The virtue of ‘heroically’ stepping aside
In bold acts 217 years apart, very different men took the most courageous of political steps: They willingly stepped aside and left powerful positions, providing an example, and a potential honourable exit for leaders such as Syrian President Bashar Assad.
George Washington, the first American president, in 1796 said two four-year terms were enough. He could have retained power, king-like, until his death and, indeed, many people in the new country wanted it so. They were, after all, used to being subjects of the British monarchy.
Washington, however, for decades had been working — in the battlefield and in the framing of a new government — at keeping his country free of abuse of power. His two-term tradition held until the election of Franklin Roosevelt to a third (and then fourth) term in the 1940s.
Two centuries after Washington, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world by resigning his position as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. It wasn’t unprecedented but a similar unilateral papal departure hadn’t occurred in 719 years.
Washington stepped aside because the new country he helped found needed to establish a realistic expectation of peaceful transition of power.
Benedict wrote that his decision came because, at nearly 86 years of age, he recognised “my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”.
As different as the times and as different the circumstances were, these were both tremendously brave acts. The much easier route would have been to let the status quo stand and remain in office, even if it wasn’t best for country or church. The president and pope, defining leadership and respect for the people and institutions in their care, refused the easy path.
There are few leaders who take such considerations into account when looking at their own situations. One who should is Assad.
Assad’s hold on power stems from his father’s 1970 coup. Assad, the son, became president in 2000 and it was hoped he would bring a progressive mindset and promulgate needed reforms in Syria but nothing came of his promises of change.
The situation devolved and in March 2011 protests were met with overbearing force and those peacefully demanding change were replaced by an armed insurrection. Assad’s response set off a war that astounds even in an age in which acts of horrific brutality and inhumanity are near daily occurrences. More than 250,000 people have died and millions have fled their homes.
Judging by his actions, Assad, however, isn’t likely to take steps that would gain him consideration as a great leader. He refused his own people’s pleas to leave office, answering with barrel bombs. He ignored international calls to step down, accepting instead to become a figurehead for Russia and Iran, which have their own plans for Syria.
There is the valid point that Washington and Benedict had established processes in place for succession and Syria does not. Washington stated his intention not to seek re-election well before a scheduled nationwide vote.
The Catholic Church had called conclaves to select new popes as needed for two millennia before Benedict’s resignation.
How to choose who replaces Assad is a much different issue. Removal of despots is a moral imperative but eliminating the threat of a power vacuum that leads to violent anarchy — see Libya — is as essential.
A RAND Corporation report on the Syria peace talks said the first goal should be an end of the fighting. The security of the Syrian people — the victims of this conflict — must be paramount and assured through any handover of power.
If Assad is a true leader, he will put the safety of his fellow Syrians ahead of any desire to retain even a façade of power. He should help establish a government that guarantees the welfare of the Syrian people, even if — and it probably wouldn’t — it didn’t include him.
That would be a brave act worthy of a “leader”, even coming well past the time it should have.