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Looking for leaders —Syed Mansoor Hussain

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Mikhail Gorbachev is the only ruler/dictator in history who by choice undid the entire ideological edifice that kept his empire together. And when his empire started to fall apart, he let it

What makes a good leader and how to find one democratically are vexing questions at best. During my years in the United States I lived under seven presidents. None of them sadly would ever be a candidate to join the pantheon of the ‘greats’ on Mount Rushmore.

The first president was Richard M Nixon. As history judges Nixon, his great failure was his conduct of the Vietnam War and the spread of that war to other countries, especially Cambodia. His triumphs include his opening to China, a fact that is immortalised in the phrase “only Nixon could go to China”.

Despite being a political conservative, Nixon supported and implemented much of the liberal agenda of his predecessor, President Lyndon B Johnson. Unfortunately, Nixon will always be remembered for the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation.

Nixon was followed by Gerald Ford, a decent person, but best remembered for pardoning Nixon and as somebody prone to stumbling over things. Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter after serving out his ‘inherited’ presidency from Nixon.

As president, Carter was at best mediocre. His presidency was destroyed by the Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis. However, he will also be remembered for bringing together Menachim Begin, the prime minister of Israel, and Anver Sadat, the president of Egypt, for the Camp David Accord that brought peace between these two countries, a peace that still holds.

Carter is arguably one of the ‘best’ ex-presidents of the US in recent times, winning the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of years ago, but he was a one-term president who lost to an ex B-list actor and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan. President Reagan led the US to victory over the “Evil Empire”, known then as the USSR.

He was and remains an idol of the conservative movement and the religious right. In spite of being an indifferent ‘Christian’, he brought the Evangelical Christian movement to the forefront of American politics. He also changed forever the focus of the US as far as the then existing remnants of the ‘New Deal’ are concerned.

The conservatives in the US think of him as the most important leader of their movement in the last fifty years but this is not an opinion shared by many liberals. Reagan was followed by George H W Bush, another one term president who lost to a little known governor from Arkansas called Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton is the great disappointment for the liberals in the US. He is a brilliant politician who gave the US some of its best years in terms of economic growth but almost destroyed his presidency because of his relationship with a female intern. But for the Lewinsky affair, his vice president Al Gore might have won the presidency in 2000 and saved the world from eight years of George W Bush. About President George W Bush, that is all I need to say.

The one thing that is common between all these presidents is that they were vilified by opposition politicians and many in the US media throughout their presidencies. Also, at any given time during their presidency, close to half the population of the country did not think too much of them.

In Pakistan, during my lifetime, there have been four rulers that were around long enough to make an impact: General Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Zia-ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf. But for Bhutto, all were army generals and usurpers. Bhutto is perhaps the only person who can be called a leader. But even his record is not free from justifiable criticism. Bhutto does fulfil one primary requirement of a true leader: he is loved and admired by a significant number of Pakistani even three decades after his death.

In short, of all the presidents, prime ministers and army dictators during my lifetime, none would qualify as leaders of the sort our media keeps asking for. As far as the US is concerned, it continued in its pre-eminent state as the wealthiest and strongest nation on earth in spite of good, bad or indifferent presidents. The reason, of course, being that its institutions kept doing their job irrespective of who was in the White House.

And that is the silver lining I see in Pakistan’s chaotic state of affairs these days. For the first time in its recent history, all major parts of the government are literally minding their own business. The politicians are busy with politics but with some restraint compared to the past. The army is doing what it is supposed to do, fighting in defence of the country. The judiciary is concentrating on matters in its bailiwick, and the bureaucrats have figured out they best keep out of politics and concentrate on running the country.

Contrary to what the punditocracy and the talking heads on TV keep saying, the last thing Pakistan needs at this time is a ‘great’ leader. What is however desperately needed is competence at virtually all levels of government. And competence will come only if good advice is available to those that the people have elected to lead us, and if these people have, or develop, the ability to recognise and accept good advice when they get it.

As far as the true world leader in the second half of the twentieth century is concerned, my vote goes to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR. He is the only ruler/dictator in history who by choice undid the entire ideological edifice that kept his empire together. And when his empire started to fall apart, he let it. An editorial I read in a US newspaper in the eighties said that if an alien lands on earth today and says ‘take me to your leader’, he would most likely be taken to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

Reproduced by permission of DT.\06\15\story_15-6-2009_pg3_4

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