Not guilty by reason of arrogance?

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Strauss-Kahn's Defense Is No Defense at All

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has revealed his defense strategy for his ongoing pimping trial in France: He denies knowledge that the young women who consented to have sex with him in hotel rooms were prostitutes. The judge, and the world watching the tawdry saga, are supposed to believe Strauss-Kahn was so naive that he thought they were attracted to him.

Judge Bernard Lemaire should strike down that defense for the sake of all powerful men. They need to know that society expects better of them than that.

Strauss-Kahn is on trial for aiding and abetting prostitution, an offense equivalent to pimping. He is not accused of being a pimp per se, only of accepting the services of businessmen friends who arranged sex parties in Europe and the U.S. That's why it's important for Strauss-Kahn to deny all knowledge of any paid sex.

"It gives me no pleasure and I'm even horrified," he protested. "This is not the kind of sexuality I appreciate. Such a creepy relationship doesn't satisfy me."

Yet here were the women, some of them describing his lovemaking as so abusive that it brought tears to their eyes. "Carnage" was the word one of them used. Did Strauss-Kahn really believe they were so impressed with his less-than-fit 60-year-old body, wrinkled face and grey hair that they were happy to satisfy his every wish?

The answer is no. Strauss-Kahn says his confidence stemmed from his position at the time: From 2008 to 2011, he was one of the most powerful people in the world, head of the IMF. "Let's say I saved the world from a crisis that could have been worse than the one in 1929," Strauss-Kahn said at the trial with no trace of fear of sounding pompous. That, he implied, was why he took his friends' -- and, by extension, the women's -- favors for granted: "A lot of people wanted to please me at the time."

Henry Kissinger once called power a "great aphrodisiac" and later apparently corrected himself, changing the adjective to "ultimate." It's not impossible to believe that people would want to have sex with someone on the front lines of saving the world from financial catastrophe, or even simply someone who was often on television and in the newspapers. For Strauss-Kahn to assume, however, that this would be sufficient motivation for numerous young women to have anonymous group sex with him is a sign of either incredible arrogance or serious lack of judgment. 

A few days ago, tabloids reported that convicted serial killer Charles Manson, 80, had broken off his engagement to 27-year-old Afton Elaine Burton. He had apparently figured out that Burton and her friends had planned to get their hands on his body after his death so they could display it in a glass crypt as a tourist attraction. Manson, however, reportedly strung his scheming fiancée along for a while so she would keep bringing him toiletries in prison. If this story is true, murderer Manson has more sense than erstwhile leading candidate for the French presidency Strauss-Kahn: He didn't put as much stock in his star power and was canny enough to suspect an ulterior motive.

It shouldn't be a requirement for politicians and public officials to be paragons of virtue. In Europe, particularly in France, they are rightly allowed their affairs and nasty divorces. French President Francois Hollande survived the 2014 revelations of a love affair with actress Julie Gayet, which resulted in his highly public breakup with long-time partner Valerie Trierweiler. There is no direct connection between missteps in affairs of the heart and the ability to govern. Yet Strauss-Kahn's character flaw, highlighted by his defense, is of a different kind.

If he is telling the truth, then he was willing to accept favors as his due because of his position. That's only acceptable in a kleptocracy. Anywhere else, the perks of high office are a finite list that doesn't include rich gifts and willing women. It's also scary to imagine that the head of the IMF couldn't tell professional hookers from fellow libertines: One hopes he applied better judgment to nations' applications for last-ditch financial aid.

Even if the court takes Strauss-Kahn's defense at face value, it shouldn't accept naivete, myopia or arrogance as mitigating factors. If anything, for someone as important and accomplished as Strauss-Kahn was, they are aggravating circumstances. Humility and an analytical intelligence are requirements for a strong leader these days, even as sexual continence is not. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net