Remarks on Iraq, Truth, and Leadership

People keep talking about the government of Iraq. This the kind of phrase used in our public discourse that ought to make us impatient. There is no government of Iraq. The organization our leaders – such as the senators who recently travelled to Iraq – call the government of Iraq isn’t a government. It can’t levy taxes, it has no armed force under its own control, it can’t make laws, enforce laws, protect people, or do any of the other things a government does. There are lots of reasons it can’t do those things, but the main reason is that it has no legitimacy. We think that it should have legitimacy because the members of the government were elected in Western-style elections. But – again, for lots of reasons – the elections do not confer legitimacy on this government. Because it has no legitimacy at all, anywhere in Iraq, it has no chance of becoming a government.

Admitting that would be far too much for our leaders to do. That would be admitting that everything we have done there since Hussein fell has been a collossal waste. That would be to say, “We’ve been the perpetrators of a fiasco: what do we do now?” Bush and his team aren’t the only leaders in a state of denial. Legislators in the Senate and the House, military leaders who won’t stand up to Rumsfeld in private, opinion leaders who write about the war, everyone who talks about the government of Iraq stamps willful ignoramus on their forehead. They have no claim to our attention, because they’ve shown that they’re willing to deceive themselves for the sake of what: the ability to go along with all the other people who refuse to recognize the fiasco?

They have no claim on our attention, and more importantly, they have no claim on our loyalty. Leaders are supposed to look out for the welfare of their followers, and our current leaders don’t do that. They say that’s what motivates them, but look at their behavior. Their behavior doesn’t match their pronouncements. And their pronouncements, which really amount to propaganda, don’t match reality. To call the current government of Iraq a government is just one common example. Last throes and WMD come to mind as other common – and disastrous – examples.

Many months ago, when things looked far better in Iraq than they do now, a reporter asked an Iraqi in the street a question about the government of Iraq. The young man snorted, “Government?? Iraq doesn’t have a government!” What would happen if we were to recognize that simple truth? There are a lot of other simple truths we could recognize, but that’s one of the simplest and most recognizable. If we saw things the way that young Iraqi saw them, we couldn’t continue in our current direction. We would have to rethink our strategy and our tactics. That’s not going to happen, though. Stay the course trumps all other directions. All other options amount to quitting or, just as unthinkable, pouring even more resources into an unwinnable war.

Perhaps we can define objectives that formulate clearly what we mean by winning. No one in our leadership wants to do that, either. They make a big show about having a plan for success, but everyone knows it’s just more propaganda. Everyone knows that the latest speeches are no closer to reality than the earlier ones, and the earlier ones certainly had no grounding in reality. That’s what happens when you lose the trust of your followers. Even if our current leaders did formulate a reasonable plan, few would have confidence in it. You can’t lead people around the mulberry bush that often, with such catastrophic results, and expect that people will want to follow you again.

Bush was so much the triumphalist during his inauguration festivities in January 2005. That was less than 21 months ago. Just one day can be a lifetime in the life of a politician. What must Bush think when he sees how far he has fallen? What must he feel when he understands he’s not going to get up again? What Bush thinks and feels isn’t our concern, though. We have to find new leadership. We have too make the best of this catastrophe, not let it demoralize us permanently. The difficulty is that our methods for recruiting new leaders don’t meet our needs now. The people who the recruitment process brings forward aren’t qualified to lead. A friend said hopefully that the Democrats might offer some hope here, and I found myself responding emphatically, “The Democrats aren’t fit to lead!” They think they are, but it’s obvious to so many that they’re not.

A generation from now – and some military leaders are talking in terms of a generation – Iraq will be a peaceful place. The war in its present form will most likely be over twenty-five years from now. The Iraqis will start to rebuild their shattered institutions. The Republicans, if their party still exists, will take credit for it. They’ll say, “I told you so,” no matter how long the fighting takes to end. They may try to take credit for peace in Iraq, but will anyone give them credit? Given our current willingness to accept phrases like the government of Iraq, I’m thinking that some people might be ready to accept the argument about success, too. They might be willing to say, maybe the people who started this war were right after all. By that reasoning, Mao was right to lead his people into the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. China became prosperous place after all.

We still do have a choice. We can find leaders outside of the usual channels of recruitment. Lincoln was a leader like that – a leader who came from the back country when most of our leaders still came from the East. Martin Luther King was also something of an unlikely leader. He had a leadership base in his church, but nothing in his early training would lead you to say he would be a national political leader. We do need to find people who have training in leadership. Difficult times call for leaders who are skilled, passionate, and wise. We should look for those people anywhere we can find them. They’re not celebrities, and we should try to celebrate them too much. We should just try to help them. Encourage them. Show them that courage and common sense are still qualities we can call our own. Leaders draw their strength from the people who follow them. We need to find leaders who care about us, who want to serve us unselfishly. We are a long way from that now.

The people who back our current course still ask challengingly, “What would you have us do?” You know that they’re not going to listen to the answer, that they’re already planning their response before you’ve expressed even the beginning of a thought. You know that they don’t care what you say in response. Of course that’s the first thing a leader has to do: listen to what you say. Our current leaders don’t care what we say. When you’re sure you’re right, you don’t need to listen. In any case, what we need to do is simple. Not easy, but simple. We need to admit our mistake to the world and ask its forgiveness, and we need to find new leaders. Our current leaders certainly won’t relinquish power on their own, and they certainly won’t admit they were wrong when they invaded Iraq. So the two things we need to do go together. We need to find leaders who are willing to admit we were wrong, and who can plan constructively for the future they have transformed by that admission.

Where can we find people like that? We have to look harder than we’re looking now. And we have to have people who are willing to bear the suffering that good leaders inevitably bear. Do we have wise people, courageous people who are tough and can bear pain? Do we have people who care passionately about the welfare of all Americans? Do we have people who can tell our story convincingly, remind us that we have good reasons to hope no matter how bad things look at the moment? Something wonderful is about to happen, Reagan used to say, along with numerous other optimistic anecdotes and sayings. He loved life and he loved America. Everyone – even his opponents – could see it. I keep asking in these essays, where will we find someone like that? Where will we find someone who has the qualities we need now?

Well I can tell you this: President Bush is the first president in my lifetime where I’ve said without doubt, “I can do a better job than that.” I always found lots of reasons before not to think of becoming president. Not any more. Now I think about it, and fantasy or not, I’m convinced I could do a better job even though I don’t have training in politics. I can’t be the only one. Other people must think as well that they can do better than the total failure and incompetent who is now in office. Other people must think that they have qualities that could help their fellow citizens at a time of clear need.

That’s really what we need now: someone with vision and backbone, and compassion for our citizens who need that so much. We don’t need a superstar – we just need someone who can do better. Substantially better, yes, but not impossibly better. Who will step forward? Or who will we call? It doesn’t matter who takes the initiative, who says the first word. Citizens have to issue the call, leaders have to respond. We have to rebuild the trusting bond that must exist between citizens and leaders. The first step in that process is to replace the people who broke the bond in the first place.

I’m sure I’ve written enough for tonight. Thanks for listening. Now I want to listen to you.

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