Opinion

The Great Debate

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Obama versus Congress on Guantanamo

A young girl holds a picture of Bobby Sands in a republican march to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland May 27. REUTERS/Archive

Barely a week after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London, her ghost is stalking the corridors of power. At his press conference on Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama was asked about Guantánamo Bay prisoners refusing to eat. In doing so, the veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante, who asked the question, exposed a running sore in the Obama administration. He also invited direct comparison between Obama and Lady Thatcher – who faced a similar dilemma in 1981.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama, a distinguished Harvard-educated legal scholar known in the Senate for his common sense and humanity, promised to quickly close the prison for 166 terrorist suspects in the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of a U.S. detention center that ignores the basic legal right of habeas corpus and the failure to bring prisoners to trial after so many years “erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles,” he said. He went on to repeat his pledge, yet five years on, Gitmo is still open for business.

The president’s embarrassment can be blamed, in part, on his naïveté. For a while after his inauguration in 2009 he appeared to be under the impression he had been elected the most powerful man on earth. It has taken four painful years for him to realize that the division of government guaranteed by the Constitution prevents him from doing not only what he wishes but what a majority of Americans have mandated.

Under the guise of saving money, Congress has stymied the president’s plan to try those believed guilty of terrorist offenses on U.S. soil and to release the 86 innocents who have been held without trial for years. Despite their insistence that they believe in America’s system of justice, it appears that many congressmen have little faith in it.

Thatcher: Master of the ‘unexpecteds’

The passing of Margaret Thatcher comes at a time when the great theme that shaped her years as Britain’s prime minister – the frontier between government and the private sector – is again the focus of serious public debate. Her historic achievement was to widen the frontiers of the “market” and, as she said, to have “rolled back the frontiers of the state.”

There is, however, a pendulum in this relationship between government and private sector. The role of government in the economy has expanded greatly since the 2008 financial collapse, along with government debt. So we will likely again see a struggle to rebalance the respective realms of state and market. And it will again be a battle.

The former prime minister’s memorial service Wednesday provides timely reason to ask: What was the Thatcher Revolution about? I tackled that question 15 years ago – for my book The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy – and I decided the best way to answer was by asking Thatcher herself. So I turned up at the Thatcher Foundation, a town house in London’s Belgravia, which was the operating base for then-Baroness Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher, an enlarger of British freedom

My immediate and lasting  memory of Mrs. Thatcher — Maggie as we called her — is sitting next to her in the late sixties at a dinner table as she scorched a bunch of City of London financial types. I was astonished. She wasn’t yet the Iron Lady. She wasn’t  in government. Labour was in power. She was  an obscure back bench Conservative MP, elected only in 1959, noticed in those sexist days (has much changed?) as much for her hats and aggressive hair style as for  her passionate defence of grammar schools under threat of closure from Labour.

What she did with the City of London men  was later characterised as a  “hand-bagging.” A black Asprey bag she always carried was metaphorically wielded against people she saw as standing in the way of the greatness of Britain as Boudica, the leader of a British tribe, wielded a lance against the Roman occupiers. I suppose that as a new national editor (of The Sunday Times), and with normal male presumption , I had expected to lead the questioning of the ten or so big names and the table. I didn’t stand a chance. Maggie pounded and pummeled them all by herself for an hour. I can’t pretend this is verbatim but it went something like this: “All you people are interested in is moving paper around, making money not things. What are you doing for British industry? When are you going to help business stand up to  the unions?”  They murmured, they shuffled, they were outclassed. British elections — six weeks to  a vote and no paid television ads — have never been as corrupted by money as much as American, so she was not turning off a potential source of funding as an American candidate would fear to do. Still these were  men — all men of course  — who were influential and articulate and used to reverence not rebuke.

Maggie could be seductive in private conversation one on one, more so as she matured,  the strident voice of the public halls giving way to a softer, more seductive style, hand on an arm, intent eye to eye in persuasion. She was afraid of nobody, respecter of no convention she considered archaic. The British custom at dinner parties was always for the host to murmur “coffee?” which was signal for “the ladies” to leave for the powder room while the men, over cigars and port, got down to serious business. It was  a small sensation — regarded in some circles as a grave breach of etiquette — when at a dinner party I attended thrown by her egregious confidante Woodrow Wyatt, Maggie stayed in her seat unabashed, uninvited,  and unfazed by the  arguments over the cigars (in this case by a couple of captains of industry who wanted to be part of Europe and she defiantly raised the Union Jack).

Leadership by the book

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine

Every year publishers release dozens, if not hundreds, of books about leadership. These books range from how-to books written by tenured professors of management theory at Harvard Business School to inspirational tracts generated by motivational speakers and longtime high school football coaches. While it’s evident that an eager audience exists for leadership books, how useful could they actually be? After all, if it were possible to become an effective leader simply by reading a stack of books, then presumably there would be a lot more good leaders in the world.

Assuming it’s possible to learn leadership lessons from a book, it seems even more likely that one could glean authoritative wisdom from reading biographies of great leaders, people who were not only influential but who actually succeeded in changing the world. Biographies, moreover, have the advantage of being real stories and, unlike leadership self-help books, are often composed by excellent writers. They appeal to a much broader class of reader, including the kind of people who might once have read epic poems or romances, tales of gods and heroes and their mysterious ways. If it’s true that biographies of great leaders constitute a higher form of leadership literature, several questions remain: How do the biographers deal with the subject? Do they take lessons from leadership books or leadership theory? And do they agree—as many of the how-to books maintain—that leadership lessons can be distilled and presented independently of the leaders themselves, and transferred from one field of accomplishment to another? Seeking instruction, I turned to three distinguished biographers for guidance. Here are a few lessons I learned about leadership lessons.

Biography isn’t self-help. Almost no professional biographers set out to portray their subjects in a didactic manner; they are attracted to the complexity of depicting a leader in his or her natural habitat. “I don’t directly try to turn my biographies into how-to books,” insists Walter Isaacson, author of several biographies, including last year’s blockbuster Steve Jobs. On a leadership scale from 1 to 10, Isaacson says Jobs should be given a 10 as perhaps the most inspiring technology leader of all time, adding, “But I’d take away two points for being so abrasive.” And that’s the point: biographical subjects “are real people who have strengths and flaws,” says Isaacson. “Those of us who write biographies of leaders understand that it’s a much richer topic than can be synopsized into a few bullet points.”

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