Obama tried to show leadership, heightened tensions
Q: President Obama weighed in on the issue of the mosque at Ground Zero prompting grumbles that the gesture was unnecessary and politically damaging. Meanwhile the imam at the center of the controversy -- Feisal Abdul Rauf -- has been largely invisible, lecturing for the State Department in Bahrain and, according to his wife, unavailable until next month. What do leaders need to know about perfecting the timing of weighing in on a crisis?
Knowing when a leader needs to weigh in on a controversial subject comes down to three fundamental questions. First, could the leader's silence be construed as absence or inattention to an important issue? Second, is there something fundamental to the character of the institution at risk? And third, can the leader's endorsement on one side or the other bring about consensus and, thus, a satisfactory resolution?
It's clear that the President felt the debate surrounding the Ground Zero mosque had risen to the level where his lack of a position would have communicated indifference on an issue of increasing importance to the American people. It's also clear that he felt that fundamental American freedoms were at stake. Unfortunately the timing and chosen venue of his statements infused more ideological strife into an already heavily-politicized issue - and thus moved the parties involved further from consensus, rather than closer.
Frankly, I applaud President Obama for speaking out, but I wish his communications team would serve him better in the orchestration of such statements. Done correctly, he could have influenced the decision of the NY officials without making it into a national debate. There appears now to be little chance of a consensus, and the heated rhetoric is truly shameful.
Whenever I have meetings at the Pentagon, I try to go to the part of the building where the plane hit on 9/11 killing 184 people. What stands there now is a chapel - a chapel in which Christian services, Jewish services and even Muslim services are held. A site of unbelievable pain and suffering has been transformed into a place of peace and goodness - and a symbol of the inter-faith dialogue and religious freedom that make this country great.
9/11 was a day where there was an incredible act of evil, but also a day that showed how well our country can come together in a crisis. I hope the local officials in New York City can find ways for faiths to coexist as they do at the site of the attack in Washington D.C.
August 27, 2010; 8:55 AM ET
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