Leaders who are lacking
The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Donald Trump never ceases to surprise with his bizarre comments and erratic behaviors and decisions. The latest was his reasoning for the decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, abandoning Kurdish fighters against a Turkish offensive that began Wednesday. When he faced criticism for dumping the Kurds, whose forces had been crucial to the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) over the last five years, Trump made a baffling parallel. “We have spent a tremendous amount of money helping the Kurds … When you say, they’re fighting with the U.S., yes. But they are fighting for their land,” he said. Citing a “powerful article,” he went on to say, “They (the Kurds) didn’t help up in the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy, as an example.”
Then he came up with the idea of hosting next year’s G7 summit at one of his golf resorts in Florida. The event will be held in the slow season of June when booking rates for hotels fall below 40 percent. When he faced criticism for capitalizing on a diplomatic event for his own personal interest, Trump pulled the plug on the plan and lashed out at the media and “crazed Democrats” for “irrational hostility.”
Trump has no shame and very little judgment. He has been outright rude to other state leaders. Any unfavorable or negative opinion is “fake news” to him. Trump came at the bottom among 44 U.S. presidents elected since 1776 in a poll by nearly 200 political scientists and members of the American Political Science Association. He scored 12.34 on a scale of 0-100. He only topped in one area — golf. Still, Trump sustains approval ratings of 30 to 40 percent thanks to the strong economy, a relatively feeble opposition and the proselytizing power of Fox News.
Abe lacks the boldness of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made a historic visit to North Korea and apologized for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea to draw a promise from North Korea to return Japanese abductees. Nor does Abe have the farsightedness of former Japanese Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru, who offered to apologize to the Chinese for Japan’s past aggressions as many times as possible, as “apology does not cost any money.” To Abe, only self-pride and extreme nationalism matters.
Abe has gone so far as to resort to economic retaliations for a diplomatic spat with South Korea. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon is headed to Japan for the Japanese Emperor’s enthronement ceremony. Despite the pending issues, we can hardly expect Abe to lift trade barriers anytime soon as there are no rival political parties, critical public sentiment or complaining business sectors to push him. There is actually not much of a difference between Trump, who runs state and foreign affairs like his own business, and the bigoted Abe. Neither the United States nor Japan have been blessed with a good leader. And yet, like Trump, Abe is tolerated thanks to a robust economy, nearly nonexistent opposition and a tamable media.
South Koreans have been equally unlucky with leaders. No president has divided the entire country into two for more than two months over a single political appointee like the current president. Mass protests against mad cow disease during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak and rallies to impeach President Park Geun-hye had grounds. But in Moon’s case, the country was divided over the president’s stubborn backing of Cho Kuk as his justice minister despite all the controversies over his family’s suspicious wealth and academic irregularities. It was bewildering. Cho resigned after saying his mission of igniting the flame for prosecutorial reform was done. But what he set on fire was public distrust in the government. That flame is still burning.
President Moon Jae-in said society got a “valuable chance to contemplate the value of fairness and the media’s role” after Cho stepped down. He was not speaking straight. Instead, after the 66-day fiasco, people came to brood on the values and role of the president.
Americans, Japanese and South Koreans are all deprived of good leadership. We do not long for a virtuoso who can harmonize with society. Singing in the shower sounds better than on a stage because of the echo in a closed space. Those poor at singing enjoy singing in the shower because they feel like they are actually good at it. It is a pity that we are stuck with leaders like that in real life.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 22, Page 27