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Politicians ought to think about the next generation, not the next election

By Neeraj Salhotra     9/28/11 7:00pm

At a recent Baker Institute event, Israeli Major General Danny Rotschild said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot pursue peace with Palestine because he is "limited by political reasons." I was stunned by this statement; yes, a peace deal with Palestine will cost him his coalition, but losing an election is not a reason to shun peace with Palestine. Sadly Netanyahu is acting as a typical politician, "thinking of the next election," not a statesman, who "thinks of the next generation."

When talking to Rothschild, I realized one of the fundamental flaws of politics, not only in the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world: We have too many politicians who put their own careers over the aspirations of their own people.

In the Israeli-Palestinian situation, policymakers in both countries understand that peace between the two nations is paramount to the welfare-maximizing outcome for their respective citizens. However, policymakers are constrained by their nation's political systems. Put differently, taking action to pursue the peace process will likely jeopardize the careers of leaders in both Israel and Palestine. As such, Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas have decided to mortgage the peace process to further their own careers; they have acted as politicians, not as statesmen.

This pattern is also observed in the United States, where both Democrats and Republicans have acted in their own political interests and not in the county's aspirations. Consider Republicans who are urging austerity and tax-cuts on the wealthy in order to improve the U.S. economy. While these policies may be politically advantageous, they will not help reduce unemployment, they will not help grow the economy, and they will not help ordinary Americans escape poverty. Simply put, they may help win the next election but they will not help win the next generation. Similarly, Democrats are blocking entitlement reform, which is hurting the country's long-term fiscal trajectory. The U.S. must rein in rising spending, yet numerous Democratic representatives refuse to discuss such reforms because it may cost them the next election. They are more concerned with their own well-being rather than the country's welfare.

This lack of statesmanship is also harming the European Union as politicians in Germany and France are hesitant to support Greece, Italy and Spain out of fear that German or French taxpayers will vote them out of office. But, these bailouts are necessary for the long-run stability of the Euro and the general welfare of the European Union. Similarly, policymakers in Greece, Italy and Spain must take steps to reduce spending and rein in government debt. While these policies will result in short-term pain, they are paramount to ensure the long-term solvency of these nations. Policymakers in these countries, however, refuse to take these steps out of fear of losing the next election. Europe, in the final analysis, like the U.S., Israel, and Palestine is lacking courageous statesmen.

More than 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy, then a junior senator from Massachusetts, wrote Profiles in Courage, which highlighted the stories of eight U.S. Senators who made principled decisions that benefitted the nation yet hurt them either politically or financially. Their courage and this statesmanship seems to be part of a bygone era. Today's policymakers too often shrink from difficult decisions and work only to accentuate their own electability. These policymakers seem to have forgotten President Gerald Ford's seminal advice: "in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval."

In the final analysis, policymakers must act in accordance with the interests of the people; they must strive to better the lives of ordinary individuals, they must, as Senator Paul Wellstone said, "advance the cause of peace and justice in our country and the world, and do well for the people." Policymakers must mortgage their own interests for the good of the people; they must risk their careers, their fortunes and their prestige, in order to improve the lot of others. They must, in a word, be servants — not to their own ambitions but to the interests of the populace and the country. They must be statesman not politicians.

Neeraj Salhotra is a Sid Richardson College junior.

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