In politics, tough decisions must be made before the doors of opportunity slam shut
Global leaders are often judged on their bad decisions, but there is no way to tell whether the alternative would have been worse
In the movie Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow attempts to get on a train but the doors close and she misses her chance. That one moment means that her romantic life and career take a different route from the one she had hoped for. The film’s genius is that it also shows how things would have turned out had the doors not closed in front of her.
Unfortunately, the world is not like that. We cannot treat our choices like experiments that we can do all over again if we do not like the results. This is clearly demonstrated when politicians and leaders make difficult decisions that go wrong. We cannot go back and see what would have happened had they taken a different path. Leaders sometimes deserve criticism, but mostly they do their best and make decisions before the doors slam shut.
The current conflict in Libya is a good example. In 2011 the governments of Britain and France – led by then prime minister David Cameron and president Nicolas Sarkozy, respectively – decided to intervene, alongside the then US president Barack Obama.
There was a great deal of public pressure on the leaders to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from killing Libyans in Benghazi. A subsequent inquiry by Britain’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee reported in 2016 that they could have achieved their humanitarian aims within a day or two, but that the overall plan had “drifted towards regime change and was not underpinned by strategy to support and shape post-Qaddafi Libya”.
Rather like Iraq in 2003, removing a dictator without planning coherently for a long engagement in the country had deeply unpleasant consequences. Now, we have Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar advancing on Tripoli, bearing out Mr Obama’s admission that failing to prepare for what would happen in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
Outsiders have legitimate interests in Libya. Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria do not want a precarious and recalcitrant neighbour in which extremism may thrive. European countries want stability, in order to end the trafficking of desperate people across the Mediterranean. Oil, as always, is a big consideration.
We cannot treat our choices like experiments that we can do all over again if we do not like the results
But let’s open the sliding doors and imagine that in 2011 there was no foreign military intervention. Would things be better? Qaddafi’s forces would have conducted a massacre in Benghazi. Mr Cameron, Mr Sarkozy and Mr Obama would have been pilloried for doing nothing. People would probably draw parallels with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered, or the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 were slaughtered.
Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have not gone well. But policies of non-intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda did not go well, either. In all these cases there is no perfect solution.
I am reminded of a story told to me by the late Tessa Jowell, about her time as British health minister. In 1997 she was informed that a doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield claimed to have research that proved the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella caused autism. A vicious newspaper campaign urged Jowell to stop vaccinations. She spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what to do, and eventually decided that the vaccination programme should continue.
Mr Wakefield’s research was discredited, he was struck off the UK medical register and Jowell saved Britain from the occasionally fatal measles outbreaks that have occurred in the United States and Europe after large numbers of parents began to refuse to have their children vaccinated. But what if she had been wrong? What if the link with autism had been proved? Sliding doors would not have saved her reputation. She needed to take a chance and do what she believed was right.
In a United Kingdom engulfed by Brexit chaos, opinion polls are finding that large numbers of people have lost faith in democracy. Apparently,
some even yearn for a “strong man” to lead. The problem is that strong men (and women) have all the usual human flaws, and often more besides. Nigel Farage – a British politician that some see as a strong man – launched a new political party last week, promising to “put the fear of God into our MPs”.
He even spoke of taking up a rifle if the UK does not leave the European Union. Such bluster is not indicative of a strong man but weak one. Mr Farage has failed seven times to be elected to the British parliament. In June 2016 the British Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right terrorist armed with a gun. MPs, especially women, frequently find themselves the targets of death threats and harassment.
From the White House to the Commons, politicians certainly have their failings, but their job is easy to criticise and difficult to do. Making executive decisions is tough. Competence in government is a constant challenge. Meanwhile, rabble rousing and stirring up anger is easy. Political leaders or, in the case of Mr Farage, wannabe leaders, can talk endlessly, but, ultimately, they are not judged on their words – they are judged on their actions. There are no sliding doors for leaders, and no forgiveness for those who promise yet fail to deliver.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter
Updated: April 15, 2019 06:49 PM