Mon, Mar
15
2004

Crisis Management is not Leadership

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More than a few people were surprised, I think, to wake up this morning and find that the people of Spain have handed the ruling Popular Party a substantial defeat. The Socialists, while short of a majority in the 350 seat house, are still to be the strongest force in the Spanish parliament with 164 seats.

Some people may spin this as a rebuke by the Spanish people against George W. Bush, and the Popular Party’s close relationship with his administration. Some might bemoan this as a weakening of Spanish resolve in the global war on terror. I think, on balance, that there is a simpler explanation closer to Madrid.

In the days between the brutal bombings of Madrid and the Spanish election, the government came under substantial criticism for appearing to manipulate the event for its own political gain. The crux of the problem was outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s insistence that the bombings were the work of ETA, a group of Basque region separatists who have been responsible for the bulk of the terrorist violence in Spain in the past. The bulk of Aznar’s Popular Party’s credibility was staked on his hardline approach to the Basque separatists.

But from the start, the bombings didn’t have ETA’s signatures. There was no warning before the blasts, for instance. Then there was the small fact that, while ETA was setting speed records denying responsibility for the attacks, Al Queda had already claimed responsibility. Even as Jose Maria Aznar claimed that ETA remained the “prime suspect”, other clues, such as Arabic tapes and other paraphanalia started cropping up around the scene. To most everybody on the street, this was an Al Queda attack, but Jose Maria Aznar insisted otherwise. People were left to wonder why, and they drew their own conclusions. They believed that Aznar was manipulating the event to use it as an example of why the people of Spain should stay the course and reelect his party. The people of Spain took offense at that, and now we see the Socialists come from behind to claim victory.

Before I go on, I should point out that the fact that these bombings may not have been the work of ETA doesn’t let ETA off the hook. I’d have a lot more respect for their protestations of innocence if they took the attention brought to the issue of terrorism in Spain as an opportunity to lay down their arms and renounce violence entirely.

I think on some level, many individuals are leery of politicizing disasters such as terrorist attacks. Individuals don’t elect politicians on the basis of their crisis management skills; they expect that all politicians everywhere will know what to do. And while a job done well is rewarded (see Rudolph Guiliani), explicitly pointing to one’s actions during a crisis pulls the political discussion to places it shouldn’t go. Using the disaster to claim that one’s opponents couldn’t do so well, that they threaten the safety of the country, is unbecoming of a political leader.

It’s akin to a manager courageously fending off an armed gang trying to rob a store, and then explicitly pointing to this experience as the main reason why he should get a promotion to a lucrative supervisory position over a manager of a store across town that wasn’t robbed. You can not claim to know how well your opponents will do in such a crisis and, at some level, one should hope that we never find out.

Moreover, I am of the opinion that a large segment of the population are able to respond well to crisis; otherwise, we have been exceptionally lucky to elect excellent crisis managers without knowing it, year after year after year. Crisis management alone is not the basis upon which we should judge our politicians. It is a small subset of their job duties, and it speaks nothing to their substantial non-crisis attitudes and approaches which, in the end, do far more to dictate the shape of their country’s future.

Jose Maria Aznar and his Popular Party appeared to forget that, and they paid the price. Other would-be contenders would do well to remember this in the elections coming later this year.


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