26 September, 2007

Jonah's Dilemma

Michael B. Oren and Mark Gerson wrote an op-ed in last Friday's WSJ that I missed at the time but am glad to have found in 're-runs'.

Jonah's quandary is routinely encountered by national leaders, especially during crises. Winston Churchill, for example, prophetically warned of the Nazi threat in the 1930s, but if he had convinced his countrymen to strike Germany pre-emptively, would he have been hailed for preventing World War II or condemned for initiating an unnecessary conflict?
Recent presidents, in particular, have struggled with such dilemmas while wrestling with the question of terror... had [they] gone to war, would Americans today credit them with averting a 9/11-type attack or would they have been denounced for overreacting? If American leaders had stood firmly earlier in Iran, Lebanon or Afghanistan, would U.S. troops today be battling in Iraq?

President Bush presents a striking example here... This is the tragedy of leadership. Policy makers must decide between costly actions and inaction, the price of which, though potentially higher, will ultimately remain unknown -- a truly Jonah-like dilemma.

Unlike presidents, of course, Jonah knew the outcome of his decision: A penitent Nineveh would not be destroyed by God. And yet he so feared the paradox of prophecy that he risked his life to escape it. [emphasis and link added]
The paradox of prophecy, a.k.a. "d*mned if you do and d*mned if you don't". It part of a gap (a yawning chasm, really) that separates buck-stops-here decision-makers (i.e., executives) from commentators, critics and kibbitzers. As such, I suspect it partly explains what's motivating President Bush to reach out and advise those who by all rights ought to be his partisan enemies.