We, the voters of the Israel, are the five and a half million-strong hiring committee for one of the toughest jobs around: Prime Minister of our crazy, wonderful and precious country. It takes an applicant with an uncommon skill set to fill the role.
To be frank, the hiring committees of other Western democracies have not done such a stellar job of screening their own candidates lately. Roughly half of them, it seems to me are not up to the job.
Consider a more or less random selection of recent world leaders and my unbiased assessment of them:
- George W. Bush – Lacking in both the necessary mental equipment and a work ethic that could have compensated; Not Up to the Job
- Barack Obama – smart enough but lacks discipline; abysmally ignorant about foreign policy and has made a major hash of it; Not Up to the job
- Tony Blair – A master politician; Up to the job
- Gordon Brown – brighter than Blair but zero people skills; Not up to the Job
- Francois Hollande – wimpy on terrorism, at sea in economics; Not up to the Job
- Francois Mitterand – another philandering French socialist but much more successful – Up to The Job
- Angel Merkel – Up to the Job
- Bill Clinton – some egregious character flaws but eminently Up to the Job
- Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin – whatever you thought of Oslo or disengagement, they were the real deal; Up to the Job
- Ehud Olmert – Not Fit for the Job
- David Cameron – ropy start, but growing Up to the Job
- Ronald Reagan – hardly the sharpest saw in the shed, but compensated with charm, clear principles and great communication skills; Up to the Job
- Almost anyone who’s been prime minister of Italy in the past 20 years; not up to the job.
Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Menachem Begin, David Ben Gurion, FDR, Winston Churchill, Abe Lincoln etc. need I ask?
Who am I to be making summary and dismissive judgments of such august figures, you may be asking with outrage? I am a voter in a democracy. It’s my job and yours too to make such judgments
Intelligence, vision, courage, moral principle, judgment, eloquence, relevant knowledge, proven leadership experience, managerial ability, self-discipline, people skills and the desire to learn and improve in the role; those are some of the traits that the up- to-the-job world leaders share. Few possessed all of the above, but each had a sufficient critical mass of these characteristics to lead a complex country capably (and to avoid steering their nation to disaster.)
“Are they up to the job?” is not the first question most of us ask in deciding how to vote. Do I like him/her? Do I agree with his/her ideology and with the direction in which he/she promises to lead my country” are higher on most people’s list.
Here are two reasons why I believe that “are they up to the job” is the most important question voters should be asking, in the world in general and in Israel in particular.
Firstly, the job is getting harder. The world is changing faster and its problems are growing more complex. From ISIS to Iran, from Grexit to greenhouse gases the challenge for leaders to grasp and grapple effectively with these threats is increasingly formidable.
Secondly, there is a sharp asymmetry in 2015 between the capacity of national leaders to help and to harm. Like it or not (and personally I don’t) their ability to effect major positive change is limited, while their capacity to inflict massive damage is as great as ever.
Who was the last democratic national leader to have had a really big impact for good on his or her country? Anyone since Mandela, two decades ago? Numerous political theorists have pointed out that the 21st century nation state is both too big and too small to be an effective unit of governance. It’s too small to deal with systemic, global, economic, environmental and security challenges but too big and bureaucratic to deal with human and neighbourhood-scale problems.
The best national leaders of the last 20 years have kept their countries stable and functional, perhaps with small incremental improvements. Even if your politician’s sky-high promises are sincere, the likelihood of his ever successfully implementing them is slender.
Michael Bloomberg had a much larger impact for good as Mayor of New York than any US president has had on America in decades. Not just because Bloomberg was up to the job, but also because the Big Apple is small enough for great leadership to make a difference. (I would argue the same about Nir Barkat in Jerusalem.)
The converse, however is not true. Bad national leadership still has the power to foul things up on a grand, epic and world-historic scale. If Obama’s very personal pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran (http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2015/02/obamas-secret-iran-strategy/) leads to an Iranian Bomb, the damage is likely to be incalculable.
We Israelis hunger for real leadership. We had it in the early years of the state and we yearn for it again. We are pained by the chasm between what this country is and what we feel it could be. We want to believe that this or that leader could carry us across the abyss. We see great Israeli technologists and entrepreneurs changing the world for the better, inspiring, dedicated NGOs and charities transforming the lives of the worst off, selfless doctors, teachers and soldiers, brilliant writers and scientists and we yearn for leadership that reflects the best of what we know this country is capable of.
This perennial optimism is noble but it makes us suckers for snake oil salesman. Transformational leadership exists but it is rare. I don’t see it on the horizon. Infinitely more common are silver-tongued seducers who claim to be the change we are all waiting for, streak across the political firmament for a Knesset term or two before falling into ineffectualness and oblivion.
These heady expectations that we project on to our political candidates can be deeply disempowering. We must be the change we are waiting for. We, and not some slick politician with an expensive PR firm behind him.
Even though great Israeli leaders tarry we will wait for them. I am waiting too.
Meanwhile, with ISIS at the door, Iran on the verge of going nuclear and the world economy on a precipice, I will gratefully settle for one who is merely up to the job.