• Leadership matters
    June 16,2014

    In any form of competition, there will always be winners and losers. It’s also true of politics, but in some political competition too often the winners and the losers are enemies rather than merely rivals.

    Granted, what’s at stake is far more important in politics than in, say, athletics. Indeed, the future of a nation can be and often is determined by who wins and who loses.

    This is, of course, far less true of the United States and other western-style democracies, although in the present political climate some may wonder if the level of political partisanship hasn’t risen to a dangerous level in America.

    It is in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan and other countries where ancient religious and tribal loyalties have been kept alive that the winners and losers are genuine enemies, and where lives are at risk in the competition to gain political domination.

    Americans are fortunate that they live in a genuinely pluralistic society, where, for the most part, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, agnostics and atheists live peacefully together and where there’s a national agreement — often violated, perhaps, but still in existence — that racial prejudice is unacceptable.

    But it isn’t easy to export that kind of religious, ethnic and racial tolerance to a place like Iraq, where there are three distinct population groups — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — who have separate and competing priorities. And there is visceral hatred between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

    After invading Iraq, the United States and its allies hoped to promote a western-style democracy in Baghdad, but under the leadership of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the nation’s Sunnis and Kurds have been virtually disenfranchised.

    That’s why, columnist Thomas Friedman argued in Sunday’s New York Times, the United States owes Maliki nothing as he seeks to survive the current crisis threatening to rip Iraq apart. He makes a persuasive argument.

    “In a word, Maliki has been a total jerk,” Friedman wrote. “Besides being prime minister, he made himself acting minister of defense, minister of the interior and national security adviser, and his cronies also control the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry.”

    Maliki’s decision to make his government an instrument of Shiite supremacy guaranteed that sooner or later the Sunnis would attempt to violently overthrow their fellow Muslims so long regarded as their enemies. President Obama was right to insist that Maliki change his ways if he is to get American help.

    But Iraqis don’t need to look to western capitals for guidance as to how to put aside their differences and find the path to peace and, presumably, prosperity. Maliki and his foes could learn a lesson from the Kurds living within Iraq’s borders.

    In his column, Friedman recalls that just five years ago Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq, was “a hellish war zone” as the rival religious and ethnic groups fought each other for control.

    “This time,” he wrote, “I found new paved roads, parks and a flourishing economy and a Kurdish governor, Najimaldin Omar Karim, who was just re-elected in April in a fair election and won more seats thanks to votes from the minority.”

    Karim is a neurosurgeon who had worked in the United States for 33 years before going back to Iraq in 2009. Perhaps America’s political and cultural pluralism inspired him to do what Maliki has totally failed to do: consider the common good when constructing policies for his community.

    “Had Maliki governed Iraq like Karim governed Kirkuk, we would not have this mess today,” Friedman wrote. “With the right leadership, people there can live together.”

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