ and concerns of the Vietnamese.

In the post-Cold War period, brilliant American leaders blundered into assorted conflicts due to arrogance and disdain for others, misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and simple geopolitical mischief. Bill Clinton, for instance, ignored warnings about Russian security concerns over NATO expansion eastwards. George W. Bush desired war in Iraq, thereby making evidence irrelevant to his policy objective. As a result, brilliant General Colin Powell discredited himself at the United Nations by presenting fabricated information to justify invading Iraq. In his obsession with forcing the world to be on his right side of history, brilliant Barack Obama, assisted by Hilary Clinton and John Kerry, helped overthrow governments in Libya and Egypt and plunged Syria into chaos supposedly to enhance democracy and put those countries on the right side of his history. Since those activities did not work, Libya is in tatters. Joe Biden’s search for a world to lead led him first into the Ukraine mess and second he inadvertently helped the Chinese to continue reorienting global geopolitics.

On their part, Kenyan policy makers appear brilliant even as they blunder and occasionally admit they are lost. Uhuru Kenyatta seemed to miss the point of common sense on matters of socio-political economy. ‘What do you want me to do?’ he once asked and then conceded that crooks stole 2 billion shillings daily from the economy. Reportedly ignoring the wisdom of the elders contained in Kihooto, he could not hear an elderly woman evicted at night wailing Uui, Uhuru Wiitu. The woman’s wailing was a cultural curse on a previously ‘revered’ leader who seemingly had become what Maina Kamanda termed Kimenyi Uteerwo. William Ruto proved he was brilliant by successfully undertaking his PhD while serving as Kenya’s Deputy President. He, however, had problems understanding geopolitical realities and thus missed the negative implications of his excitement in making quick policy pronouncements. He probably was listening to external advice on how to look good to the West and ended up blundering on Western Sahara, Sudan, Niger, and Haiti. In admitting that his policy appointees are ignorant and incompetent, brilliant Ruto raised the question of whether he listens to good Kenyan advice.

The contradictory relationship between brilliance and awkwardness, whether in small or large countries often becomes vivid in annual professional conferences where men and women of brilliance meet to diagnose what ails their respective societies. In those conferences, being assemblages of ‘brilliance’, the innocent wonder why countries lose common sense and engage in confounding policy blunders. One reason, it appears is that brilliance s relative and, just like power, blinds the holder into arrogance and loss of common sense. Members of the American Political Science Association, APSA, met at Los Angeles for the annual ritual with participants and came from rich Canada and Latin America, from wealthy European and Asian countries but not from Africa. APSA invited some Africans to talk about their research but forgot the welfare of the invitees in expensive LA; it symbolized pulverizing power relationship. In their special session, Africans explored such themes as counting violent deaths in Kenya, identity and marginalization in Algeria, women in Zimbabwe politics, Ethiopian internal frictions, Nigerian unification politics, and Julius Malema’s populism in South Africa. They also argued whether discussing the colonial legacy was relevant to Africa’s contemporary tribulations.

Conference time is also confession time on what big powers do to little ones. In her APSA address, President Lisa Martin talked of International Organisations, including IMF, World Bank, ICC, and WHO essentially as agents of big Western powers to fix little countries and still look innocent. What makes the assertion news was the person making it but not the fact of it, given that victims of IO behavior have repeatedly made those claims. The blowing up of the Nord Stream Pipeline, she asserted, was the work of Pro-Ukrainian groups rather than the US or Ukrainian governments. There are, however, reports that the White House knew about the plot three months before the explosion.       

The phenomenon of brilliance being negative is confounding. Although, as Nigeria academic Kayode Soremekun insists, brilliance may be relative to the ecosystem in which a person exists, there are common traits. These include the bright knowing they are so brilliant that, in assuming they have monopoly of knowledge, lose capacity for common sense and ability to make competent decisions. All, in the process, neglect the likely consequences of associated decision making blunders. The tragedy of brilliant Kenyan and American policy making elite is that they may not be aware that they blunder because, believing they know ‘all’, disdainfully ignore others and are thus blind to looming dangers.   

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MACHARIA MUNENE
MACHARIA MUNENE
Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU
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