The similarities and differences between Barack Obama and Benyamin Netanyahu tell us something about politics. For cynics, they are two peas in a pod who happen to coincide, and deserve one another.
Both are attractive physically and know how to speak. Those are the makings of good actors, and that is the most prominent of the lessons they teach us.
Political leadership is theater. Individuals wanting to lead should be pretty and know how to put words together in ways that are literate and convincing.
The Romans provided us with the expression of bread and circus. Modern regimes have leaders who look and sound good on television.
There have been ugly politicians. Abe Lincoln may lead the list. Lyndon Johnson was not gorgeous, and was awkward on television. However, he got to where he did via ascendance in Congress, his political skills, and the assassination of John Kennedy. King George VI stuttered and spoke little, but did not have to face the voters. Eisenhower occasionally confused the reporters covering his news conferences, but he was a national hero no matter how he talked. Some say he spoke like a farm boy in order to hide his intentions.
The differences between Obama and Netanyahu exist alongside their good looking faces, well groomed hair, and immaculate dress. While both are bright--it takes a lot of smarts to get to the top of each nation's heap of competitive politicians--Obama rocketed to the world's most powerful nation's responsibility for world affairs. His lack of experience has shown itself in a naive and destructive speech in Cairo, a promise not kept on Guantanamo, and a misplaced escalation in Afghanistan. The response of the Nobel Committee to the Cairo speech suggests that his year was the turn for an Affirmative Action Peace Prize. Withdrawals from Iraq and promises of the same from Afghanistan suggest the workings of his intelligence and on-the-job training. Pity the Americans and others who died along the way.
Obama's persistent efforts to arrange agreements that neither Palestinian nor Israeli leaders appear to want, or able to accept raise questions about his place on the learning curve, and his appointment of a Secretary of State who so far has been tireless in promoting a peace process going nowhere. If that is theater, who is the audience?
While Obama's career shows the impact of US presidential primaries, Netanyahu's career shows the slow climb typical of a parliamentary regime more likely to produce leaders with knowledge and experience. Moreover, the greater involvement of Israel--like other small countries--in international affairs also appears in the testing of a leader via a career that included military service in special forces, Ambassador to the United Nations, Foreign Minister, Finance Minister, Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, and a previous term as Prime Minister.
Both Obama and Netanyahu are sitting on top of extensive bureaucracies, whose leading members feed them with information, analyses, and advice. Those on top listen, read, sift, ask for more input, referee disputes between competing views and bureaucratic interests, ultimately decide and explain to their nation or keep quiet about the deepest secrets and their own intentions.
Their theatrical skills come into play when speaking to their people, to one another or to other politicians and the leaders of other countries. Reports say--and sometimes are believable--that what goes on in closed session bear little resemblance to what is said in front of the microphones.
Netanyahu is fluent and a skilled public persuader in two languages. Obama is excellent when reading from a teleprompter, but is said to be awkward when speaking extemporaneously. Lyndon Johnson was a bore when speaking to the nation, but had a reputation for excellence in small groups when persuading political colleagues or opponents to go along with him.
Labeling politicians as actors does not reflect any condemnation of democracy. Aspiring to the leadership of large and complex communities, then dealing with the problems likely in domestic and international spheres is not a matter of discerning what is right. Justice and morality are somewhere in the mix, but feasibility--or what is possible--in the presence of contending views and uncertainty, is no less important. We may dream of the philosopher kings described by Plato some 2400 years ago, but our nightly news describes something else.
We are stuck with reality, and a great deal of dispute about what it is, and what it portends for the near and distant future. Individuals wanting to get the top jobs, and hold on to them, must convince a great many others of their suitability and their choice of appropriate actions. All of what is chosen may fail critics' tests for the best, the correct, the just, or moral.
There have been confused messages from the Obama White House about the current crisis in Egypt, without it being clear if any of the messages reflect the President's personal input or approval. On the one hand were statements pressuring Morsi to be more forthcoming with respect to popular demands. On the other hand were warnings that a military coup would cost Egypt $1.5 billion annually in US aid. Somewhere in the background were Obama's threats of dire consequences if Syrian forces used chemical weapons, which went the way of his promises to close Guantanamo. Once again TR's urging to speak softly may remain in the presidential library.
By one description or another, a military coup seems to have occurred. Its leaders promise eventual elections and have put civilians in top spots, and those standard coup routines may be enough to win at least the passive support of Barack Obama. Israeli commentators suggest that Netanyahu may be quietly happy to see military leaders replace the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is possible to begin one dissertation about the competing analyses heard from Arabic speaking Israelis (Jews and Arabs) with years of experience as academics, intelligence officers, and journalists about what is happening and what is likely in Egypt; and another dissertation about the fumbling and bumbling heard from Washington officials.
Partly to emphasize the importance of our leaders, and partly to allow them to be comfortable and prepare for meetings with other hard pressed and hard pressing people in leadership positions, modern governments provide them with luxurious facilities. No country other than the United States may provide anything like Air Force One. Israel's media recently made a case against the expense of providing the Netanyahus with sleeping accommodations in the plane fitted out for their international trips.
Both Bibi and Barack strive to avoid political disasters. They may disagree with one another, but they work to keep their conversations going. Even in the discussions about discussing peace with Palestine, both of them--along with the equally careful head of Palestine West Bank--express their appreciation of one another's efforts, and promise to continue talking.
They may look silly to skeptics, but they are adhering to the prime rule of political theater, which is not to make things worse.
Stars wane in politics as on the stage. Bibi is in trouble, with youngsters in Likud's Knesset delegation nipping at his heels, demanding a more forceful pursuit of Israeli interests, and less concerned with not making things worse. Obama is secure for another three and one-half years, barring something unusual.. However, his party may suffer from mounting criticism against what happens or does not happen in health care or something else..The presidency remained under the control of the same party for more than two terms only once since World War II. If the Republicans can avoid their extremists, the record suggests a party turnover in 2016.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at July 04, 2013 11:13 PM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem