The Belated Wisdom of Ex-Leaders

Departing political leaders offer two kinds of reflections: self-serving rationalizations by those still protecting their reputations and blunt truth-telling by people who realize they should have done more when they had the chance. Both are galling, though in different ways, as Lawrence Davidson notes.

By Lawrence Davidson

There is an interesting phenomenon which we can call “the political retiree’s confession.” I don’t mean all those hyped memoirs, ghost-written for all manner of high-ranking ex-officials. Here I refer to statements by important political leaders and bureaucrats, either out of office or about to vacate their positions, publicly describing what really needs to be done.

For instance, what really needs to be done to obtain peace, or accurately pointing fingers at those obstructing peace. These statements can be shocking in their honesty, but curiously enough, are never made, much less acted upon, while the truth-sayer is in a position of power. They come to us only with retirement or pending retirement.

Take former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was Prime Minister from 2006 (replacing Ariel Sharon who had suffered a debilitating stroke) until early 2009. A few months before leaving office Olmert told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot that, in the end, Israel would have to return “almost all” of the West Bank to the Palestinians, including East Jerusalem.

There was no other way to achieve peace with the Arab world. Olmert went on, “the decision we are going to have to make is the decision we have been refusing for 40 years to look at open-eyed. … The time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table.”

Of course “the time” oddly coincided with a period when the Prime Minister could not move this insight from theory into practice.
Now we have another example of this strange phenomenon, this time from the United States. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, the national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “in a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee held shortly before his retirement this summer” gave his expert opinion that the Israeli government was ungrateful for United States assistance.

That despite all the Obama administration had done for Jerusalem, “access to top-quality weapons, assistance developing missile defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing … the U.S. has received nothing in return.”

On top of that, in Gates’s estimation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation.” No one at the high-level meeting disagreed with this analysis.
Gates’s publicly revealed anger is nice to hear about but, like Olmert’s epiphany, it means little in practice. Netanyahu has been rude, duplicitous and downright nasty to President Barack Obama in what was actually a replay of the behavior of Menachem Begin toward Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski learned to distrust the Israeli leadership and would later, after he was no longer in office, advocate an increasing hard-line toward Jerusalem. Indeed, he once suggested military confrontation with Israel if that country’s leaders risked a regional war by attacking Iranian nuclear development sites (he suggested the U.S. Air Force shoot down the Israeli planes).

This was a reasonable suggestion given the stakes but, of course, it was made when Brzezinski had no position of influence.
Getting back to the article on Gates’s negative opinion of Netanyahu and his government, Goldberg writes that the former Defense Secretary actually “articulated bluntly what so many people in the administration seem to believe.” OK. So what are they doing about this? Absolutely nothing.

They will all wait until they no longer have positions of influence to come out and vent. The situation is disgusting because in both the U.S. and Israel (and no doubt in many other countries) there are leaders and advisers who know what needs to be done in Israel-Palestine to make the world more secure and stable, and yet they stand by and twiddle their thumbs.
Why do these leaders do nothing about matters of such importance? Here are two interconnected reasons:
1. In his book Victims of Groupthink (1972), Irving L. Janis shows how governing political elites create self-reinforcing decision-making circles that insulate themselves from serious challenge. It is rare that anyone within these circles “thinks outside the box.”

However, it turns out that the “box” must always be able to accommodate the demands and interests of other groups whose money and power support the “circle’s” political viability. This is a system that must produce frustration and sense of powerlessness among (the rare) officials who can see even a little more clearly than their peers.

By the way, it is not a problem unique to political elites. It surely exists in most organizational structures. It is just that when it comes to government the stakes are so much higher for all of us.
2. Enmeshed as they are in a system of national interest group politics that dictate the fate of their various political parties and their own careers, those who might suspect a world outside the box will stay silent.

The narrow fate of party and career is, apparently, worth more than world peace. It is worth more than the lives of millions of doomed civilians and soldiers. It is worth more than justice for nations and peoples.

Only when free of this debilitating system do some of these people find their tongues. But by then all they have are impotent words. This is what we are seeing in the belated surfacing of rational criticism and analysis from unexpected sources such as Olmert and Gates.
How often do we read about individuals and groups who, witnessing an accident or a crime just stand by and do nothing? These people do not want to “get involved.”

Afterwards, such folks are usually very quiet and meek. They don’t want their neighbors to know that they stood by and did nothing. But the position of these confessing political retirees is quite different. They were already involved.

And now, after the fact, these one-eyed men in the world of the blind want us all to know they have seen the light. Great. Now you tell us!

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

9 comments for “The Belated Wisdom of Ex-Leaders

  1. elsie
    September 13, 2011 at 10:57

    The American people are well aware of what’s happening to our Country. What bothers me most is that we continue to re-elect the same people over and over and expect a change that never manifests itself from the greed that perimeates in all government and big business.

  2. adrienrain
    September 12, 2011 at 18:56

    Someone in high office occasionally makes the mistake of criticizing Israel. They are shuffled off the stage as an embarrassment. There is an Arab proverb, “He who would tell the truth should have one foot in his stirrup.”

  3. Tom
    September 11, 2011 at 16:11

    One only needs to look to Paul O’Neil, former Secretary of the Treasury, to see what happens, and how ineffective “speaking out” tends to be. I’m not saying those in a postion to do so should not speak out but as we saw with O’Neil, speaking out just gets you thrown out.

    Just read the article at

    where Paul says “At cabinet meetings, … the president was “like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.”

    another excerpt…

    Everything came to a head for O’Neill at a November 2002 meeting at the White House of the economic team.

    “It’s a huge meeting. You got Dick Cheney from the, you know, secure location on the video. The President is there,” says Suskind, who was given a nearly verbatim transcript by someone who attended the meeting.

    He says everyone expected Mr. Bush to rubber stamp the plan under discussion: a big new tax cut. But, according to Suskind, the president was perhaps having second thoughts about cutting taxes again, and was uncharacteristically engaged.

    “He asks, ‘Haven’t we already given money to rich people? This second tax cut’s gonna do it again,'” says Suskind.

    “He says, ‘Didn’t we already, why are we doing it again?’ Now, his advisers, they say, ‘Well Mr. President, the upper class, they’re the entrepreneurs. That’s the standard response.’ And the president kind of goes, ‘OK.’ That’s their response. And then, he comes back to it again. ‘Well, shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle, won’t people be able to say, ‘You did it once, and then you did it twice, and what was it good for?'”

    But according to the transcript, White House political advisor Karl Rove jumped in.

    “Karl Rove is saying to the president, a kind of mantra. ‘Stick to principle. Stick to principle.’ He says it over and over again,” says Suskind. “Don’t waver.”

    In the end, the president didn’t. And nine days after that meeting in which O’Neill made it clear he could not publicly support another tax cut, the vice president called and asked him to resign.

  4. September 11, 2011 at 13:30

    The book that Davidson mentioned, “Victims of Groupthink” sounds like one we should not fail to read. The majority of our citizens have for generations created and greatly expanded anti-intellectualism by finding mindless sound-bites and slogans as answers to all the questions that responsible citizens of all ages should be answering by reading articles and books by life-long critical/analytical scholars.

    We are now two separate nations because Conservative Republicans consider public education,scientific secular-humanism and social/cultural psychoanalysis to be America’s cultural enemies.

    With the secret funding of billionaires and tax-dodging war-industry profiteers, entertainment and hateful political rhetoric have replaced education and integrity in the mass media.
    During the weekend of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 the mass-media allowed only the Bush-Cheney version of the event to be aired.
    those like Ray McGovern, Col.Lawrence Wilkerson,Robert Fisk,Noam Chomsky and others who could have given a more balanced account were excluded from making their educational contributions to answering the question: Why 9/11?

    These trends are not isolated or accidental. They are powerful parts of a very sophisticated class-war that most liberals and progressives are very naive about and very afraid to wage from their own relatively weak attitudes and cultural delusions(e.g., Chris Mathews promoting Obama and “American Exceptionalism” every night of the week on MSNBC).

  5. September 11, 2011 at 12:13

    In response to the question posed by Davidson,the main reason that retired officials do not publicly air their critical opinions while they are in office is that “Power” is a team-sport where the top men and/or their top groups demand the right to expect solid support from each level of officials below them. It is the competitive-predatory nature of government and business for the ruling classes to expect and demand complicity, even in a long string of blatant lies, like those of the Neo-con dominated Cheny-Bush-Rumsfeld Administration.
    Aggressive organizations like football teams, military command structures and world-conquering imperialisms are built on deceptions that facilitate the exploitation of of all team players,that is those who obsessively consider defeating the enemy as the over-arching God of the Game.

    Our USA and its trans-national corporate/financial ruling class is the best
    example of this reality.
    The names of the command group are not as useful in solution-analyses as are the class and caste infrastructures that are cultivated and and celebrated naively and in repressed fear of the authorities of the “Terrorism of Power” by which the ruling class of our nation maintains its global economic domination.

  6. rosemerry
    September 10, 2011 at 15:36

    Even Robert Mcnamara, who managed to destroy many millions of lives in two important jobs, “Defense” Secretary during the Vietnam War, then President of the World Bank, making calamitous decisions on a gigantic scale, managed to realise some of the harm done by the time he reached a very advanced age (unlike so many of his victims).

    • Marc Rogers
      September 11, 2011 at 06:16

      Why does Davidson send his heat-seeking and destroying (written) missiles solely to the Jewish state of Israel? He never seems to spread his venom toward any other nation, leading one to draw inescapable conclusions of his unilateral bias and the political extremism that he accuses others of.

      • TC
        September 11, 2011 at 18:18

        So you don’t object to the truth of his statements, just to the fact that he ONLY calls out Israel?

  7. September 10, 2011 at 15:20

    Terrific, sir. This seems to be the mind-set of those within the Beltway. Might I suggest the foundational principle of one serving within the Beltway?

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