The Word of a Leader

In the past week I have discussed the importance of leadership moments and showed how they play such an important role when push comes to shove. Push has come to shove for President Obama is in the weekend before his final and sweeping effort to secure the support of Congress to strike Syria in the wake of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Let’s pivot off that concept and discuss the importance of words. For more then three decades I have made my living by shaping words. As editor, publisher, author and literary agent, I have helped many hundreds of authors by shaping and massaging their words in order to turn something ordinary into something special.

Speaking of words, I have always kept mine because I always knew that stakes were too high to contemplate otherwise. I spent more than three-fifths of my life in the business world building up a “fortress-like,” sterling reputation. However, I always knew that if I violated my word, even once, I could tear down that reputation in an instant—something I made sure I never did. Over-promise and under-deliver and you will find yourself out of business very quickly. I work in a small and close-knit industry in which word spreads quickly. I knew I had to be true to the values that were instilled in me from childhood. One does not lie—and one does not make a promise that cannot be honored.

Of course, the word of a corporate leader does not compare to the word of a country and its leadership. It is now common knowledge that President Obama made an off-the-cuff remark in August of 2012 about a red line and chemical weapons in Syria. We know that the remark was not planned because it was never followed up: President Obama—we know now—never instructed any members of his cabinet to come up with a plan of action in the event that the Syrian leader violated that red line. His failure to plan is what boxed him into his current and messy situation.

President Obama knows better than anyone the power of words. It was his soaring rhetoric that got him into the White House in the first place. He is also keenly aware that he has now put his reputation on the line. And not only his—but the reputation of the Office of the President as well as the word of the nation. And not just for now, but for years to come. That is why the stakes in Syria are so high. The decision to go ahead with strikes against Assad is more important than war—it is about the reputation of the United States.

That is why I believe that Obama will work doggedly to get the American electorate and both Houses of Congress with him. But momentum has shifted against him in ugly fashion. The shadow of the badly-bungled war in Iraq is too long and wide which explains why little more than a third of Americans back his decision to wage a limited war in Iraq. However, Obama has always been a pragmatic leader who sees things how they are and not how he wishes them to be. He knows that in 1999 President Clinton initiated bombing strikes for months in Kosovo a full month before the House voted on the issue (but after the Senate voted yes to a non-binding authorization of the use of force 58 to 41).  Obama also knows that he has almost no chance to win over the Republican- led House of Representatives. Momentum is crushing his efforts by the day. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has told him that it might take several weeks before the House is even ready to vote. Contrary to conventional wisdom, that is sweet music to the ears of the president.

That is because I believe that he now has a new plan of action.

He and his closest two members of his inner circle—Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry—will put on a full court press to win Senate approval. In the Senate, Obama has about a six-member lead in the weekend ahead of his all-important address to the country on Tuesday, September 10th, one day before the 12-year anniversary of the 2001 horrific attack. Still, the Senate could go either way.

So what happens now?

One of two things: if Obama wins Senate approval, I believe he will wait no longer—knowing that his failure to act one week earlier may have been the worst day of his presidency—and order the attacks to go forward. He will not wait for the House to vote. If he fails to win the Senate, then he will go it alone, knowing full well that he is risking his presidency and his legacy in doing so. I believe that Obama has already made his calculation. He will put the word of the nation above his¬†own word and his own legacy. He will do so because he knows that the word of a nation is far too valuable to squander. He also believes deeply that the use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished—even if much of the the country—and the world—is not with him.

I have had the good fortune to publish more than one book on former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He spoke of leadership as a lonely endeavor. Just how lonely is something that Obama is about to find out—the hard way.

—Jeffrey A. Krames, September 7, 2013






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