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Idealism vs. realism in politics

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: August 24, 2008 4:52 p.m.
Updated: October 26, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
It was November 1979. I was a major in the U.S. Air Force assigned to the office of the Secretary of Defense and had just been ordered by my boss to report to the Joint Operations Center in the bowels of the Pentagon to join a Crisis Action Team - or CAT, as we called it.

The CAT is an interagency group convened to deal with world crises, but we routinely convened a CAT for exercise purposes to validate the process, test critical communications equipment and refine our response times. One of my duties was to serve as a surrogate for the secretary or one of his deputies during such exercises.

"Sir, is this an exercise?" I asked.

"You'll be briefed when you get there," he replied.

It was not an exercise. Iranian militants, acting while the Shah of Iran was in the United States for cancer treatment, had stormed the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans captive.

This terrorist act violated the universally recognized sovereignty of a nation's embassy and the diplomatic immunity to be accorded its assigned personnel.

The world would watch with bated breath to see the response of the superpower United States.

Publicly, President Jimmy Carter committed himself to the safe return of the hostages and to protecting America's interests and prestige, while exercising restraint.

Meanwhile, the CAT worked furiously around the clock to craft a military rescue mission in the event diplomatic efforts did not resolve the crisis.

By December, it was obvious negotiations with the terrorists were failing, and Secretary Harold Brown pushed the president for military action. By then, the militant guards holding our hostages were known to have become lax, the weather in Iran was favorable, and we had in place all the assets and information we needed to execute a highly successful military raid.

The only element missing was approval of the president, a prerequisite to an operation of this nature.
In the White House Situation Room, our confident briefing team described the proposed operation in detail to the president, expecting to get rapid approval.

The president asked, "Will there be casualties in this effort?"

The general who headed the briefing team, assuming the commander-in-chief to be concerned about our potential losses replied, "Mr. President, based on our irrefutable intelligence and extensive training drills, we have a high degree of confidence in our ability to extract all hostages with few or no U.S. casualties, but we have two bullets waiting for the head of any Iranian who attempts to intervene!"

After due consideration, President Carter replied, "I cannot in clear conscience approve this operation because it would be counter to my human-rights policy."

Less than two weeks later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a neighboring state of Iran, further challenging U.S. influence and heightening tensions in the region. President Carter's response to that was for the United States to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow.

Few presidents in modern times were as devoted as Jimmy Carter to the goal that American foreign policy should reflect the nation's highest moral ideals, as evidenced by his human rights initiatives and insistent reliance upon restraint when dealing with evil foes.

In the Iranian situation, the toll of patient diplomacy was great as it triggered the most profound crisis of the Carter presidency and began a personal ordeal for the American people that lasted 444 days before our citizens were repatriated.

The perceived weakness of the United States in the face of this crisis is also thought to have emboldened radical anti-American forces in the region, who consolidated their political hold and vex us to this very day.
This brief examination of the Carter presidency in a crisis illuminates a major flaw that makes idealists poorly suited to lead in the practical world.

To be an idealist is to dream big dreams, reach for the stars and envision a perfect world. Idealists serve a useful purpose as poets, orators and goal-setters because they excite our imagination, open our eyes to desirable possibilities and spur us to want perfection.

But, paradoxically, idealists often do not make good leaders to achieve those goals because they frequently become lost in their dreams and forget the real world around them. They develop an out-of-touch aura in which they confuse their hopes with reality, without any practical sense of how to connect one to the other.

Realists, on the other hand, are more pragmatic, accepting life the way it is and favoring the sensible method of dealing with it.

In the Iranian crisis, President Carter, the idealist, was actually driven out of office because he conceived morality as a power resource in a world with elements that refused to accept the notion.

On Jan. 20, 1981, he was replaced by President Ronald Reagan, a man of equally high moral character, but tempered by realism. He succeeded in achieving some of Carter's failed goals.

Literally within minutes of President Reagan's inauguration, the Iranians released the hostage Americans.
In 1987, Reagan stood before the Brandenburg gate in Berlin and implored, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Down it came, and by the end of President Reagan's second term, the Soviets were ready to capitulate in the Cold War.

The stark contrast between Reagan and Carter is mirrored in the men who are running for president today. By my reasoning, the idealistic Obama is a great orator who inspires high hopes, but it is John McCain, the realist, who as president will actually accomplish what he sets out to do.

We need a leader who knows how to work in the real world, not Dreamland. That man is John McCain ... right here, right now!

Bill Kennedy lives in Valencia and is a principal in Wingspan Business Consulting. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of these organizations or those of The Signal.

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