Uncertainty, and overdeveloped egos in high places are two realities of politics.
First, uncertainties. They prevail in the competitive world of politics. Even the banal stuff of domestic policy can set the commentators wondering about what comes next.
Currently the Middle East is in worse shape than the local squabbles in any democracy.
Who can honestly claim to know what will come from the chaos ranging from Libya through Egypt, north to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the Caucasus, skipping over the source of considerable trouble in Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan, south to Yemen and across the Red Sea to Somalia. It is no better over to the Central African Republic, Mali, and Nigeria. The Ukraine may be beyond a tipping point.
Political scientists have known for some time now that a large ego is among the prime requirements for a political career. It also appears among leaders of business and in quite a few preachers and academics. Much more than the normal self-confidence is necessary to stand up to tough competition, and to insist against rivals that one should be selected to make important decisions, to lead an entire nation, or that one's ideas are the key to important issues.
Currently one's certainty about dealing with imponderables is most prominently demonstrated by John Kerry and Barack Obama. Israeli and Palestinian politicians are also sounding certain about what they must say, while they are weaseling as best they can out of the implications of what the Americans are trying to do on their turfs. .
Kerry and Obama are not the first to commit the follies of ego.
The Professor of Political Science who became President Woodrow Wilson was a prime example of the syndrome's danger when wedded to political success. He may have reached the historical high point of ego producing disaster, with his stubborn pursuit of his solution for World War I and the future of history. Keeping Republican Senators from the American Mission and from distracting him in Paris is seen as dooming the ratification of what he drafted. He shared the spotlight with the leaders of France and Britain, intent on punishing Germany for a war whose beginning was the product of all of their follies, and producing what led to World War II.
It is risking a charge of blasphamy to accuse Abraham Lincoln of excessive zealotry in pursuing a war that freed his nation from the stain of slavery. Yet the cost was enormous, measured in more than 600,000 deaths out of a total population of 31 million. It wasn't all his fault. Historians are still quarreling about the sources of the war in northern and southern obstinacy, as well as the costs and benefits. Black Americans did not approach equality for another 100 years, and a huge Black underclass remains after a half century of affirmative action. Along with a White underclass of largely Anglo-Saxon origins that carries the labels of poor whites or trailer trash, largely across the South. America's Black and White underclass is among the most serious social problems in developed countries.
Also in the court of history is Lyndon Johnson, for his persistence in a war whose end--in retrospect--could be seen early in his administration. And Richard Nixon, who ultimately cut and run, but only after another 20,000 Americans died.
What to do for those of us fated to live up close with the problems of the Middle East, and the certainty of Americans whose solutions we see as deeply flawed?
Kerry may be preparing for failure. Recently he has warned both Palestinians and Israelis of the costs in not doing what he wants. He is telling the Palestinians that they will have no state, and Israelis that they will have no security or prosperity.
Those threats seem greater to Palestinians, insofar as having a state or not is, at least symbolically, a zero-sum game. They may be upgraded diplomatically by the United Nations and a lot of governments that recognize them, but chances are that Israeli personnel will be sitting on all their borders, and screening what goes in and out. Security and prosperity are never complete, and Israelis will argue about how much was achieved, or would have been achievable with the acceptance of Kerry's leadership, assuming that the Palestinians were prepared to accept it.
For the evolving details, we and our descendants will just have to wait. In the short run, we can bet that Palestinians and Israelis will compete for naming the other as the rejectionist.
Jerusalem has seen more than its share of overdeveloped egos. One can argue about the myths and realities of David, Solomon, Jeremiah and Jesus, but all seem to have had more than the usual self confidence. Now we have Shimon Peres and Benyamin Netanyahu, perhaps not in the league of those earlier folk, but shown by the criticism and admiration they attract to be world class at the present time.
At the personal level, there are several ways of coping with leaders who pose as absolutely confidant, and certain that they have the keys to the future. Us commoners in this city at the center of the world should aspire to careful analysis, moderation of how we criticize others, skepticism about one and all (including ourselves), yet with a willingness to speak truth about power holders, both domestic and foreign, and being candid about Islam and the messianic among Jewish activists.
Click here to return to Blog home page