Donald Trump’s increasingly delusional and dangerous behaviour which led to the storming of the US Congress by rightwing fanatics has once again brought to the fore a vexing dilemma in the study of leadership and rationality.
Political theory assumes that leaders will subject choices before them to rational scrutiny and opt for the one that has the best returns at the least risks. When Americans killed Gen Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian government had several choices. It could decide to do nothing.
However, this would have had the effect of communicating weakness and perhaps encourage more brazen aggression by America, Israel or others. Iran could have chosen to attack Israel, a long-standing American ally in the region. But this choice would have given Israel a pretext to launch an all-out aerial attack on Iranian military and nuclear installations.
Alternatively, the Iranians could have chosen to attack a huge American base with a large number of personnel in order to cause maximum casualties. But this option would have invited a devastating response from the Americans. Therefore, after looking at these and other options, the Iranians decided to attack a low-key American base in Iraq thus ensuring that there were no American casualties.
When a few years ago Kashmiri militants attacked India, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, did not let belligerent Hindu nationalism blind him to reality. His retaliation was measured. He knew anything more than that would have invited a robust response from Pakistan which might have led to a dangerous escalation that could result in a nuclear exchange.
Again, a leader, after rationally considering several options, decided on one that had the most return at low risk.
But the question has always arisen; What if a leader was a delusional narcissist or was driven by messianic megalomania or was egged on by notions of divine favour and protection? What if Modi had seen the attack on his country as a divine sign to prove Hindu supremacy by eliminating Pakistan?
Countries with a democratic tradition have tried to ensure that their leaders take rational decisions by putting in place an elaborate system of checks and balances. And yet Donald Trump’s attack on the US Congress seems to suggest that even these elaborate checks are not enough to stop a delusional or deranged leader from taking decisions harmful to his country and others.
What other outrage will Trump commit before he leaves office on January 20? God forbid he decides to attack Iran or Venezuela in a deluded last attempt to achieve military greatness! High returns at high risk. The only way to check people like Trump is to stop them from getting power in the first place. Hillary Clinton had warned Americans about Trump’s unstable mental state. Have they and we learned a lesson? I doubt we have.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator
This article was first published inThe EastAfricannewspaper on January 16, 2021.