The leaders we deserve?

The leaders we deserve?

ITEM: The U.S. Congress, claiming a mandate from the American people, passes a largely symbolic program for ending the war in Iraq, which President Bush promptly vetoes. Americans, meanwhile, begin to assess the charges leveled by former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet against the Bush Administration’s decision to start that war — a decision, Tenet says, that was made without serious debate within the administration and without regard to the potential for "anarchy and the territorial breakup" of Iraq if proper planning was subverted by political expediency.

ITEM: The Winograd Commission in Israel issues its much-anticipated interim report on last summer’s Lebanon War, charging that the prime minister "made up his mind [to go to war] hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him, and without asking for one. He made his decision without systematic consultation with others, especially outside the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], despite not having experience in external-political and military affairs." A similar criticism was leveled at the defense minister. The IDF chief of staff at the time was faulted for withholding vital information on the lack of military preparedness and internal debates on whether the war’s goals could be met.

Lord Acton, the British historian, had it right, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." What motivates people in power is the desire to cling to that power at all costs. Too many times it leads to bad decisions being made and a greater good that is ill served.

There is no question that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert benefitted greatly politically in the early days of last summer’s war. He was a prime minister with no experience in security matters and he had installed a defense minister everyone knew was out of his league when he took the job. Now soldiers had been killed and others kidnapped. The politics of pragmatism required a forceful and quick response, and that is what he and Amir Peretz provided.

They just forgot to ask the experts if what they were doing was the right thing to do. The most likely reason for this failure is that they did not want to hear the answer: They knew, or thought they knew, that the one thing they could not do was put troops on the ground or, worse, order a massive mobilization of reservists. The Israeli public, they surely felt, would not stand for it.

The person whose job it was to give them that answer and offer other — better militarily but not necessarily politically — scenarios was Rav Aluf Dan Halutz (the rank is equivalent to lieutenant-general), the IDF chief of staff. He apparently preferred not to tell them what they did not want to hear.

Perhaps he worried that he could suffer the same fate as Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the the U.S. Army chief of staff at the start of the Iraq war.

As with Olmert in the early days of Lebanon II, President Bush benefitted greatly in the early days of Iraq II. It should have been very clear to him very soon, however, that the United States was wholly unprepared for what to do the day after Saddam Hussein was toppled. If he could not see it, Shinseki could, and he did tell it to the president. For this, he was booted out of his post.

The proof that Shinseki was correct is in the numbers. On May 1, ‘003, President Bush stood before a giant red-white-and-blue "mission accomplished" sign on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and announced the end of major combat operations. On that day, U.S. military deaths in Iraq stood at 140 and allied deaths were at 33. By May 1, ‘007, 3,351 American soldiers had lost their lives (a ‘5-fold increase) and allied deaths had reached ‘7’.

Neither Ehud Olmert nor George Bush are the real culprits here, however. We are; the voters in Israel and America who repeatedly choose leaders without really thinking through the consequences. We focus on narrow concerns without looking at the broader picture. Why should the people we choose be any different than we are?

Jewish law and tradition can help with this problem. Our texts offer sage advice and even helpful guidelines for choosing a leader.

For example, in Pirkei Avot 1:3, prospective leaders are told: "Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master without the intent of receiving a grant; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you."

Further on, in ‘:’, Pirkei Avot adds, "All who serve in behalf of the community should do so for Heaven’s sake."

In other words, all who labor on behalf of the community are doing God’s work — and so the public good must trump self-interest every time.

Moses comes to mind. Not only did he refuse to benefit personally from his exalted position, he stood up for his people in the face of a fantastic offer from God to turn his progeny into a great nation. (See Exodus 3′:10.) According to a midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot 3’a, Moses told God that he was not in it for the glory, but for the service. His job, given to him by God, was to shepherd and protect Israel. To accept God’s offer would be to violate that and lead to his eternal embarrassment. Even if it meant standing up to God and sentencing his own descendants to anonymity, he must refuse.

Humility is another trait Moses had and we should seek in a leader. A midrash (Exodus Rabbah ‘7:9) notes this when it quotes God as saying to the would-be leader: "See that you know what to do; and since you have undertaken this responsibility in becoming a leader, go, humble yourself at the dust of the feet of princes and those greater than you …."

The leader should also respect those he leads, just as the priests "had their faces towards the people and their backs" to God when blessing them. (See BT Sotah 40a.)

In sum, leaders should put public concerns ahead of their own; should not let their posts go to their heads; should respect the people they lead.

Do we in the United States have the courage to elect such a leader the next time around? Do our brethren in Israel? Can either we or they actually find someone who fits that bill?

Can we afford not even to begin the search for such a one?

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.