Principled Leadership

I try not to get sucked into the political discussions of the day mainly because I find it incredibly frustrating on so many levels. The non-stop news cycle seems to have aggravated a sick situation, turning the governance of our nation into little more than a perpetual quest to stay in power. This is the issue that I suppose bothers me most—the entire political discourse seems controlled by getting or maintaining control rather than actually doing something once you have it. It is all about how the parties or the president look in the polls which are sure to follow whatever is said or done. How this most recent “crisis” surrounding the debt ceiling has been handled has done nothing to inspire confidence in this citizen that very many of our elected leaders really care about solving the problem as much as they do positioning themselves to look good after August 2nd comes and goes.

Watching this unfold reminded me of a very different kind of approach by President Reagan in his negotiations with Gorbachev about nuclear arms reductions. In October of 1986, the two world leaders met in Iceland for serious negotiations that had been significantly influenced by Reagan’s pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). I’ve read a few accounts of the negotiations, admittedly all from a pro-Reagan viewpoint, and they agree that Gorbachev made enormous concessions and offered Reagan just about everything that the US had been asking for previously. But Gorbachev made it all conditional on Reagan backing down on SDI (some say dropping it altogether while others say restricting it to lab only). Gorbachev dropped that condition in the 11th hour after so much had been gained that for Reagan to walk away from the table would bring enormous backlash—how could he turn down these real, substantive reductions over a research project that many thought was science fiction (hence the nickname Star Wars)?

Reagan did, though, walk away from the table. He did so, apparently, against the advice of his State Department. He did so in spite of warnings that he would be criticized across the globe and by his opponents in the States (political and media). Instead of a monumental victory that would have gained him enormous applause and accolades, he was leaving it on the table and headed into a firestorm of criticism. Why? I’ll let Dinesh D’Souza answer that question:

To Reagan, however, SDI was a point of principle. As he said in a televised speech the day after he returned from Iceland, ‘There is no way I could tell our people their government would not protect them against nuclear destruction. …I went to Reykjavik determined that everything was negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future.’ Reagan advanced a case for missile defense that was not tactical but moral (Ronald Reagan, p. 190).

I suppose it is those words—not tactical but moral—that I find so compelling and so disappointing in contrast to leadership we see these days. The political world seems full of tacticians angling to keep their piece of the pie and to get good PR for whatever they do. Instead of principled commitment, the pursuit and preservation of power controls every move. Even good people blithely opine about “looking at the big picture” and “accepting what you can instead of losing everything.” I imagine they would have been the same people who would have thought Reagan a fool to walk away from the table, but history shows that walking away from that table actually secured the long sought for victory in the Cold War.

I’ll be candid about something—this isn’t a problem reserved for D.C. politics. It affects ecclesiastical politics as well when alliances are formed for political expedience rather than on biblical principle. It is a tactical decision, not a moral one, when our “friends” get a pass for things that our “opponents” would get a beating. It is politics that produces people who govern by what’s best for their “party” (i.e., fellowship, institution, circle of friends) instead doing the principled thing even if it hurts their “party.”

Reagan at Reykjavik is an example of a principled politician, a statesman with a noble ambition. The lesson for today: doing the right thing regardless of political fallout is always the right thing to do.

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