Monday, September 04, 2006

India, 1947. Iraq, 2006

Peggy Noonan writing in the Wall Street Journal says something I have thought.
I have been reading "Freedom at Midnight," [I read the book earlier this summer] the popular classic of 30 years ago that recounted the coming of democracy to India. The authors, journalists Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, capture the end of the Raj with sweep and drama, and manage to make even the dividing of India and Pakistan--I mean the literal drawing of the lines between the two countries, by a British civil servant--riveting. But the sobering lesson of this history, the big thing you bring away, is this: They didn't know.

Mountbatten and Nehru and Jinnah were brilliant men who'd not only experienced a great deal; they'd done a great deal, and yet they did not know that the Subcontinent--which each in his own way, and sometimes it was an odd way, loved--would explode in violence, that bloodlust would rule as soon as the Union Jack was lowered.


Everyone in a position of authority seems to have been blinded, in part, by the Mission.

The tough, preternaturally self-confident Mountbatten had been sent by London to oversee independence, and he was bloody well going to do it. He was Mountbatten of Burma after all, and he'd first toured India with his cousin David, the future Edward VIII. Imperialism was over, Mountbatten was given his charge: get Britain out with grace and dignity, part as friends, preserve the special ties between London and Delhi. For Mountbatten, speed was everything. He thought the sectarian violence that had begun to crop up as independence neared would be quelled by the transfer of power and partition.

For Nehru, the mission was to secure a free and democratic India. Only then would he realize his personal destiny, to become its first prime minister and impose upon its masses the Fabian socialism that had so impressed him when, as a young Indian outsider at Cambridge, he was dazzled by London's salons. (Those salons damaged him more than any British prison ever did.)

Jinnah sought to create the world's biggest Muslim nation, with him as head. On the day of independence, Pakistan was littered not by little flags but by pictures of one man: him. He ate bacon with his eggs, liked whiskey at night, and seems never to have had a personal religious impulse he could not squelch. But he too had a destiny, and if the Subcontinent had to be rent for him to achieve it, then so be it.

So they were all driven by their mission. And by personal ambition, which tends to narrow one's focus, or rather train one's focus on oneself, and away from more important things.

And there was something else.

The leaders of the day did not know that terrible violence was coming because of what I think is a classic and structural problem of leadership: It distances. Each of these men was to varying degrees detached from facts on the ground. They were by virtue of their position and accomplishments an elite. They no longer knew what was beating within the hearts of those who lived quite literally on the ground.


This is a problem with government and governing bodies--with the White House, Downing Street, with State Department specialists, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and West Point, too. It is not so much a matter of fault as it is structural. The minute you rise to govern you become another step removed from the lives of those you govern. Which means you become removed from reality.

This is what I've been thinking about as I've considered the obvious fact that those in positions of authority in Washington were taken aback by and not prepared for the strength and durability of the insurgency in Iraq. Obviously India in 1947 is not Iraq in 2006. But there is a lesson both have in common.
The whole article is worth a read.

She ends the aticle by saying:
In international actions great nations should, in general, go slow, think dark, assume the worst. If it can go wrong it likely will. Prepare, take steps; forewarned is forearmed. Listen to the "unimportant"; heed the outside voice. Know you don't know.

If you are a leader, recognize what drives you. Know your motives. Mountbatten could have resisted partition, or slowed it, or lessened its impact. He was a decisive and dynamic man, a great one I think, but if he'd been capable of introspection, of self-analysis, of self-skepticism, he might have recognized and resisted his too-driven sense of Mission, and the personal vanity that was always, with him, a spur.

If Mountbatten had slowed down, the tuberculosis that was killing the sole but unstoppable mover for partition, Jinnah (it was a secret; only Jinnah knew Jinnah was dying) would have taken him out of the picture, and altered the landscape. Within a year of independence, he was dead. But Mountbatten didn't know, and barreled on.

The only one who knew what was coming was Gandhi, mystic, genius and eccentric, who drove the other great men crazy by insisting on living among and ministering to the poor, the nonelite. He knew their hearts. He had given his life for a free and independent India but opposed partition and feared the immediate chaos it would bring. He spent the eve of Independence mourning. Six months later he was dead.

Noonan rightly, I believe, says that Mountbatten could have prevented partition. Of course, in hindsight, everything is easy. All of us can be self deceived. Leaders are no less guilty. History shows us that self-deception was a reality in the partioning of India - in the drivenness of Mountbatten and Nehru and Jinnah.

Self deception affect leaders today - not just our major political leaders but all of us who lead.

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