The Michael Jackson Principle

Five leaders who need to take a look in the mirror.

In one of his more reflective songs, "Man in the Mirror," the late Michael Jackson enshrined a bit of wisdom for the ages: If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.

MJ was on to something. He may not have known much about negotiations, American politics, the budget deficit, or foreign policy. But the principle that we need the capacity to see the world the way it is (and ourselves as well) is a critically important component of success in politics, just as it is in life.

With that in mind, here are five honest looks in the mirror I'd like to hear about but most assuredly never will.

Barack Obama

I really would have liked to be a great president, and really thought I could be. But it's probably  not going to happen. Forget what I told Diane Sawyer in 2010 --  that I'd rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer. It was a good, self-effacing line at the time. But I never meant it. Anyway, right now, I'm not thinking about legacy. I just want to hold onto my job.

The truth is the Republicans were out to get me. But I really made it easy for them. My own sense of grandiosity and illusions about what I could achieve really helped them. I figured I was destined to be a transformational president. After all, the worst economic recession since FDR, two foreign wars, and a dysfunctional political system all seemed to make me the right guy at the right place and time. (After all, I've never failed at anything.) It's no coincidence that I chose to be sworn in on the Lincoln Bible and to recreate Honest Abe's post-inaugural meal right down to the sour cherry chutney.

But the truth is, I misread the political map and the American public. There was no way to be a post-partisan president (and what does that mean anyway?). Most sensible Americans didn't want to be saved and see the country transformed; they wanted relief -- and a guy who could solve their problems. I underestimated the depth of the economic mess I inherited and tacked too quickly to a major piece of health-care legislation, parts of which are so complex and uncertain that even I don't understand them. Jefferson was right: Transformative change shouldn't rest on slender majorities, or in my case only on Democrats.

I'm also not entirely sure I really understood who I was, either. I'm not a transformative risk taker. My MO is to look for balance, to reason things out coolly and deliberately. It's helped me in foreign policy, where I've been pretty competent in avoiding costly messes abroad or making any new ones of my own. But my coolness and deliberative style hasn't helped me all that much at home, where most Americans are focused. People are really worried about the future, and I really couldn't do much on the policy or the politics to reassure them. The fact is, I really don't like politics. I lack FDR's fire-in-the-belly partisanship, LBJ's in-your-face approach to Congress, and Ronald Reagan's genuineness, authenticity, and leadership. The only thing I have going for me now is that the other guy -- Richie Rich -- is more out of touch with the public than I am. It's sad, really. What I told Sawyer could actually come true. If it comes to that, I hope the good president part stays in there. But I'm not so sure.

Chip Somodevilla/GettyImages

Mitt Romney

I'm a very happy guy. Life has been very, very kind to me. I'm a man of faith and family and have amassed a great fortune, too. And now I have an opportunity to be something I'm not sure I ever thought I could be: president of the United States. I really do look like an American president: I have great hair and the kind of background -- governor, businessman, civic-minded philanthropist -- that has propelled others into the White House.

I know I wasn't the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth choice of my party, but they'll get over it. And I know I can seem a bit awkward, stiff, and tone deaf on the campaign trail. But I'm getting better at it. And I have two things going for me: The economy sucks now, and it will continue to suck in November.

Whether or not I have a vision and a plan to get the country moving again is another matter. But I'm honest enough with myself (privately) to wonder. The party I represent really is out of control. Like the president, I'm also a balancer, not an ideologue; I really do know that to fix the economy and our other slow bleeds requires both serious spending cuts and tax increases. I may have worked at the upper reaches of high finance and the private-equity world, but I'm smart enough to know that. I also know that I'll need help from the Democrats and a different way of operating across the aisle. My real problem is that I don't know whether I have the courage and the will to defy my own party, which frankly has lost its soul and its mind. My campaign rhetoric, commitments, and promises are going to put me  further behind the eight ball. But then again; I'm really not all that worried. Even if I don't win in November, I'm still going to be a very happy guy with a wonderful wife and great kids. I'll still have my faith and a lot of money, too.

Mario Tama/GettyImages

Hillary Clinton

I'm a survivor. Life's offered up some tough challenges and a few setbacks. But I've emerged through it all much smarter, tougher, and wiser as a consequence. I was profoundly disappointed in losing the presidential primary sweepstakes to a guy who probably wasn't entirely ready for prime time. But I kept my honor and dignity in defeat.

I may not have been the most consequential secretary of state in the republic's history. But then again, my boss hasn't really let me own the big issues, like Iran and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

But you know what? It's just as well. Right now these issues are real losers, and I can go around giving great speeches and getting rave reviews and even bigger applause without really owning anything that I personally screwed up. And hey, the kind of planetary humanism I've pursued -- women's, girl's, and LGBT rights, Internet and religious freedom, the environment, technology and social media -- are important 21st-century issues. Nobody can say that I haven't been a loyal team player. My approval ratings are better than the president's.

I'm tired, though, and need a break to sort things out and decompress. I have a lot of options -- writing another big book, giving more speeches, working with Bill on his Global Initiative. All that sounds fine for a year or so, but it's pretty boring stuff. The truth is I'm not done with public life. When I look around, there are few more talented politicians on either side with my experience and star power. James Buchanan wasn't such a great secretary of state either, but he was the last to ascend from the job to the presidency. And I know I can be a better president than he was. It will be risky, though. If Obama wins in 2012, the historical odds of his being replaced by another Democrat aren't all that great. It's only happened once since FDR -- Bush 41 and Reagan. But hey, I'm a trendsetter. And I'm tired of always losing out to the boys. I can't wait to see Bill as first lady.

Brendan Smialowsk/AFP/GettyImages

Benjamin Netanyahu

I know I often brandish a tough-talking, self-confident, even brash exterior, but I'm a worried man. But what else would you expect? Jews worry for a living.

Lately I've had string of good fortune: I've outmaneuvered all of my rivals, avoided early elections, and put together the deepest government in Israel's history. And let's face it: The more screwed up the Arab world becomes, the more room I have to avoid tough decisions on key issues like negotiating with the Palestinians. Believe me, I have no illusions on this one. What the Palestinians want from me -- June 1967 borders with minor modifications, a capital in East Jerusalem, security arrangements that give them actual sovereignty, and a resolution to the refugee issue that symbolically or practically recognizes the "right of return" -- I cannot and will not give. Above all, I want them to concede on Israel's identity issue: recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Only then will the world know that Israel -- as the Jewish state -- can never be a Palestinian one.

Things may be manageable for now, but I know they won't remain that way. Israel has some legitimate fears: Iran with the bomb, the fraying of the peace treaty with Egypt. My predecessor, Ehud Olmert, once said that Israeli prime ministers have to sleep with one eye open. I'm sleeping with two open. As Henry Kissinger said, even paranoids have their enemies -- and mine abound. Kadima figures they can do a Trojan Horse redux and undermine me from within. The left in Israel hates me, but they're irrelevant. The right doesn't trust  me and worries I'll turn into some kind of transformed hawk like Yitzhak Rabin. No danger of that -- the Arabs can't stand me and the ones who had to deal with me, like Hosni Mubarak, are gone. Jordan's King Abdullah is prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt from time to time. But even that's wearing thin now, too.

As for Israel's only real ally, let's just say it's complicated. The U.S.-Israeli relationship -- institutionally -- is in good shape. And the Jewish community and the Evangelicals (I got aboard that train early) are supportive. Congress, too (did you see how many standing ovations they gave me?). But I continue to worry about President Obama. He's different than Bill Clinton. Yeah, Clinton didn't like me either. But at least he understood politics and he was in love with Israel. Nor is this Obama guy like George W. Bush, either, who was instinctively pro-Israel, however frustrated he was with Ariel Sharon. Obama is too cold, analytical, and detached for me. He's not buying the Exodus thing. I have to figure: If he had the chance, he'd stick it to me in a heartbeat.  Gotta hope my good friend Mitt Romney wins. He's got a lot of goodwill toward Israel. It might take me a full two years to piss him off.


 Bashar al-Assad

Oy vey, am I in trouble. I thought I was pretty clever when I got this job. I opened up the economy and attracted a lot of foreign investment. Damascus never looked better -- at least in the hotel, night spots, and restaurant category. I even tried to do some cosmetic political reform.

But I really couldn't escape the gene pool or the neighborhood. I'm a thug and the pretty wife, cute kids, ophthalmologist thing doesn't change that. I fooled the Europeans and even a few Americans  for a while. But when you grow up in my house (really a cross between the Corleones, Sopranos, and the Addams family), you are what you are. In my case, I've got all the flaws of my old man and none of his strengths. He killed anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 people in Hama in 1982, but at least he managed to stay in power and control the country. I'm already a mass murderer and may well be forced to leave -- or, if I'm not careful, a much worse end is in store. I don't want to end up like Qaddafi.

Still, not all's lost. The Russians are with me -- for now. The Iranian mullahs and the Pasdaran don't want to see me fall. The U.N. is irrelevant (did you see how I ran them out of town?). The Turks seems scared of their own shadow. The Americans are too preoccupied with domestic matters to risk military intervention. They're done with Middle East quagmires. All I really face is a bunch of angry Sunni villagers, and I haven't even begun to crack down yet.

But I'd better keep the jet gassed up and ready with enough caviar and vodka to get me to Moscow. Russia's too cold and Asma won't like the shopping. But, like they say about old age, even Russia sure beats the alternative.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/GettyImages

Reality Check

Everything in Syria Is Going to Plan

It just depends on whose plan you're talking about.

If you don't know where you're going, the old saying goes, any road will get you there.

The conventional wisdom on Syria has it that the external actors to the tragic drama playing out these many months don't know what to do, have no end game, and are thus incapable of acting alone or in concert to end the killing and create an effective transition to the post-Assad era.

But that's wrong. The key actors -- America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Arabs -- know precisely what they're about (or at least what they want to avoid) and are acting quite willfully to attend to their own interests.

In short, we have a coalition not of the willing but of the disabled, the unwilling, and the opposed. And each has a clear agenda. The tragedy for Syria is that it's just not a common agenda. And here's why.


The United Nations

 We can dispense with the idea that the United Nations is a consequential player quite quickly. The U.N. is only as strong as its member states, and in this case that means the five permanent members of the Security Council. The U.N.'s relevance in any global emergency occurs either at the front end of a crisis -- as a legitimizer of action -- or, if the powers that run the place agree, as an implementing arm once they do.

When there's no consensus, as in the case of Syria, the U.N. is relegated to articulating rather than acting. Enter Kofi Annan, whose six-point initiative was dead before it was born. Not only are the great powers divided, but the gap between the regime and the opposition is a galactic one that renders any diplomatic approach -- either on confidence-builders or on an end game -- pointless. The fact that the former secretary-general is trying to expand his contact group to include the Iranians has only added to the confusion, allowing the Russians (who have adopted the idea) to avoid any serious action.



Vladimir Putin's motives on Syria are a mix of principle, pragmatism, and his own persona.  Like Howard Beale, the frustrated anchor in the movie Network, Putin's mad as hell and he ain't gonna to take it anymore. No more Western interventions. No more American diktats or schemes to crowd out Russian influence. There's nothing more insufferable than the leader of a great power that isn't so great anymore (see: France).

Russia has seen all of its former friends -- Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad -- undermined and deposed by the Americans. We even want his help to squeeze the Iranians on the nuclear issue, too. And he's pushing back. He knows Assad can't be saved and doesn't want Russia identified with massacres, but he wants to avoid a made-in-America settlement that puts Barack Obama in the driver's seat or leads to a post-Assad era where Russia has no influence or, worse, is holding Washington's coat.

Putin also fears -- genuinely, I think -- a post-Assad Syria dominated by radical Sunnis. He doesn't trust the Saudis, who are looking to counter Iran and the Shia. He worries about his own Muslims in the North Caucasus. (Indeed, Saudi support for Chechnyan rebel Wahhabists is a painful reminder of the Quran's long reach.) Finally, as with Nicolas Sarkozy, all life for Putin begins with the personal. Putin is both entitled and insecure -- a bad combo. He's just not going to let Obama roll him again after what happened in Libya. If there's a deal to oust Assad, Russia will have to be central to it.



On paper, you'd think the Turks would have been willing by now to assume a greater leadership role on Syria. Geography, Sunni affinity, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leadership pretentions in the region would have all argued for much deeper involvement. But leadership requires standing up, and that can make people unhappy, or worse.  The Turks' "we want to be loved by everybody" approach (minus the Israelis) -- represents their preferred soft-power strategy. It's about adding countries to the Turkish fan club, not subtracting them.

Yes, it's hard to sit idle while Assad kills fellow Sunnis. But guess what? Everyone else is doing it. Why should Turkey stand up and press for safe zones or military intervention without an Arab consensus? That might anger Iran, the Kurds, and even the Alevis, a minority sect in Turkey that feels persecuted by the Sunni majority. Better to play it safe and watch carefully. Maybe somebody else will take the lead and fix the problem.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Iran and the Saudis

The new Arab-Iranian cold war has been on for some time now. The Syrian crisis has only made it worse. Led by the Saudis, the Sunnis are determined to do what they can to check what they see as rising Iranian and Shia power. I'm sure the Saudis blame the Americans for the Shia government that now sits in Baghdad and for Bahrain, where Washington pressed for reform of in the early days of the Arab Spring, seemingly inattentive to Saudi concerns.

Iraq may be lost, but the game in Syria is still on and the stakes are high. Turning the Shia-affiliated Alawi regime into a Sunni one that can be influenced would be a tremendous victory for the Gulf Arabs. It would weaken the Iranians and break the exaggerated but still very real threat of Shia encirclement -- Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And that's why Riyadh is backing the rebels with money and arms and allowing individual Saudi clerics to sermonize about jihad and encourage non-Syrian foreign fighters to carry it out. This, of course has a potential downside. We saw the blowback in Afghanistan, where Saudi-inspired Wahhabi doctrine motivated a cadre of Arabs to fight first against the Russians and then against the West.

Tehran, on the other hand, is pushing back: propping up the Assads with concessionary oil, money, arms, and whatever the regime can contribute from its own large bag of repressive techniques. The Iranians may be out of touch on some issues, but it's hard to believe they don't sense that the bell is tolling for the Assads and for the four-decade-old strategic relationship with Syria. If and when Assad falls, Iran's window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict is going to be much harder to keep open, particularly its key relationship with Hezbollah. But that doesn't mean Tehran is going to cooperate on keeping Syria quiet and stable. Indeed, the fear of Sunni encirclement will intensify, and Iran will want to meddle even more to keep the pot boiling (see: Iraq). Iran might even cling tighter to its nuclear program to enhance its leverage and own sense of security.


The United States

The American agenda on Syria completes the circle. Sure, the president is outraged by Assad's brutality, and yes he'd like to do more. But bad options and electoral politics provide little incentive or leeway for heroics on Syria. The president is more focused on the perpetuation of the House of Obama than on the fall of the House of Assad. And rightly so. Americans are tired of costly military interventions, and the election is going to turn not on foreign policy but on the economy. And the Republicans can't find a way to make political hay from an Obama foreign policy that on balance has been smart and competent.

The only issues Americans care about abroad these days are terrorism and high gas prices. The president may pay for the latter but has been very tough on the former. Foreign policy will not help him in November, but a costly stumble abroad could hurt him. And the Syrian crisis offers plenty of opportunities for that. If the president acts, it will be cautiously and in the company of others.

Next month, there will be another Friends of Syria meeting. And most likely, there will be a lot of talk and some ratcheting up of the pressure on Assad, but little else. The only thing that could alter this passivity is a spike in the killing and violence that goes qualitatively beyond the horrors we've seen so far. A successful intervention would require a grand concert of powers all focused not just on ending the killing but on creating and nurturing a post-Assad Syria. Right now, the external players are too divided, too self-interested, and too committed to their own narrow concerns for that. Syria may be fixable, but certainly not on the cheap. And nobody's yet willing to pay the price.