US advice to others it could use itself

The two Afghan leaders pushed into a coalition last year by the US are visiting Washington, a reminder of how the US helps other nations bridge their political chasms even if it can’t do the same. One lesson for all: Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals.’

AP Photo
Afghanistan's Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah (left), Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, Vice President Joe Bidden, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan stand together during a March 24 ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va.

A handy expression for any parent – “Do what I say, not what I do” – could well be said in Washington these days. Its elected leaders are so at odds that the government is adrift – hardly a model for the rest of the world. Yet the United States is quick to push other countries also stuck in a political chasm into forming coalitions of unity.

The US has long nudged feuding politicians in troubled nations to play nice and govern together, if only to prevent civil war or a national breakup. Just in the past year, President Obama has suggested Scotland not split with England. He has worked to reconcile factions in South Sudan and other African nations. He supported the creation of difficult yet amazing coalitions in Tunisia and Ukraine. In Iraq, he encouraged one leader to step down for another who is doing better at inclusive government.

This week, a good example of a US-concocted coalition is on display in Washington with a visit by Afghanistan’s two leaders, President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. Last year, the two men were archrivals in a presidential race, each reflecting the country’s ethnic divide. When a dispute over the ballot count threatened Afghanistan’s fragile democracy, the US negotiated a power-sharing deal to form a national unity government.

So far, it seems to be holding. Many of Mr. Ghani’s cabinet posts and other positions have yet to be filled. But the uneasy partnership has endured several bumps.

What the US is teaching in these cases – while not practicing itself at the moment – is a type of leadership best illustrated in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” After his 1860 election, Lincoln realized with inspired humility and wisdom that he needed to include his well-experienced political rivals in his cabinet. A divided Union needed a government of unity. He invited his campaign opponents to serve a cause larger than their ambitions.

“These were the very strongest men,” Lincoln told a journalist. “Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Lincoln still provides key lessons for today’s fractured governments in need of a “team of rivals.” He knew how to share credit and accept blame. He listened hard and welcomed dissent without retaliation. He could navigate negative emotions and rise above criticism by keeping his clarity of vision and his sense of humor. He could be contrite and confident for the sake of something bigger than himself.

Mr. Obama came into office with Lincoln’s model in mind. His campaign opponents, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, joined his team. Yet he and the Republican leaders in Congress have not been successful at working together. Despite the flawed model in Washington, the US often does well in exporting Lincoln’s leadership style. Maybe someday the children might influence the parent.

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