For the least populated area in America, the Mountain West state of Wyoming has received outsize attention across the world in recent days. That’s because it was the site of the landslide defeat in a primary election of US congresswoman Liz Cheney, a three-term US Representative.
Cheney is the daughter of a Republican dynasty headed by her father Dick Cheney, whose lead role as US vice-president to George W Bush added dark meaning to terms such as “enhanced interrogation” (authorised torture) and “enduring freedom” (forcible regime change).
While Dick Cheney was famous for his verbal sparseness, his daughter became the most voluble and powerful critic of former president Donald Trump and his attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election. She might have voted in support of his congressional agenda in more than 90% of her votes in the House, but it was her role as a Republican on the January 6 committee investigating Trump’s role in the storming of the US Capitol, that ensured her recent defeat.
In her concession speech Cheney noted archly that “two years ago I won this primary with 73% of the vote. I could easily have done the same again … But that would have meant following Donald Trump’s lies about the election. That is the path I would not take.”
It is of interest to those fixated on US politics to note how Trump now so dominates the Republican Party that crossing him means almost inevitable political peril, suggesting that the enduring party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has become enthralled to the cult of a serial liar and constitutional vagabond.
But in the wider world there is something larger in the meaning of Cheney’s defiance in defeat, beyond it breathing new life into that old political oxymoron of a “winning loss”. It is simply the rarity of finding, anywhere in the modern world, a politician with an enhanced sense of principle and the boldness to act on conviction regardless of the personal and political perils that follow.
I have recently finished reading Henry Kissinger’s new book, Leadership — Six Studies in World Strategy. In his case its publication is proof that at 99 years old, neither lucidity nor analysis is dulled by vast age. Being prepared to walk the path less taken à la Liz Cheney, and pushing the limits of political and country circumstances, is a key theme of the Kissinger case studies.
The most depressing conclusion I reached after ploughing through its dense but illuminating 400-plus pages is how in today’s polities there is not a single statesperson who comes remotely close to the shape-shifting world figures he selects for his study: Konrad Adenauer of Germany; Charles de Gaulle of France; Richard Nixon of the US; Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore; Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.
Since one of the qualifications for inclusion in the Kissinger study is that the author knew each of his portraitures, the list is necessarily selective. And since Sadat paid with his life for his convictions, Nixon’s world view was crashed by his domestic sleaze, and Thatcher and De Gaulle’s careers ended in bitterness, there is something of a cautionary tale here too.
But there is no doubt that Kissinger’s central premise is both correct and almost entirely missing from the top tables of the world, and this country certainly, today. “A leader,” he writes, “must step-by-step fit means to ends and purpose to circumstances if they are to reach their destinations.”
Leaders cannot insist on rewards in “recognition for past services” if they are to offer a vision for the future: to succeed a visionary leader “has to offend entrenched interests and alienate important constituencies. Such is the price of making history”. Perhaps absent of Ukraine’s improbable but unflinching war leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, no-one leader in the world today fits this bill.
At the other end of the leadership spectrum, this week in Moscow saw the arrival of SA defence minister Thandi Modise. Let’s leave aside the inconvenient fact that the department she heads has been shredded of operational capability and combat readiness, and don’t even ask how the Arms Deal equipment is functioning these days.
At the Russian government-sponsored event where Modise made a star turn — in the sixth month of her host country’s unprovoked and illegal war of aggression and destruction in Ukraine — she offered her own view of leadership in a conflict ridden world: “SA is always ready to engage in the resolution of conflict and believes in choosing mediation and peace.”
The country’s apparent stance on conflict resolution is, according to her in full victim mode “not always a popular stance, because I think sometimes it is easier to make war than to face … your enemy if your enemy stares [you] in the face, and deal with the root cause of the conflict”.
In this incomprehensible babble it is hard to see a coherent thought emerge. Peter Bruce’s riveting description of government’s social compact draft as “absolute drivel” would be an understatement for the river of rhetoric and cataract of cliches offered by Modise in Moscow (“Stand by for another outpouring of absolute drivel”, August 17).
I assume in her attempt to square a circle of attending a conference hosted by the prime international aggressor of the year — like Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort, she couldn’t mention her host by name — she was perhaps suggesting anodynely that peace beats war. But how do you negotiate with a country and its authoritarian leader who occupies your country and bombs your civilian population indiscriminately? Doubtless that is the question asked in Kyiv right now, which Modise’s half-baked nostrums dismally fail to answer or even suggest that this might be the key question.
One of Kissinger’s insights on Russia — he has some sympathy born of deep understanding of Moscow’s security concerns — is that the February invasion of Ukraine was “in flagrant violation of international law” and the real failure that led to the current war “is largely the outgrowth of a failed strategic dialogue or else an inadequately undertaken one”.
Such subtle insight on the basic facts and calling things by their name while acknowledging the core dilemmas failed SA’s defence minister in Moscow. But then expecting an original ministerial idea or walking a brave path such as that hewed by Liz Cheney in recent times is, like the defence capability of this country, missing in action.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.