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Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, receives the Congressional Gold Medal from speaker of the house John Boehner, at the US Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday. Photo:  ()
Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, receives the Congressional Gold Medal from speaker of the house John Boehner, at the US Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday. Photo:
()

Hard, red and green lines

The world is getting so interdependent that weak leadership in one country impacts many others

On Wednesday, Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the Capitol. I was not there, but I read the transcript and was deeply impressed by the emotional tribute delivered by senator John McCain, who thanked “ ‘The Lady,’ for teaching me at my age a thing or two about courage".

In closing, McCain quoted Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous dictum that “it is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it".

I love that line: it’s not power but the fear of losing power that corrupts. It is deeply true and relevant today, when so few leaders now dare to throw caution and polls to the wind and tell people the truth about anything hard or controversial. You see it everywhere: Muslims go on a rampage against the US Embassy in Cairo because of a despicable and juvenile anti-Muslim video on YouTube—and the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, at first refuses to condemn them or even properly protect the US’s diplomatic mission. Only a blistering phone call from President Barack Obama, who no doubt hinted that Egypt wouldn’t get another penny of foreign aid if Morsi didn’t act, prompted the Egyptian leader to condemn the attack.

But you know what they say about people in glass houses...In July, Representative Michele Bachmann started a bogus campaign against Muslims in the US government, including a top aide to secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Bachmann wrote to the leaders of America’s national security agencies questioning whether the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the federal government. Both senator McCain and the House speaker, John Boehner, chastised Bachmann for her politically inspired witch hunt.

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel has been loudly demanding that America publicly draw a “red line" in respect to Iran’s nuclear program that would delineate exactly when the US would launch a strike against Tehran.

He is Winston Churchill when it comes to demanding that the US draw red lines, but he is a local party boss when the US asks him to draw a “green line" delineating where Jewish settlements in the West Bank will stop and a Palestinian state might start.

As for Obama, he’s been at his best when he has dared to lead without fearing the politics: taking out Osama bin Laden, securing health care without a public option, racing to the top in education and saving the banks rather than throwing all the bankers in jail, which they deserved.

And he has been at his worst when he’s put politics first: spurning Simpson-Bowles, doubling down on Afghanistan for fear of being called a wimp and dropping “climate change" from his speeches.

My gut tells me that this deficit of global leadership can’t last. For one thing, the world is getting so interdependent that weak leadership in one country now deeply impacts so many others.

Think euro crisis, Israel-Iran or Chinese pollution. And, for another, I don’t believe the two most powerful disciplining forces on the planet—the market and Mother Nature—will sit idle for another decade and let us keep building these huge financial deficits and carbon surpluses without one day delivering some punishing blows that will require herculean leadership to deal with.

So let’s honour The Lady from Myanmar, not just with a medal, but in a way that really matters—with emulation. ©2012/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

Edited excerpts. Comment are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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