“Scorched earth” usually refers to a military policy intent on destroying everything to preclude the enemy from seizing or using anything. But as the image it conjures implies – nothing but rubble and ruin left – for those left behind the cost is high. What they knew is no more. In its wake is nothing but destruction, decay, death.
While “scorched earth” originally has a military connotation, now the term is used more broadly. It refers to the deliberate decision to detonate – not always literally, sometimes figuratively – whatever others might deem of value. Which has led me to coin the term, “scorched earth leader.” A scorched earth leader is any leader who prefers to blow up everyone and everything – literally or figuratively – to surrendering even a smidgeon of power.
It’s astonishing when you think of it – leaders so crazily narcissistic that they opt to destroy the lives of their followers rather than suffer a blow to their ego. Adolph Hitler is an infamous example. By the summer of 1944 it was well known not only to the Allies but to the Nazis that Germany’s chances of winning the war were diminishing to the point of vanishing. Still, Hitler refused even to consider surrender, preferring to see Germany go up in flames until finally he did himself in.
More contemporaneously, also infamously, is Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who clung to power for nearly 40 years as his country declined by every measure on account of his wretchedly inept and corrupt governance. Nor did he even in old age exit of his own volition. Just two years ago, in the rough equivalent of a palace coup, Mugabe was finally forced out.
And how about Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad?! As I write he is as securely situated at the top of his country’s political hierarchy as at any time since the political protests that were associated with the Arab Spring, in 2011. In the eight years since then, Assad has consistently refused even to consider compromise, preferring instead to see the Syrian people suffer as acutely as any in this century. Large swaths of their country have been destroyed. And these are the casualties of the civil war: Approximately a half a million Syrians dead. Approximately 3 million Syrians fled from their homeland to other countries including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. And approximately 6. 5 million Syrians displaced within their own country. Still Assad stands – a scorched earth leader if ever there was one.
It’s a phenomenon so awful it seems almost alien. How is it that followers allow, sometimes even enable scorched earth leaders? Why do we put up with those who would do us in?
Of course, we Americans have no such concerns. We would never elect a president who would burn the house down before gracefully bowing out.