Sunday, February 06, 2005

Consistency as Leadership

I'm impressed by consistency of President Bush's rhetoric and vision since 9/11. Read the quotes below from the State of the Union speeches from 2002 and 2005. The first was delivered less than five months after 9/11. The second was delivered three days after the election in Iraq. Notice how his steady his vision is. Whether you like it or not, it is clear and consistent. (Compared to Kerry who can't maintain consistency in a single interview.)

SOTU 2002: We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance. (Applause.)
America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, including the Islamic world, because we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment. We seek a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.

SOTU 2005: The United States has no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else. ... Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures. And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.

SOTU 2002: In every region, free markets and free trade and free societies are proving their power to lift lives. Together with friends and allies from Europe to Asia, and Africa to Latin America, we will demonstrate that the forces of terror cannot stop the momentum of freedom.

SOTU 2005: The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom. ... And we've declared our own intention: America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

SOTU 2002: We have known freedom's price. We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, my fellow Americans, we will see freedom's victory.

SOTU 2005: The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable -- yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom.

Quite something. A cynic would say that the vision is consistent because the rhetoric was just copied from one speech to the next. Maybe so. But the context of the two speeches could not have been more different. In the years between January 2002 and February 2005, Bush risked his presidency on the invasion of Iraq and in the process became the Second Most Hated Man in the World (after Ariel Sharon). It would have been very easy for his rhetoric to change to reflect this. A different politician, one whose principles and vision were more responsive to polling data, would have changed over those three very difficult years.

In this way G. W. Bush is quite like Sharon. Michael Oren writes about Sharon's disregard for Likud in the pursuit of his vision of withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon has a plan that he believes is right for his country over the long run and he doesn't care much about the short term political bullshit.

Again, you might not agreed with Sharon's vision of Israel leaving Gaza but you have to admit that he has shown incredible political and person courage. He is facing political oblivion and physical death with this plan. (Remember that Rabin was assassinated by a extreme rightist for much less dramatic ideas about settlements.)

It's easy and cheap to call this consistency 'stubbornness.' Many in the media and on the left fall into this trap. But notice that this accusation of stubbornness never applies to, say, someone who has been steadily pro-choice over the past 20 years, despite changes in society and scientific knowledge. Is that stubbornness or principled consistency? For example, I am not a fan of Ted Kennedy. However, he has been consistent in his beliefs over many years, through various domestic and foreign crisis. People who like him find this appealing.

Don't underestimate the appeal of consistency as leadership. Even as Sharon has become unpopular among rightist Likubniks he has become more popular among centrist and some leftist Laborites. In the darkest days of the Iraqi occupation and all through the election, when writers who once supported the invasion were abandoning ship and backpedaling and pulling their hair out about the mistakes and the terrorists and how the whole thing had been botched (see Andrew Sullivan), Bush stood there and repeated what he had said at the start. Journalists and critics and the left piled on, thinking that he was 'blind to the facts,' just plain stupid or the pawn of a neo-con conspiracy. But he won the election, I think in part, based on what people saw as a man who had firmly held convictions and principle and would not fold under pressure, even when it would have been easy to do so (and possibly rewarding in the short-term).

Leadership is a tricky thing, but consistency, even when it is misinterpreted as stubbornness, is surely a large component. The key, however, is that one must have a principle or vision, before one can be consistent. You must have an idea to be consistent with. Absent such central principles, a leader's actions will by default be responsive only to the most immediate situation. This is leadership as reaction and it is how most politicians work. But it's not the way to fight a war or win a presidential election. Democrats, take note.
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