Warning- RFL Contains Moral Views About Political Leadership

Dear Friends,

You may not want to read today’s column if you are looking for a message that is simple, positive and very directly related to an average workplace setting.  You also may not want to read it if you are set against asking any kinds of questions or seeking any deeper meaning from the situation in Iraq.  But I think there is a powerful leadership message below.  It applies to both of our political parties, and it applies to us as citizens and leaders, and I’m taking this digression from my usual shorter, and more local fare, because I’m just not sure anyone else is saying this:


I believe great leaders give a MORAL accounting for the work that we do with them.  When Odwalla discovered a product of theirs had poisoned people, and when Johnson & Johnson learned the news of the Tylenol tragedy, both companies responded with transparency, candor, accountability, and compassion.  Both healing and constructive forward-looking policies were the result. 


With the war in Iraq there’s an elephant in the room.  And I’m not sure many of the Democrats recognize it, and I feel quite certain the President does not.  The elephant in the room is our tragic moral responsibility: our actions as a nation unleashed a torrent of human violence and suffering.  Before (some of) you turn me off, here’s what I am not saying.  I am not saying Iraqis are not morally responsible for the deaths they have caused.  Iraqis are perpetuating the continued sectarian violence, as well as attacks on our troops.  But I am saying that our invasion was the proximate cause that has led to tens of thousands of deaths and as many as 2 million refugees.  Had we not attacked – and/or bungled the aftermath – this killing would not be happening.


Even if the president’s intelligence was significantly credible, even if the fall of Saddam was justifiable, and even if we sincerely thought we were prepared for the aftermath of our invasion, the results are what they are.  And our actions — driven by the President, fueled by his supporters, cheered by most of the public, and endorsed by Democrats and Republicans alike — has led to all of these horrors that we continue to watch.


We should admit at this point without condition that we grieve the extraordinary suffering our actions have caused.  As our Jewish brothers and sisters seek personal “atonement” during this season of their new year, perhaps we should all – as one nation under God and indivisible – fast and pray in solidarity with our troops and our human brothers and sisters in Iraq.  Our miscalculations have led to untold carnage.  I didn’t believe in this war from day one, but I am sad I did not speak up with the loudest and clearest voice I could have.  Some of the blood is on my hands.


This is not just religious or moral talk, but I believe it is incredibly important from a policy standpoint.  If we do not confront our moral responsibility, I fear our policies will necessarily be equally partial, half-right, misguided.  If we do not deal with our sadness, regret — and as I argue here, our guilt – I am convinced these powerful emotions will work beneath the surface.  We all – Ds and Rs and the unlabeled – rightly fear that the way we leave may create even greater chaos, pain and suffering.  We are right to fear that, and to craft policy that minimizes that risk as best we possibly can.  But if we don’t acknowledge our guilt, we may unconsciously generate more of the same mistakes.  We have to tell ourselves the whole truth about the past so we can honestly see and think about what’s really here now.

At this point, the overriding objective and context should not be about Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is not irrelevant.  But what is overriding is to quell the sectarian violence that we have helped to unleash.  But if we don’t admit we unleashed it, we can pretend it’s almost secondary.  Is America’s long-term safety relevant and important?  Absolutely.  But the overwhelming moral imperative is to pursue the best policies that will bring hopes for peace. If we were horrified — as we were — at the loss of over 3000 American lives in the World Trade Center, shouldn’t we be honest about the heart rending tragedy of the chaos that now exists in Iraq? Sometimes I wonder if the horror is just too much for the President to face.  But leaders stand to repeat the mistakes they’ve made if they don’t face the past — and bring it to their followers to face with them — with brutal honesty.


It’s time to stop the nonsense about international coalitions (it was 95% ours at the start and is about 99% ours now – just look at the casualties), about “finishing the job” (the job description keeps changing – WMD, Saddam, Al Quaeda – the job is to restore peace, do no more harm, and get our kids home).  We let the genie out of the bottle.  Admit it, grieve it, learn from it.  But don’t pretend we can put it back in, because we can’t stand the guilt of knowing we pulled it out.  Clearly, the Iraqi people must step up to end the sectarian violence that is now literally killing them.


We’ve got to accept our moral responsibility if we’re going to move forward rationally, thoughtfully, calmly and compassionately.  You’ve got to tell the truth – including the moral truth – if you’re going to


lead with your best self,