Like the Emperor Diocletian, who retired to grow cabbages, I needed to get a break not only from Pittsburgh, but from the normal run of subjects that I write about. Hence I am in Amsterdam, listening to the ducks honking on the canals, eating good fish and, this evening, dining on pork from pigs raised in tranquility by monks in a monastery. I am also hoping to see the tulips -- unless the world's neglect of global warming makes them too late this year.
One story of which I am completely tired is North Korea. Kim Jong Un is probably mentally unhinged, or at least so unpredictable that one cannot be sure that he will behave rationally. He is busily trying to justify his inheritance to the position of dictator in his hopeless country. He is young and trying to impress the generals who basically run North Korea. If he is smart he knows that the only real answer for North Korea -- and South Korea -- is reunification of the country that was divided in 1945 between the Communist north and the Western-dominated south.
Everyone knows the economic history of the two. South Korea makes Hyundais and has a high standard of living. It even has Gangnam style. North Koreans, basically the same people, starve, develop nuclear weapons to get attention and maintain a huge army of goose-steppers. When I shared a building with some of the North's diplomats in Communist Bulgaria, they wouldn't walk onto an elevator with us and their embassy burned cheap, smelly coal for heat.
One could say that they are simply not going to war with South Korea and the United States and leave it at that. Unfortunately, U.S. military leaders and the South Koreans have persisted in poking the cage, running big joint exercises while the North Koreans fulminate and threaten war. The Pentagon flew B-2 and B-52 nuclear-capable bombers and hot F-22 fighter jets over South Korea, unprecedented in what are billed as routine exercises with the South Koreans.
What worries me about that -- and wearies me considerably -- is that it is as necessary to watch the Pentagon as it is the North Koreans. With the Iraq war over, the Afghanistan war winding down and the budget wars heating up in Washington, our own generals might want a war to justify their first call on America's finances. The South Koreans, fully aware that a war would severely damage their economic well-being, are probably the most sensible parties about avoiding war.
I also needed to get away from a piece of business preoccupying Pittsburghers: the Democratic primary for mayor. It is becoming increasingly money-soaked, with a likely outcome unlikely to have a positive outcome for the people of the city.
Incumbent Luke Ravenstahl dropped out, changing the electoral equation and leaving nearly $1 million in Ravenstahl campaign funds splashing around. He can throw some or all of the money to another candidate, or he may keep it for a legal defense fund for himself. At any rate, his withdrawal left Bill Peduto, Michael Lamb and Jake Wheatley as serious candidates, quickly joined by an opportunistic Jack Wagner.
Mr. Wagner now looks like the favorite, gathering pledges of support from the firefighter and police unions. This bodes ill for the union contracts Mr. Wagner might accept and for which the public would have to pay -- in effect, financing his election in fine Pittsburgh style. Subsequently, Mr. Lamb dropped out. Meanwhile, former city councilman Sala Udin is working with the African-American community to develop an agenda. The black vote could throw the Democratic nomination to someone else, perhaps Mr. Wheatley.
The whole thing is probably about money -- about future city contracts, patronage and other forms of informal or formal graft that will enable us to say, once again, "We have always done it that way," not a statement of pride, nor of resignation, but an ugly combination of smugness and complicity that cuts sharply against the image that Pittsburgh strives to project of being a forward-looking, excellent place to live.
Absent better subjects to think or write about than North Korea and the Pittsburgh mayoral race, I am in Europe trying to cool down and hoping that more worthy matters surface before I come back. Here, the big story is economic misery and the French baying for the blood of President Francois Hollande, but that is, fortunately, less my problem.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).