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Character, Policy and the Selection of Leaders

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 - 04:00 Print Text Size

By George Friedman

The end of Labor Day weekend in the United States traditionally has represented the beginning of U.S. presidential campaigns, though these days the campaign appears to be perpetual. In any case, Americans will be called on to vote for president in about two months, and the question is on what basis they ought to choose.

Many observers want to see intense debate over the issues, with matters of personality pushed to the background. But personality can also be viewed as character, and in some ways character is more important than policy in choosing a country's leadership.

Policy and Personality

A candidate for office naturally lays out his plans should he win the election. Those plans, which may derive from an ideology or from personal values, represent his public presentation of what he would do if he won office. An ideology is a broadly held system of beliefs — an identifiable intellectual movement with specific positions on a range of topics. Personal values are more idiosyncratic than those derived from an ideology, but both represent a desire to govern from principle and policy.

As we all know, in many cases the presentation of intentions has less to do with what the candidate would actually do than it does with what he thinks will persuade the voters to vote for him. But such a candidate, possessing personal ambition more than principle, would not be opposed to doing what he said, since it suited the public. He has no plans himself beyond remaining in office.

Then there are those who profoundly believe in their policies. They sincerely intend to govern based on what they have said. This is what many think elections ought to be about: ideas, policies, ideologies and beliefs. Thus, in the case of the current American election, many are searching for what the candidates believe and asking whether they actually mean what they say.

In the United States and other countries, policy experts decry the fact that the public frequently appears ignorant of and indifferent to the policies the candidates stand for. Voters can be driven by fatuous slogans or simply by their perception of the kind of person the candidate is. The "beauty pageant" approach to presidential elections infuriates ideologues and policy experts who believe that the election should not turn on matters as trivial as personality. They recognize the personal dimension of the campaign but deplore it as being a diversion from the real issues of the day.

But consider the relationships between intentions and outcomes in American presidencies. During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush made the case that the American war in Kosovo, undertaken by President Bill Clinton, was a mistake because it forced the United States into nation-building, a difficult policy usually ending in failure. There is every reason to believe that at the time he articulated this policy, he both meant it and intended to follow it. What he believed and intended turned out to mean very little. His presidency was determined not by what he intended to do but by something he did not expect nor plan for: Sept. 11, 2001.

This is not unique to Bush. John F. Kennedy's presidency, in terms of foreign policy, was defined by the Cuban missile crisis, Lyndon Johnson's by Vietnam. Jimmy Carter's presidency was about the Iranian hostage crisis. None of these presidents expected their presidency to be focused on these things, although perhaps they should have. And these were only the major themes. They had no policies, plans or ideological guidelines for the hundreds of lesser issues and decisions that constitute the fabric of a presidency.

Consider Barack Obama. When he started his campaign, his major theme was the need to end the Iraq war, but soon after Labor Day in 2008, the Iraq issue had become secondary to the global financial crisis. It was not clear that Obama had any better idea than anyone else as to how to handle it, and by the time he took office, the pattern of dealing with it had been established by the Bush administration. The plan was to prevent the market from inflicting punishment on major financial institutions because of the broader consequences and to redefine the market by flooding it with money designed to stabilize these institutions. Obama continued and intensified this policy.

Frequently, a campaign's policy papers seem to imply that the leader is simply in control of events. All too often, events control the leader, defining his agenda and limiting his choices. Sometimes, as with the Sept. 11 attacks, it is a matter of the unexpected redefining the presidency. In other cases, it is the unintended and unexpected consequences of a policy that redefine what the presidency is about. Johnson's presidency is perhaps the best case study for this: His policy in Vietnam grew far beyond what he anticipated and overwhelmed his intentions for his time in office. No president has had a clearer set of policy intentions, none was more initially successful in adhering to those intentions and few have so quickly lost control of the presidency when unintended consequences took over.

Fortune and Virtue

Machiavelli argues in The Prince that political life is divided between fortuna, the unexpected event that must be dealt with, and virtu, not the virtue of the religious — the virtue of abstinence from sin — but rather the virtue of the cunning man who knows how to deal with the unexpected. None can deal with fortuna completely, but some can control, shape and mitigate it. These are the best princes. The worst are simply overwhelmed by the unexpected.

People who are concerned with policies assume two things. The first is that the political landscape is benign and will allow the leader the time to do what he wishes. The second is that should the terrain shift the leader will have time to plan, to think through what ought to be done. Ideally, that would be the case, but frequently the unexpected must be dealt with in its own time frame. Crises frequently force a leader to go in directions other than he planned to or even opposite to what he wanted.

Policies — and ideology — are testaments to what leaders wish to do. Fortune determines the degree to which they will get to do it. If they want to pursue their policies, their political virtue — understood as cunning, will, and the ability to cope with the unexpected — are far better indicators of what will happen under a leader than his intentions.

Policies and ideology are, in my view, the wrong place to evaluate a candidate. First, the cunning candidate is the one least likely to take his policy statements and ideology seriously. He is saying what he thinks he needs to say in order to be elected. Second, the likelihood that he will get the opportunity to pursue his policies — that they are anything more than a wish list casually attached to reality — is low. Whether or not a voter agrees with the candidate's ideology and policies, it is unlikely that the candidate-turned-leader will have the opportunity to pursue them.

Bush wanted to focus on domestic, not foreign policy. Fortune told him that he was not going to get that choice, and the beliefs he had about foreign policy — such as nation-building — were irrelevant. Obama thought he was going to rebuild the close relationship with the Europeans and build trust with the Arab world. The Europeans had many greater problems than their relationship with the United States, and the Islamic world's objection to the United States was not amenable to Obama's intentions. In the end, both of their presidencies resembled their campaign policies only incidentally. There was a connection, but for neither did the world go as expected.

The Question of Character

When Hillary Clinton was competing with Obama for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination, she ran a television commercial depicting a 3 a.m. phone call to the White House about an unexpected foreign crisis. The claim Clinton was making was that Obama did not have the experience to answer the phone. Whether the charge was valid or not is the voter's responsibility to answer. However, implicit in the ad was an important point, which was that the character of a candidate was more important than his policy position. When woken in the middle of the night by a crisis, policies are irrelevant. Character is everything.

I will make no serious effort to define character, but to me it comprises the ability to dissect a problem with extreme speed, to make a decision and live with it and to have principles (as opposed to policies) that cannot be violated but a cold-blooded will to do his duty in the face of those principles. For me, character is the competition within a leader who both wants power and wants something more. His precise position on the International Monetary Fund is not really relevant. His underlying sense of decency is, along with an understanding of how to use the power he achieved.

If this is vague and contradictory, it is not because I haven't thought about it. Rather, of all of the political issues there are, the nature of character and how to recognize it is least clear. It is like love: inescapable when you encounter it, fragile over time, indispensable for a fully human life. Recognizing character in a leader would appear to me the fundamental responsibility of a voter.

The idea that you should vote for a leader based on his policy intentions is, I think, inherently flawed. Fortune moots the most deeply held policies and the finest leader may not reveal his intentions. Lincoln hid his intentions on slavery during the 1860 campaign. German Chancellor Angela Merkel never imagined the crisis she is facing when she ran for office. Intentions are hard to discern and rarely determine what will happen.

The issues that George W. Bush and Barack Obama had to deal with were not the ones they expected. Therefore, paying attention to their intentions told us little about what either would do. That was a matter of character, of facing the unexpected by reaching into his soul to find the strength and wisdom to do what must be done and abandon what he thought he would be doing. The grace and resolution with which a leader does this defines him.

I think that those who obsess over policies and ideologies are not wrong, but they will always be disappointed. They will always be let down by the candidate they supported — and the greater their initial excitement, the deeper their inevitable disappointment. It is necessary to realize that a leader of any sort cannot win through policy and ideology, and certainly not govern through them unless he is extraordinarily fortunate. Few are. Most leaders govern as they must, and identifying leaders who know what they must do is essential.

We study geopolitics, and geopolitics teaches that reality is frequently intractable, not only because of geography but because of the human condition, which is filled with fortune and misfortune, and rarely allows our lives to play out as we expect. The subjective expectation of what will happen and the objective reality in which we live are constantly at odds. Therefore, the tendency to vote for the candidate who appears to have deeper character, in the broadest sense of the term, would appear to me less frivolous than voting on the basis of ideology and policy. Both of those will and always do disappoint.

As to the question of who has the greatest character in this election, I have no greater expertise than any of my readers. There is no major in character at any university, nor a section on character in newspapers. The truth of democracy is that on this matter, none of us is wiser than any other.

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