Scary Manhattan fly-by
In deciding how to treat and try terrorists, Attorney General Eric Holder insisted on insulating his department from political considerations but was forced to retreat because of public outcry. What leadership lessons should he draw upon in trying to balance the sometimes-conflicting demands of legal legitimacy and political legitimacy?
In a town like Washington, just about every choice that a high-profile government official makes will arouse negative reactions among one constituency or another - meaning that a keen understanding of the political risks involved is an absolute necessity. When you're a member of the president's cabinet, those risks are amplified for the simple reason that your boss represents the most powerful constituency in town. You don't want to surprise him. And if you do go out on a limb, you want to be sure that you have done everything in your power to mitigate any political liabilities that might rise to his level.
In this respect, Attorney General Eric Holder likely found himself in a tough spot. He had to maintain a delicate balance between the need to isolate national security decisions from political pressures and the need to understand the public implications of his decision to try suspected terrorists in civilian courtrooms. Coordination with the White House on such a decision is usually the norm - but Holder had to be careful not to appear as if politics played any role in his choice.
In this respect, I can understand Holder's desire for autonomy - but so far he has shown questionable judgment and a lack of political sensitivity. Many of us respect his faith in the rule of law and desire to communicate to the world that fairness and justice come first in the United States.
At the same time, did he fully take the massive monetary costs and the feelings of those in Manhattan into consideration? Did he recall the panic that ensued from the uncoordinated Air Force One photo shoot above the Statue of Liberty? For many, the wounds are still raw and a public outcry should have been anticipated.
Good leaders play to their strengths and manage their weaknesses by surrounding themselves with the skills they lack. If Holder wants to better explain his decisions and comments, he will need to ensure that he has a strong team around him with good political instincts. If his plans backfire, and the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed becomes a circus, he also needs to be prepared to fall on his sword for the benefit of President Obama's broader agenda.
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