It's Christmas time. It's that time of the year when Christians the world over stop to commemorate the birth of Jesus on a day on which he was almost certainly not born with rituals heavily drawn from Northern European paganism featuring a major role played by a Fourth Century Turkish bishop named Nicholas who over time has evolved into the patron saint of big seasonal discounts and deteriorating credit ratings.
While it is an occasion almost a third of the planet finds rich with spiritual meaning, the other seven-tenths go along with it because, well, it's fun, and there's colorful lighting, fruitcakes, wrapping paper, catchy tunes, and it offers a distraction from the endless seasonal repeats of Love Actually.
Even world leaders enjoy the Christmas season. Especially when their Secret Santa is kind to them and fills their stockings with just what they were wishing for.
Thanks to a little help from Edward Snowden and his friends at the NSA, we have received a glimpse into just what that has meant for some of our favorite statesmen, dictators, strongmen, bad guys, and other foreign policy headliners.
For example, for North Korea's Kim Jong Un, nothing says "family" like Christmas season. It is the time of year when you can get together with uncles, aunts, their henchmen, and have them put to death. Of course, that kind of thing can severely limit the number of relatives who actually want to come by and celebrate the holidays. Which can make even brutal dictators lonely. (That's what happened to his father. See the best documentary ever produced about his life, Team America World Police for the musical proof of this point.) That's why Kim is hoping his Secret Santa fills the hole in his heart (left by the holes he left in the heart of his late uncle Jang Song Thaek) with a new uncle who'll prove more durable and less threatening. Among the possible choices he was hoping would be considered were Uncle Jesse, Uncle Ben, Uncle Kracker, the Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Uncle Miltie. But Santa knows what's best. Which is precisely why if Kim keeps up his erratic, dangerous behavior, the replacement relative he is going to have to deal with is the one he can't seem to make go away, Uncle Sam.
Elsewhere in Asia, North Korea's sometime protectors, frustrated with the rogue elf of Pyongyang, are likely to be doubly cranky with the little guy because this does not look to be a good Christmas for them. That's because too many of the leaders in Beijing and China's provinces are discovering that it really is better to give than to receive ... especially if what you have been receiving are non-holiday gifts, bribes, payoffs, and those other under-the-table payments on which President Xi Jinping is at least starting to crack down. The best they can hope for from their Secret Santas is that their boss continues to look the other way for a little bit longer.
Vladimir Putin has been so afraid that Santa was going to put him on the naughty list and that all he would get in his stocking was coal and a lousy turn out for the upcoming Sochi Olympics that he has turned over a new leaf. He released his former political rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and days later let go the jailed punk protest band members of Pussy Riot. His secret hope, of course, is that if this change of heart lands him in Santa's better graces that maybe the old guy will throw in a little something extra ... like, say, Ukraine and who knows, maybe, if he's feeling generous, a Nobel Prize, for helping engineer an end to chemical weapons in Syria and a deal with Iran. (After all, Barack Obama got one for just taking the oath of office.)
Another last-ditch attempt to get on Santa's good side was made by Qassim al-Raimi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrorist broke with al Qaeda's long-standing corporate culture of being merciless murderers of innocents to offer an actual apology for "accidentally" attacking a hospital in Yemen. Asserting the attack was in error and offering to pay "blood money" to the families of the victims, al-Raimi asserted the attack was "not of our religion or our morals." Given that al Qaeda's record elsewhere suggests that this is actually exactly what they're all about, our sources at the North Pole suggest that this year al-Raimi should not bother leaving out cookies and warm milk by his fireplace. That sound he hears whooshing over head is not reindeers or a sled, it is a Predator drone, and the only thing coming down his chimney is likely to be a Hellfire missile.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, for President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Santa seems to have already prepared a gift. While Israel's Bibi Netanyahu has asserted this is not Santa's work but rather President Barack Obama who took the aforementioned holiday maxim that it is better to give than to receive too far, Santa seems to have adopted the view that a successful Iran nuclear deal is gift for Israel and for the region. Not to mention for Iran and the P5+1 negotiators who many believe are sincerely committed to making it happen.
But Santa is being doubly nice to Bibi, who does after all presides over the land that gave us Christmas in the first place, by offering him the gift of a possible peace with his Palestinian neighbors. As for the man who presides over the country that gave us St. Nicholas, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, he is actually being offered a choice this Christmas. It seems he can choose between gifts: He can either appreciate the gift that street protests and corruption scandals actually offer -- the message that the time for change is now, or he can opt for the alternative that ignoring them must bring -- the likelihood of early retirement.
Erdogan's one-time best bud, U.S. President Barack Obama, is already guaranteed to receive the gift he wants the most: an end to 2013, a year he is already trying to forget. But as a special bonus, he has a recovering U.S. economy likely to help make 2014 much better for him and his country, because nothing helps heal political wounds in the capital of holiday commercialism like the Christmasiest sound of all: ringing cash registers. (This probably won't be quite enough to motivate Obama to forgive Snowden and give him the gift he wants the most -- immunity from prosecution but in all likelihood, Santa, that civil libertarian, will give the world's most famous ex-NSA contractor the next best thing, a visa to some place nice and warm in Latin America ... just in time for the World Cup.)
Some have wondered that if Santa distinguishes so carefully between the naughty and the nice, whether those who were nicest in the past year might be entitled to something special. When they discovered that Pope Francis had, consistent with his simple lifestyle, requested and received nothing at all, they were confused. That is until they realized that in keeping with the true spirit of the season, the warm-hearted, tolerant Pontiff was not to be a recipient but rather, for a billion Catholics who until recently had been worried about the myriad trials facing their ancient church, he was actually the gift.
Of course, with so many leaders out there deserving so much, perhaps you have some other ideas about the gifts they deserve the most. Please don't hesitate to pass them along. We'll make sure they get right to Santa ... or to his helpers who can help make your Christmas wishes come true.