When leaders lose their sense of mission

When leaders lose their sense of mission

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Sen. John Kerry may not have convinced voters that he was America’s national solution, but at least he correctly diagnosed the government’s problem. “Our government has a simple task: recognize our nation’s real problems and address them in a manner that reflects the priorities of the American people,” he once said. “It sounds simple, but it’s not happening today, and I know you’re as frustrated with Washington as I am.”

It’s simple advice — pick the right priorities and act on them — that needs to be heeded around the world.

A perfect example of a strange sense of priorities was the extraordinary flap that has developed over the apparent murder in Dubai of the leader of the Hamas military wing, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The police authorities in Dubai, intelligence sources throughout the Arab world, INTERPOL, and the West have been actively engaged in trying to determine the nationalities and origins of his assassins. The consensus is that the culprits were members of a Mossad hit squad from Israel.

Indignation, surprise, and umbrage were expressed by British, Irish, French, and other European governments (even calling in Israeli diplomats for a tongue lashing) over the fact that the perpetrators entered Dubai bearing forged passports from their respective nations. (No one has commented that with Israeli passports, they could not even have gotten into Dubai!)

Compare this “shocked, shocked” response over alleged Israeli mischief abroad to the same countries’ reactions to Iran’s persistent escalation of its nuclear development program and its defiance of the world community. One year after demanding that Iran cease any further nuclear weapons production, the Security Council plus Germany have still not even formulated a plan as to how to impose additional sanctions. Whatever you think of the Dubai episode or its perpetrators, the international attention it deserves pales in comparison to that which should be focused on a potentially nuclear Iran.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry seemed to lose sight of its priorities as well surrounding the recent visit of a congressional delegation organized by J Street. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon snubbed the delegation, at least one of whose members is Jewish. While there are many in both Israel and the American-Jewish community who are very unsympathetic to J Street, it is clearly not an anti-Israel group. Israel’s diplomats should make it a priority to court American lawmakers, even those with whom they disagree — not inject themselves in petty American debates over the legitimacy of pro-Israel attitudes.

The “legitimacy” debate that should be a priority is the one raging across Europe and in segments of our own college campuses, where the effort to delegitimize Israel escalates daily. At the University of California at Irvine, audience members tried to shout down Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Many campus officials have become so timid or intimidated that they seem unable to distinguish protected free speech from coercive, intimidating behavior. Once again, the bastion of open expression is having its priorities perverted by weak leaders who have lost their sense of mission.

Which brings us to Washington. One would assume that a politician’s primary job is to decide whether to champion one type of bill or another, whether the subject is jobs, financial reform, or health care. It would then be necessary only to determine which programs should be prioritized over others. Instead, too many elected leaders consider it a priority to obstruct the system of governance entirely.

Leadership and governance demand that their practitioners set the proper priorities and use them to make the best decisions in service of those priorities. When petty politics or personal prejudice stands in the way of setting those priorities, it might be time to learn an important lesson from Mordechai. As the Purim megilla relates, Mordechai told Queen Esther she needed to establish her priorities and step forward to face the king, even in the face of potentially dire personal consequences.

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