By Timothy Spyrou
ELECTIONS are not just about who wins power. Those asking the citizens for votes have a duty to be intellectually engaged, curious and humble. They are supposed to be masters of policies they believe are right for the nation.
They should seek to embrace knowledge across disciplines, with a healthy respect for those who possess greater insights in various fields. Otherwise, they will fail to be articulate leaders who can build upon great visions of how to benefit the people they represent. They should never assume they possess the greatest understanding of any subject, even if they are rarefied experts and prodigies. They should be willing to admit they have a deficit of understanding on certain topics.
However, they should not confront gaps in knowledge with cavalierism, but with a humility that guides them towards working to gain the understanding enabling them to serve.
Recently, Donald Trump had a bad interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, in which he was quizzed on Iran’s role throughout the Middle East. He confused the Quds Force with the Kurdish Peshmergas. When probed further on what knowledge he had about the overall regional situation, Trump became aggressive and cavalier, saying they were “gotcha questions” and knowing “the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas” [Hewitt’s words] “will matter when it’s appropriate”,[Trump’s words] meaning, “the day after the election.”
Later, while publicly lobbying on CNN for the post of Energy Secretary in a Trump Administration, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin [ Senator John McCain’s 2008 Veep ] declared “I’d rather have a president who is tough than can win a game of Trivial Pursuit. But I don’t think the public gives a flying flip if somebody knows who, today, is a specific leader of a specific region or a religion or anything.”
Focus on the substance of what Palin said. She basically called aspects of international security like terrorism, genocide, Islamic fundamentalism, the Saudi-Persian Cold War, the duplicity of some of America’s allies like Saudi Arabia, “a game of Trivial Pursuit.”
She confirmed that Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin in the film “Game Change”, based on the 2010 book, was accurate when it revealed that McCain’s running mate “couldn’t explain why North and South Korea were separate nations, did not know what the Federal Reserve did,” and believed that “Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11”.
When asked at a prep session how McCain would preserve the Special Relationship despite the British public’s low support for the Iraq War, she replied “I think the US has always maintained a great relationship with the Queen and John McCain will continue to have an open dialogue with her.” Upon being told that the Queen is the head of state, not head of government she asked “well, who is the head of government?”
I could explain why confusing the “Quds Force” with our allies the “Kurds” is more than “Trivial Pursuit” , how the Iraqi civil war midwifed the birth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL’s forerunner, what’s happening in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen and why they are important but suffice it to say the uninformed will just keeping on wondering why there are so many refugees.
This is meant to convey the American public should care about whether a potential Commander in Chief takes learning about the nuances of foreign policy, including the name of “a specific leader of a specific anything” seriously.
I’ll ask “Gotcha Questions.” Who are the wealthy Saudis, who are funding fundamentalist organisations? Which Syrian opposition groups are trustworthy? Who in the Pakistani security establishment is taking American aid with one hand and helping the Taliban with the other? Are Pakistan’ nuclear weapons secure? Does Trump realise not knowing the right answer can lead to another 9/11?
According to The Huffington Post, the Republicans are running under the slogan “vague is good; ignorance is better.”
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker claimed if he could beat public sector unions, he could beat ISIL. To compete with Trump’s Mexican Wall, he proposes a wall for the US-Canadian border, never mind that Canada is one of America’s closest allies.
It all reminds me of the classic confrontation between President Jed Bartlet of The West Wing and his Republican challenger. He tells Rob Richie “you’ve turned being un-engaged into a Zen-like thing, and you shouldn’t enjoy it so much and if it appears at times as if I don’t like you, that’s the only reason why.” Richie retorted that Bartlet was “a superior, liberal, academically elitist, snob, Hollywood sumbitch” and concluded with “if it appears from time to time as if I don’t like you, well, those are just a few of the many reasons why.” The writers must have had a vision of the Tea Party fever with even Republicans who are known for intelligence practising “dumb as we wanna be” politics.
Americans should want the best to enter public service so as to secure America’s place in the world. We need people who can make the connection between game theory and the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance. We need anthropologists and historians who comprehend the forces of traumatic memories that drive people towards conflict. We need a greater supply of young, idealistic and intelligent people throughout the government. We need a bipartisan culture that values such intellectual diversity; otherwise our institutions will decline in their ability to face challenges. Yet, how can America get the public servants she needs if their leaders take the Trump attitude of “I am not interested in learning about this difficult stuff right now. I will find out when I am President. I will delegate people to explain stuff to me. Besides, I am a really smart person. I have an Ivy League MBA. I will learn the things quickly when necessary.” At least it is not as bad as “who gives a flying flip, all you need is patriotism.”
Young Americans who want to serve need to know they will be working for intellectually engaged leaders who will try to build intellectual capital throughout government as a grand enterprise. The irony is that it was Republican President Eisenhower who championed the National Defense Education Act, under the logic that more intellectually engaged Americans will create a wider pool of talent for the US Government, leading to long term victory over the Soviets. Having leaders who are tough and intellectually engaged is a matter of honour and a matter of national security.
Some leader needs to paraphrase Republican 1964 candidate Goldwater and say “Bluntness in defence of sanity is not a vice. Defiant, flippant ignorance is not a virtue.”