Recruiting Ex-Presidents

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on July 13, 2009, at politicsunlocked.com

(Written prior to the earthquake of 2010, but relevant)

It’s an odd life for American heads of state. After learning and practicing the lessons of leadership at the highest level and serving their country for, at most, eight years, they are termed-out and must retire to fundraising, public speaking, and unofficial political influence. Is leadership really in such great supply that there are no official duties for the likes of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush?

In our hemisphere, no less

Take a look at Haiti, a nation whose corrupt, unstable institutions have hampered its development as much as frequent natural disasters and the desperate poverty of its citizens. Haiti is the recipient of American foreign aid, diplomatic missions, and numerous visits by well-meaning politicians — everyone from Clinton to Jimmy Carter. Yet poverty, unemployment, corruption, and lack of infrastructure remain facts of daily life for huge segments of the Haitian populace. What Haiti really needs is good leadership in the form of a powerful world leader.

Bill Clinton, stopping by Port-au-Prince on a recent charitable visit, noted that his 1994 restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed former president of Haiti, was the beginning of something good. Why not follow through and give the Greater Antilles nation the leadership it so sorely needs? If Bill Clinton became the chief executive of Haiti, for example, his leadership could set the country on a path to recovery that René Préval, the divisive current president, may not be able to realize. Simply by virtue of who he is, Clinton enjoys a higher level of worldwide political capital than Préval, and would probably be able to command the attention of other world leaders in a way that Préval can’t.

What at first seems impossible should not. Haiti is not a rival; its goals are not likely to conflict with American policy. But just to be sure that he is not put in a position with a national conflict of interest, Bill Clinton would not have responsibility for foreign policy among his duties — hence the “chief executive” title. His service to Haiti, far from somehow compromising his loyalty to the United States, would benefit both nations, as a troubled state would gain a measure of stability and prosperity, adding security in the hemisphere and the world’s political goodwill would be reflected back upon Clinton and the U.S.

And just across the border

Mexico, meanwhile, is currently struggling with drug enforcement. President Filipe Calderon has stepped up enforcement efforts and the violence in border cities such as Juarez has skyrocketed.  The violent turf battles have been especially difficult to stop in part because of bribery and corruption within public institutions, from the police up to the courts.

Mexico’s drug and violence problems will probably require more government intervention, not less: more organization, more control, and more authority for law enforcement. This is an area in which former president Bush has more than suitable experience. President Bush oversaw the buildup of the largest intelligence and security network in history. While his programs were highly controversial in the United States for the way they prioritized intelligence and security issues over civil liberties, it may be what Mexico needs in order to successfully fight its internal drug war. Bush could be the Mexican drug czar and help that government assert greater authority in the fight against bloodshed and drug trafficking.

Bush concentrated power in the executive branch and conducted national security initiatives in secret.   While this approach nearly caused a Constitutional crisis in the United States, Bush would work at the discretion of the Mexican President Calderon.  The Mexicans would have to make their own decision about the proper balance of civil liberties and law enforcement.  In Mexico, it has not been easy to find politicians to oversee the enforcement of drug laws who are not themselves tainted by connections with the cartels.

Would developing nations ever want a former American head of state to take command? Not likely, given the current global climate of suspicion and uncertainty. It’s true that in a certain light, the idea bears a resemblance to the colonial practices of an earlier era. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. What is being proposed here, is more about leadership. A politician’s strengths need not pass into obsolescence after a certain number of years, not if international political leadership became a professionalized industry. The demand for experienced leaders is unquestionable; what’s needed now is the supply. The route is uncertain and new rules will surely have to be devised, but this is still an experiment worth making.

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