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How Not to Lead the World

The U.N. General Assembly is providing a real-time seminar on failed leadership.

Few terms are as abused, misused and overused as "world leader." While headlines daily suggest that the planet is operating without adult supervision, the folly of classifying most of our heads of state and government as "leaders" is never clearer than at the opening of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

This year, the U.N. circus was once again welcomed to New York by snarled traffic and snarling Manhattanites -- all of whom almost certainly wish that just once, the entourages and press conferences and cocktail receptions and empty, rambling speeches would be directed to the citizens of somewhere else. Detroit's been having a tough time, how about there? Or Athens? Or how about they just set up a Facebook page and let national governments simply post their speeches for all to see? Think of the savings. Or, to put it in better perspective: Think of what would be lost if we skipped the meeting altogether.

That's right, nothing. Nothing at all.

Once again, all of the Commedia dell'arte cast of players on the global stage are fulfilling their roles. While Muammar al-Qaddafi, one of the great buffo characters of recent U.N. history -- perhaps the greatest of them all -- is but a memory, we got to see the final performance in this eight-year run of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Like Qaddafi, he will be missed by no one except the connoisseurs of the ludicrous and students of abnormal psychology -- and for them, there are always reruns of Sascha Baron Cohen's The Dictator.

But Ahmadinejad, for all the headlines he generates while fulminating and spitting out nonsense about Israel's lack of legitimacy or Iran's invincible might, is also illustrative of just how misplaced the term "world leader" is. For one thing, he is not even the real leader of his own country. Instead, true power lies with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Council of Guardians, and other top religious leaders. Ahmadinejad, for all his bluster, is much more like the country's top spokesmodel than he is the final word on any of its key decisions. Indeed, to those present at his press briefing on Monday morning, it seemed impossible to imagine this guy -- who clearly has a screw loose -- actually administering much of anything.

One of the starring roles in each year's autumn pageant in New York goes by default to the president of the United States. Since the founding of the United Nations, he has been called "the most powerful man in the world." This naturally makes him the most important of the world's leaders. For this reason, President Barack Obama apparently decided to wedge in an appearance in front of the U.N. between his interview with Whoopi Goldberg and the crew at The View, his stop at the conference of America's true president-for-life, Bill Clinton, and other campaign-related appearances.

Obama's decision not to meet with other world leaders was brushed off by the White House with a "well, if he met with one he'd have to meet with 10" line. This of course implies that meeting with world leaders is actually really just a slippery slope leading to wasted time. There is no room in this defense (which, let's be honest, boils down to choosing Whoopi over Bibi) for the notion that something might be gained from meeting with these men or women. Which certainly suggests that the world's most important leader doesn't think much of his colleagues.

He showed considerably more respect for them and the principles underlying both the U.N. and the United States in his remarks to the General Assembly.  However, while they were generally well-received, the central headline-grabber in his speech was a promise to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, something that neither he nor anyone present in that chamber today may actually be willing or able to do.

This leads in turn to the also important point that the president of the United States may no longer be the most powerful man in the world. That is not because the United States is not the most powerful nation in the world -- it still is. But rather, it is because the president can't seem to get much done in Washington; Congress has become a roadblock for executive action of most sorts; and whereas the president can take independent action in most instances, the United States lacks the will or the resources to project force or use soft power elsewhere in the world. Thus, even the job of No. 1 world leader ain't what it used to be.

Beyond the nuttier dictators of this world and presidents of countries that are bound like Gulliver in Lilliput by the limitations of their own national bank accounts and flawed political systems, there are others flaunting the world leader label in New York this week who also provoke questions about their legitimate claim to that title. From Benjamin Netanyahu, whom very nearly no one is likely to follow, to Egypt's Mohamed Morsy, whose control of his country is as ambiguous as is his cloudy view (shared by Obama) of the U.S.-Egypt relationship, from Pakistan's Asif Ali Zadari to Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, the U.N. is awash in political figures who face such serious problems back home that real leadership would have suggested they pass on this week's opportunity to hobnob over canapés at the Waldorf.

So, to recap: Some of the leaders in New York this week aren't actually the leaders in their own countries. And others are not really considered important players by their peers. Still others are seeing their ability to lead diminished or constrained. And above and beyond these factors is the reality that the secret to being a world leader is not so much having a vision or a title or a big army, but getting other people to follow you.

Given the U.N.'s recent record of inaction on vital issues from Syria to climate change, the one thing these so-called leaders have proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that motivating followers and energizing alliances is not their strong suit.  

There are, we should acknowledge, real leaders out there -- people creating new jobs, overseeing the development of new technologies, curing diseases, solving big problems. They just don't happen to be the people causing most of the traffic jams in New York this week. So perhaps if we can't get these people in town for the General Assembly to actually lead, we might do the next best thing and stop calling them what they are clearly not.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GettyImages

David Rothkopf

Bibi's Blunder

How Netanyahu killed the Israel lobby.

Starting Sunday evening, we marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Numerologists with too much time on their hands noted that the digits of the year 5773 add up to the same numerical value as the word tovah, meaning good. That is supposed to be an omen, I suppose. But ever since Madonna embraced Kabala, I've been dubious about it. I like my omens more concrete and, where possible, drenched in irony.

Fortunately, this New Year has begun auspiciously even for skeptics like me -- because it has been ushered in by a fierce debate that may finally have done in one of the most pernicious and enduring myths of our time: that of the existence of an all-powerful Israel Lobby. Neatly, providing just enough irony to offer the honey sweetening we Jews look for to start off each year, the myth has been done in by the most unlikely of perpetrators: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel.

The irony and even the deed may have been cloaked for many by the circumstances under which they occurred. That is due in part to the fact that there have been so many other stories dominating the headlines recently. For example, last week's story of Netanyahu's decision to publicly confront his most important ally and the resulting further decline in U.S.-Israel relations would have dominated the news at virtually any other time. But the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the riots that spread across the Middle East forced it into the background. (Indeed, the confrontation between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands would have been and should have been big news in any week in which those other two stories did not occur.)

But even the story of the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans did not end up dominating the news last week. Instead, that story was partially elbowed aside by the self-inflicted wounds Mitt Romney delivered to his campaign when he precipitously offered up a critique of the Obama administration in the middle of the breaking news of the tragic attack. Barack Obama would have had a bad week indeed if Romney had simply kept his mouth shut. Very real questions exist about embassy security and the intelligence that could have led the United States to secure its compounds in the region differently. The Israel rift is ill-timed. In fact, there is virtually not one single area of U.S. foreign policy in Middle East that is moving in the right direction at the moment. And all that would have had the president on the defensive if his luck in being confronted by one of the most inept challengers in recent presidential campaign history had not kicked in once again.

The bad advice Romney is getting and, more importantly, acting upon, brings us back to our exquisite New Year's irony. Because at least one of those giving bad advice to the Romney campaign is Dan Senor, former mouthpiece of the United States in Baghdad, "Morning Joe" talking head, and one of the original shoot-first, aim-later neocon functionaries who has undermined the GOP's once-solid claim to national security competence. In Sunday's New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd cited Senor among others in her attacks on Romney for falling, as he has, under the thrall of the discredited far right of his party's foreign policy establishment. This triggered an avalanche of criticism from some, like my good friend Jeff Goldberg, who attacked her for her use of imagery that he asserted was anti-Semitic.

Goldberg is invariably smart, often witty, and typically right. But in this instance, he, like Romney, should have stood back and let silence do its work. Because the imagery to which he objected, that of "an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews," while tiresome, was really secondary to the bigger issue at stake. Through what seems to be careful if ill-considered collaboration, Netanyahu, Romney, Senor, and Co. were in the midst of blowing up one of the overarching myths of which the Jewish snake/Gentile dolt imagery was just one component.

And here we see the perils of believing your own hype -- apparently Bibi and friends actually believed the idea of the all-powerful Israel Lobby. Whether through Romney's bald-faced pandering to that perceived lobby with his ugly comments about the cultural inferiority of Palestinians or, more shockingly, through Netanyahu's decision to take sides in the 2012 presidential campaign, they seem to think that if they can portray Obama as "weak on Israel" they will materially advance their own causes. It's worth noting, of course, that those interests are different. For Romney, the approach only works if it undermines Obama in key states, notably Florida. For Netanyahu, it would work if the fear of losing Jewish support pushed Obama to get visibly tougher on Iran, to accept, for example, the Israeli leader's call for clearly demarked and more aggressive "red lines" with Iran.

Netanyahu, who dug in deeper this weekend with a high-profile showing on Meet the Press, seems to have swallowed the myth of the power of the Jewish Lobby so completely that he has bet his reputation and his country's future relationship with its most important ally on it. But here's the problem: Whatever lobby exists for Israel, it neither lives up to its press clippings nor to what it may have been in the past. And this week before Rosh Hashanah proved it.

In the first, instance, the Obama administration bravely kicked off last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's outright rejection of the idea of red lines, a strong message that they would not be bullied, even in an election year, regardless of the political consequences. This was further underscored later in the week when the Obama administration allegedly rejected a meeting with Netanyahu. The rejection was leaked by the Israelis hoping the lobby would be outraged. The administration held its ground, in part because they knew something that Netanyahu did not: American Jews do not vote as a monolith, they don't vote Israel's interests first, they don't like foreign leaders trying to meddle in U.S. elections, and the polling results show it.

Since Romney and Netanyahu first started making their play to harness the power of "the lobby," their standing in the polls has slipped. In Florida, Obama has gained ground since this effort started and is up by as much as 5 points in the most recent NBC News poll for that state. In fact, even with Netanyahu making the rounds of the Sunday morning television shows this past weekend, he found his points being publicly rebuffed by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, showing yet again that the Obama team is not giving in to the power of the approach -- or that somehow AIPAC's puppet masters have lost their touch. Michele Bachmann may be calling for Obama to meet with Netanyahu. Paul Ryan may be howling. But here's the problem: Romney and Ryan and their cheerleader Bibi are very likely to end up on the wrong side of the November results.

In short, this year is getting off to a good start for those of us who have always found the notion of some dark Jewish conspiracy of super-K Streeters to be laughable. Jews are just as divided, just as sometimes impotent and sometimes successful as anyone else. Of course, if I said it, the list of commenters suggesting that somehow I was part of the cover operation for this lobby would be long. But when it is none other than the prime minister of Israel who proves once and for all the limitations of the lobby and, by November, will have proved that estimations of Jewish political influence of all types are overstated, well, then that's something worth celebrating.

And if the myth survives the drubbing the facts are giving it this fall, well, then it will at least prove once and for all that it is what many of us, like Jeff Goldberg and I, have been arguing for a long, long time: The Israel Lobby is just another boogie monster cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices.

Happy New Year, everybody.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/GettyImages