Friday, March 16, 2007

Whose Leader Is This Anyway?

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted it: he is unpopular. This is about as surprising as finding out that lions roar. Anyone who reads a newspaper in Israel, watches TV or listens to the radio is told several times a week that Olmert is unpopular.

Sometimes the reporters quote facts and figures, showing Olmert behind his Kadima protégé Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the polls. Other times the reporters quote Olmert’s rivals, like Likud head Bibi Netanyahu, or Labor hopeful Ehud Barak.
Each of these people has a vested interest in blaring the news that Olmert is unpopular.
Each has their own agenda.

Even Israel Security Agency chief Avi Dichter wants to be Prime Minister. Turns out that’s partly behind why he is always making headlines with new proclamations of impending disaster. Nothing gets headlines like impending disaster.

Manipulating public opinion is an art. Done well careers are built and fortunes are made. Done poorly, or inappropriately, careers are ruined. Who recalls Alexander Haig’s gaff after U.S. President Ronald Regan was shot by John Hinkley, Jr.? “I’m in control,” Haig told the TV cameras. He meant well, that the country was in good hands. But the message was sinister: he was in control. Fine, but who asked for him to be in control? He sort of skipped the entire electoral process, as well as the chain of who assumes control of the US government in case of an assassination. Haig’s career was flushed down the toilet with that mistake.

Or take Howard Dean’s misstatement while running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Who even remembers what he said? But it was enough to make him look stupid, frazzled, and all too human. Flush that nomination down the toilet, too.

Going back farther we have Richard Nixon sweating on camera when debating the debonair John Kennedy. Flush that election down the toilet as well.

Which leads to the question: what makes a leader, and why do people follow?

In Israel today the population is worried. Iran is threatening Israel with nuclear annihilation; Hezbollah is threatening more rockets, with larger warheads and greater range. Hamas in Gaza is copying Hezbollah, digging underground bunkers, stocking up on more powerful missiles, getting ready to attack.

Now, just when the kettle is starting to boil, PM Olmert told the AIPAC convention that if the US pulls out of Iraq, Jordan might fall to Islamic fundamentalism.
Olmert, who we’ve already determined is about as popular as a wolf in a hen house, didn’t make any friends at AIPAC with that comment. He may have pleased George W. Bush, but most of the AIPAC folks didn’t vote for Bush, either.

So, is Olmert just playing nice guy, supporting Bush and his policies, as a way to stay friendly with the White House? After all, Olmert is still the Prime Minister, Israel is still a country, and Bush is still the President of the USA. All sorts of things come out of that relationship. Military stipends, US government orders for Israeli products, planes, tanks, guns, training, you name it. Olmert may have been politically correct to make nice to Bush, even if it pissed off the Democratic supporters in AIPAC.

Then there’s the economy. Olmert says he’s a good manager. Unpopular, sure, but a good manager. The economy is thriving. He is responsible for that. He was the Finance Minister, and now the Prime Minister. Who else, if not him, can take credit?
And Israelis like their economic security. Rockets may fall on Kryiat Shmona, but as long as the shekels keep flowing, it’s not that important. After all, who ever goes to Kyriat Shmona anyway?

The issue of war is sometimes used to great effect to take the blame away from politicians for mishandling the economy. That wasn’t the case in the War in Lebanon II. The Israeli economy was flourishing, and still is. Talk of war doesn’t do the economy any good, but it didn’t hurt either, it seemed. Except the country spent a bundle fighting Hezbollah to a draw, losing over 100 soldiers in battle, maiming hundreds more. Too bad.
But what does it mean, tachlis (in reality) as the Israelis say? Not much, unless you’re a bereaved friend or family member, or wounded soldier. Like Kyriat Shmona, not many people got killed, did they, and that was six-months ago.

So we’re back in the race for political leadership in Israel. Olmert may well be accused of mishandling the War in Lebanon by the Winograd commission investigating the war. Recommendations may be made that he resign. So far he’s not budging from his seat of power. He likes it. Who blames him?

It is more than possible that the IDF may soon “invade” Gaza to attempt to neutralize the growing Hamas missile threat. The Israeli press mentions the possiblity more every day. Rumors of an impending invasion are circulating in towns and cities, talked about by soldiers who are undergoing special training. But is this invasion necessary, or a sideshow to turn public attention away from the issues at hand: poor government management in the face of existential threats?

When one steps back, one wonders why a man, or woman, decides to assume the mantle of leadership: and how they get to power? If all men are equal, why do people follow one person over another? Why does Clinton win favor, and Nixon get threatened with jail? Why did Nixon get to power? Did J. Edgar Hoover stay in his throne because of his files on powerful people, because he was smart and did a good job, or because he had Charisma?

Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Hussein, Achmanejad, Idi Amin, cannibalistic African tribal leaders, all have one thing in common: they gain public support, then surround themselves with bodyguards to protect themselves. Hitler brought amphitheaters to their feet with cheers. But he was a homicidal maniac. How can we judge leadership? Who even wants to be a leader? What are the motivations? Ego? Power? Wealth? Status? Prestige?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt reportedly said that as a member of the educated privileged classes it was his duty to serve the common good. Wonderful thought. Was it true? Let’s assume it was. But today, whom do we have with those ideals? Moses was a modest man, shy, who used his brother as his spokesman. He was a reluctant leader, chosen by God himself, so the story goes. But today, who stands up to be chosen? Those who want to do good, or those who want something good for themselves, or their buddies, or both?

Olmert isn’t a homicidal maniac. Neither is he popular. Maybe the two go together? In some ways he is doing a good job. In other ways he is at the helm until someone else steps up to the bridge. Should another storm blow in, he may wind up aground on a sharp coral reef. Or the storm may just pass over, like the last one.

But sooner or later someone is going to have to take the helm because the weather forecast is for more storms, some even converging. In that case, we just may need divine intervention to make it to calm waters.

Let’s just hope that a popular, charismatic leader doesn’t show up, one that turns out to be so enamored with power that no one notices until its too late they’re as crazy as a loon. Given those alternatives, maybe a milktoast manager with a weak smile is a better choice. Probably why no one is in a hurry to dump Olmert.