Democracy Lab

The Personality Problem

In an age of globalization and revolutionary upheaval, grand impersonal forces might appear to be winning out. But don't discount the human factor.

Burma is a big country, boasting a population of some 60 million. It is also sandwiched between India and China, the two rising powers that will define global politics in the 21st century. Depending on how things turn out, Burma could become either a bridge or a battleground.

So it comes as a bit of shock when you realize that the fate of this rather important country rests largely on the shoulders of two people. One is President Thein Sein, the ex-general who is cautiously trying to push the country toward greater openness. His countrymen are hoping he's serious, while the senior military officers who once ran the place are watching from the wings, alert to any signs that his present course might entail a diminishment of their status or wealth.

The other is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose long years of opposition to the military regime have made her a hero in her homeland and around the world. For the past few weeks she has been out on the campaign trail, running for a seat in parliament. If she wins, she will gain a powerful platform for her message of change, one that could have a profound effect on her country's political future.

These two leaders are very different characters. But they have one very specific thing in common: they are both 66 years old (having been born just two months apart, back in that fateful year of 1945). Partly for that reason, their stories also overlap in another point -- the many lingering questions about their state of health.

Thein Sein has a bad heart. Aung San Suu Kyi recently had to cut short a campaign appearance when she experienced a bout of dizziness. In 2009, when she was still under house arrest, there were serious concerns about her health, with doctors warning about stark dehydration and weight loss.

Burma, it should be mentioned, also has a long and dismal history of political violence. Aung San Suu Kyi's father, a hero of Burma's campaign for national independence, was assassinated. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been the subject of many threats, and she was the target of at least one attempted assassination that we know of. As for Thein Sein, many of his brother officers have fallen prey to power struggles that have curtailed their freedom, or their lives, over the years.

I cannot pretend to state with any authority what would happen to Burma if either the ex-general or the Lady were to disappear from the scene. And that is precisely the point: The power of personality is one of the great wild cards of modern politics.

Now, I don't share Thomas Carlyle's long-discredited Great Man theory of history. Not everything depends on individuals, and to argue for their importance is not to discount other elements. I happen to believe that institutions, economics, and culture all have hugely significant effects on the development of societies. Yet we should never neglect the human factor.

Indeed, at this very moment in history we are seeing abundant examples of this principle at work, for better and for worse. Like Vladimir Putin or loathe him -- yet it is extremely hard to deny that the ex-KGB officer with the Machiavellian mindset has left a deep personal stamp on modern-day Russia.

Similarly, today's capitalist-communist China remains on the path mapped out for it by the ruthless pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. Nowadays it is easy to forget that there were many senior members of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of the 1970s who wanted to see China continue on the course of orthodox Maoism, rigidly wedded to stubborn isolationism and central planning. There was no inherent reason why they could not have done so; just take a look at North Korea. But Deng gained the upper hand, and China has been correspondingly transformed.

Imagine a Cuba without Castro, or a Zimbabwe without Mugabe. It is simplistic to say that their compatriots would have been better off had these two men never existed; democracy would never have come easily in countries where the baggage of the past weighed so heavily. But it is extremely hard to picture how either of these countries would look today had it not been for these all-too-dominant leaders.

The reverse is also true. One of the most distinctive features of the so-called Arab Spring has been the lack of dominant revolutionary figures who could serve as rallying points for the forces of resistance. This absence attests, of course, to the long years of authoritarian rule in the region. The Qaddafis and the Mubaraks devoted enormous effort and expense to ensuring that eloquent and charismatic dissidents were nipped in the bud. We do not know the names of the most devoted foes of Arab autocracy; many have long since expired in the dungeons of the mukhabarat.

Syria's protean opposition is a case in point. It is filled with brilliant human rights activists, but most of them have spent long years in exile, and no longer share a common language with the people currently suffering at the hands of government troops. The new crop of grassroots activists inside the country boast little experience or name recognition.

Revolutionary situations are by definition exceptional. The confusion that results from sudden upheaval often gives an edge to radicals, who capitalize on the hard-edged clarity of their programs, or to demagogues, who seduce through charisma. Indeed, one can argue that the factor of personality becomes especially important precisely in transitional situations, when institutions are weak, lines of authority get wobbly, and accustomed norms come under attack.

Yet personalities can also play a beneficial role under such circumstances. Earlier this week I spent an evening listening to F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president, as he ruminated about his own experience in that country's transition to democracy in the early 1990s. It was de Klerk, as leader of the South African government and the dominant National Party, who made the strategic decision to surrender white minority control over the political system and pave the way for black majority rule.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that de Klerk would attribute great significance to the power of personality. Surely, cynics might say, he has an interest in talking up his own role in the abandonment of apartheid, which the forces of history ensured was going to happen sooner or later. Why should he take credit for being in the right place at the right time?

This argument is lazy. It is easy to forget today, decades later, that no path was preordained for South Africa at the time. There were moments when violent anarchy, civil war, or stubborn stonewalling by the white minority all seemed equally likely options.

And I believe that de Klerk, at the same event, was quite right to say that "bad chemistry between people can prevent negotiations, can become a big stumbling block to negotiations, can be a negative in the process of building a consensus about the way forward." (In this respect he bemoaned the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which he rightly described as a "tragedy" for the Middle East peace process.) If anyone knows the value of personalities, it has to be de Klerk, who still speaks of Mandela with palpable respect.

We have seen something like this same principle at work in Burma, where Thein Sein's attempt to establish cordial relations with Aung San Suu Kyi (rather than vilifying her as his predecessors had done for decades) established a vital precondition for progress. This is no guarantee that everything will work out smoothly -- far from it. But at least there are grounds for hope.

The picture presented by the countries of the Arab Spring is a far more dispiriting one. As de Klerk put it, "[L]eaders aren't manufactured. You can't order them on the Internet." He's right about that. Still, for the sake of future generations, this would a good time to start thinking about how new ones might be produced.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Christian Caryl

Why Washington Is the Syrian Opposition's Next Battlefront

Syria’s opposition faces an uphill battle in its efforts to win backing from U.S. policymakers.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad is firing tank shells and rockets at unarmed civilians. Thousands of people are dying. The images are horrific. Indignation mounts around the world.

Meanwhile, the main Syrian opposition group is still trying to get a proper office in Washington.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of Syrians arguing the opposition's case in the United States -- including many illustrious activists with long records of agitation against Bashar. They include people like long-time dissident Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.

But the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition group formed in August, still doesn't have a formal representative office in the American capital. It's awaiting permission from the Department of Justice, which registers all foreign entities that intend to lobby the U.S. government. When SNC members come to town for discussions with U.S. officials, they often use Ziadeh's office as a base. (He is also a member of the SNC and often functions as its de facto spokesman in the United States.)

Part of the problem, of course, is the much-publicized dysfunction of the SNC itself. Many of its leaders are long-time exiles who are often criticized for indulging in impotent feuding in places like Paris and Istanbul while the folks back home confront the full force of Assad's rage. It's also notably fractious, reflecting, to some extent, the diversity of a country that boasts myriad regional and sectarian differences. Secular nationalists are at odds with members of the Muslim Brotherhood (who are thought to dominate the SNC, even though they tend to stay out of the limelight).

Perhaps this will change. The SNC did get a boost at recent Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, which brought the opposition together with emissaries from some 60 countries. The diplomats recognized the SNC as "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people -- a formula that still fell short of acknowledging the SNC as a full-fledged government in exile (not that anyone in the group was complaining).

It's a move that inspires hope, but it has failed to close the SNC's credibility gap. A few days after Tunis, some of the SNC's most prominent members announced they were forming something called the "Syrian Patriotic Group." Though they're staying within the SNC (at least for the moment), their aim is clearly to goad their colleagues into taking up a more decisive stance in support of the fight against Assad.

If they are to succeed, getting Washington on board will be key. Lately there has been lots of hopeful talk about creating a safe haven on the border with Turkey. But this is unlikely to happen unless the Obama administration gives its OK. (Some Arab countries have reportedly already started funneling weapons to the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition wing made up of defectors from Assad's military, and this is a process that will probably continue regardless of the White House position. But it's not clear what effect this will have unless the rebels can take delivery of tanks and artillery to counter Assad's heavy weapons.)

So far nothing like that appears to be in the offing. "Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now," President Obama said earlier this month. "He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately." But he showed little inclination to go farther.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did him one better. She worried aloud that weapons sent to the Syrian opposition could find their way to al Qaeda, and bemoaned the lack of "an opposition that is actually viable." SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun's recent statement that the group is prepared to collaborate with Hezbollah if need be probably won't assuage such fears.

Without a proper SNC presence in Washington, the burden of the opposition effort to shape policy has fallen on the shoulders of a group called the Syrian American Council, formed in 2005 to promote the development of democracy back in the homeland. The SAC started by trying to initiate a dialogue with the Baathist regime in Damascus. Last year, when Assad commanded his troops to open fire on peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Syrian cities, the SAC switched its emphasis to supporting the opposition.

Mahmoud Khattab, director of the SAC, says that his group has had many talks with U.S. officials in recent weeks. Lately the SAC has been pleading above all for Washington's support for the safe haven idea. So is anyone listening? "So far I haven't heard a clear plan from the U.S. about what they will do," says Khattab. "They keep talking about sanctions and peaceful solution. But the situation has been going on for 11 months now."

The Syrian opposition in the U.S. ought to have an easy job. Bashar has long been one of Washington's sworn enemies. Khattab, who notes that he and the SNC liaise on a regular basis, claims that their message is finding a warm reception in Congress (though it isn't always entirely apparent that this is the case).

There are deeper forces at work. The United States is understandably hesitant to intervene directly in Syria. The country is a tangle of sectarian and ethnic complexities that sits astride just about every strategic dilemma in the Middle East. The Baathist regime is a sworn enemy of Israel and a close friend of Iran. Assad's power base among the heterodox Alawite minority pits him against an increasingly bitter Sunni majority. Civil war in Syria could easily spark a regional conflagration, spilling over into neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, or Jordan.

"I'm a fan of the U.S.," says Syria expert Randa Slim. "I think they're playing it exactly right." She says that the Obama administration should beware getting too deeply involved. Most people in the region are already deeply suspicious of U.S. motives. The job of the Americans, she says, should be to marshal an international consensus, nudging the Europeans and others to lend more support to the opposition even while pressing it to become more inclusive and representative. "Leading from behind fits perfectly for a number of reasons," says Slim. Judging by their actions so far, it would seem that Clinton and Obama share this stance.

But didn't the U.S. support military action against Colonel Qaddafi? Sure. But Libya is relatively isolated, its population small. The National Transitional Council, the main opposition group, established itself just two months after the uprising against Qaddafi began, and boasted a relatively coherent leadership. Fighters loyal to the NTC managed to establish a defensible base area, in the eastern city Benghazi, early in the conflict. All this made it relatively easy for Washington to provide military support.

The situation in and around Syria bears little resemblance to this scenario. What's more, a comprehensive plan to aid the rebels depends on the good graces of Syria's neighbors. The most important of them is Turkey, whose long border with Syria is closest to many of the areas now in revolt. But so far Ankara has shown little inclination to get drawn into a Syrian conflict.

In case anyone forgets, another member of Khattab's group, a young doctor named Amer Sayed, reminds us what's at stake. Sayed arrived in the United States just a few weeks ago from his hometown of Idlib, where he remains in touch with family members who must confront not only snipers and artillery bombardment but also have to cope with shortages of diesel fuel, electricity, and water as they struggle to survive a harsh winter.

Supplies have been cut by the government to punish the rebels -- whether they are men, women, children, or the elderly. Sayed describes operating on victims of the crackdown in a dirty apartment without sanitized medical instruments, or being humiliated by government thugs who force shivering people to sing pro-Assad anthems in return for fuel rations. The death toll, in Idlib and elsewhere, continues to mount. (In its latest estimate, the U.N. says that more than 7500 Syrians have died as a result of attacks by government forces.)

By now such things should not really count as news. The question is whether the international community can be moved to effective action, whatever form that may take. If the state of play in Washington right now is any indication, though, the prospects for Syria's opposition are not good.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images