David Rothkopf

No one will mess with ‘Barry the Beanpole’

Given the events of the past week, it seems appropriate to devote some time to assessing the China-U.S. summit this week. It would be fascinating to explore why it turned out that in the end, the story was not so much how President Obama did, but rather was how President Hu did and how in ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Given the events of the past week, it seems appropriate to devote some time to assessing the China-U.S. summit this week. It would be fascinating to explore why it turned out that in the end, the story was not so much how President Obama did, but rather was how President Hu did and how in noticeable strides he has helped elevate China’s international game during his tenure in office. This recent meeting was in some respect the culmination of that fitful but striking process.

But it has been a long week. And if one focuses on the serious too long one misses the important … or, more to the point, the unintentionally hilarious. For example, it might not seem even remotely amusing that the U.S. federal government late this week rounded up 127 suspected mobsters. After all, it suggested that the mafia had not in fact gone the way of the Great Auk (extinct since 1844) — an event which dates either to effective use of RICO statutes by prosecutors beginning in the early 1980s or to the June 10, 2007, airing of the last episode of The Sopranos.

That last episode was so bad, that ending was so ill-conceived and self-indulgent, that it had the effect of completing The Sopranos‘ ultimate mission in its last years, which was to make mob life seem so petty and boring that we lost interest. But now here comes this week’s roundup, and suddenly the life is back. All you had to do was read through the list of names of the guys that got rounded up: Joseph "Jojo" Corozzo, Anthony "Big Tony" Moscatiello, Richard "Nerves" Fusco, Luigi "Baby Shanks" Manochchio, "Vinny Carwash," "Tony Bagels," "Johnny Pizza," "Lumpy," "The Bull," and "Meatball."

Maybe there is a lesson in this. Maybe if we want to recapture America’s interest (and the world’s) in foreign policy, maybe all it will take is coming up with colorful nicknames for world leaders. Nicknames that, like those of leading mobsters, tell you all you need to know in a word or two and would make any dull story on policy machinations that much more lively.

Of course, some world leaders that have been in the news this week have such nicknames. There’s Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier … but that hardly counts because he is, in fact, a gangster. And there are the nicknames that were revealed through WikiLeaks, like calling Angela Merkel "Teflon" because nothing sticks to her or referring to Dmitry Medvedev as "Robin" to Putin’s Batman. But the blandness of these definitions suggests why Foreign Service officers could never cut it in the mob. The same could be said for the former nickname-giver-in-chief George W. Bush who reportedly called Tony Blair "Landslide" and John Howard "Man of Steel" and, tellingly, boldly called Canada’s Stephen Harper "Steve." Actually, the same could be said for some of the nicknames that world leaders are actually given. Does calling Robert Mugabe "Comrade Bob" capture any of the evil or festering corruption of the man? I don’t think so. And calling Ecuador’s Abdalá Bucaram "El Loco" was not much more than truth in advertising.

Frankly, even when the nicknaming is left to comedians like Jimmy Kimmel (who did a riff on potential world leader monikers after the WikiLeaks revelations first appeared), what we get is a little flat: Mahmoud "Scruffy McWindbreaker" Ahmadinejad, David "Johnny Little Lips" Cameron, and Angela "Der Wienerschnitzel" Merkel.

But surely we could press a couple of these mobsters into service, possibly through a plea deal, to revitalize the international scene with grittier, tougher, more Jersey — credible nicknames. Wouldn’t the summit stories have been more interesting if they reported a meeting (ideally at Satriale’s pork store) between Barack "Barry the Beanpole" Obama and Hu "Let the Dogs Out" Jintao? Or if the pictures of their various consiglieri included references to Hillary "Mama Pantsuits" Clinton, "Tiny Tim" Geithner, or Yang "Big Dumplings" Jiechi?  

Silvio "Loose Zipper" Berlusconi? Or in a similar vein, Asif Ali "Loose Nukes" Zardari? Given Afghanistan’s biggest export and its biggest champion, couldn’t we call Hamid Karzai "The Horse Whisperer"? I’d try to come up with a mob nickname for Vladimir Putin, but it’s a pretty sure thing he already has one.

OK, maybe I don’t have the knack for it either. I haven’t lived in New Jersey for a couple of decades. Maybe you can do better. Suggestions are certainly welcome. But it’s worth the effort. Because absent these nicknames the mob might just complete its last, long fade to black. And if the bosses of the world start seeing that if political leaders worldwide were sporting the same kind of noms de crime, no self-respecting gangster will ever want to have one again.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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