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Acting Our Age

The U.S. can regain the world's respect with mature leadership.

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Watching world leaders over the last few months, I have taken to dividing them into two camps: the adolescents and the grown-ups.

Among the adolescents are George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, as well as Kim Jong Il, (the late?) Saddam Hussein, and nearly all other dictators. Among the grown-ups are Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan, and Vladimir Putin.

There are a few adolescents who make a good show of pretending to be grown-ups: Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind. On the other hand, there are a few grown-ups who seem on casual first glance to be adolescents: Bill Clinton, for example.

The adolescent/grown-up divide does not match up with age or political positions. It has to do more with a certain tendency of mind.

The defining characteristic of the adolescent world leader is his unwavering belief (or, at least, his pose) that, when it comes to world affairs, he knows all the answers, the same way your 16-year-old son or daughter knows all the answers. The adolescent's defining mode of communication is bluster. His language is moralistic and repetitious. He entertains no contradictions; he will not even listen if you tell him he is wrong.

In contrast, the defining characteristic of the grown-up world leader is his recognition that everything in world affairs is complicated and that no one knows how things will turn out. The grown-up's defining mode of communication is debate -- that is, he listens to his opponents and shapes answers that directly address their objections.

A grown-up will sometimes appear to contradict himself, because he feels it when the tectonic plates of the world are shifting beneath him. A grown-up is not afraid to express his uncertainty, even while making the either/or decisions all leaders must make.

U.N. chief arms inspector Hans Blix is a grown-up, and so of course are Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Jimmy Carter.

Among leaders from the not-too-distant past, Mao Tse-tung, Lyndon Johnson, Charles DeGaulle, Nikita Kruschev, Margaret Thatcher, and the Ayatollah Khomeini were adolescents. Winston Churchill was pretty much an adolescent blusterer to the end, though a valuable one.

The difference between an adolescent and a grown-up is most vivid in George W. Bush and Tony Blair. In the run-up to the Iraq War, Bush gave a single press conference, at which, no matter the question asked by whatever preselected reporter, he gave one of three prefabricated, always-on-message answers.

Blair, on the other hand, regularly stood scriptless before the House of Commons in full debate mode, taking on the inflammatory objections, not to mention the catcalls, of the opposition, and he had to answer them extemporaneously and directly, else he would have been the laughingstock of his nation.

Go back and look at how Bush and Blair made their arguments for the Iraq War. For Bush, it was all simplicity: We're good, Saddam is bad, we'll make the world a better place in short order, by golly, and anybody who thinks otherwise or worries about what this means for the world's future (read: the French) is a weasel. For Blair, it was more complicated than that: Saddam is dangerous and, regretably, we must risk the sad, uncertain consequences of war to get rid of him, and anybody who thinks otherwise may be well-intentioned but is, well, mistaken.

Bush seemed downright eager to go to war. Blair, at least, seemed reluctant, although committed.

Though I think he was wrong on the Iraq War, I respect Tony Blair. He's a smart grown-up in a grown-up country. George Bush, on the other hand, is like a 15-year-old with a gun: He simply makes the world afraid. And as for the United States, well, we will earn the respect of the world when we once again elect a grown-up.

Ed Weathers is a former editor of Memphis magazine.

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