Putting Integrity Above Politics: A Discussion with Ambassador Tom Schieffer

By Marina Yoshimura


[dropcap]“I[/dropcap] was honest with the President.”

Ambassador Tom Schieffer reflected on his relationship with former U.S. President George W. Bush, whom the Ambassador met while they managed the Texas Rangers baseball team together. Although a Democrat from Texas, Schieffer served under the George W. Bush administration as U.S. Ambassador to Australia (July 29, 2001-April 1, 2005) and Japan (April 1, 2005-January 20, 2009). 9/11 happened during his service in Australia, 9/11 happened, and in its wake, Schieffer worked with the Australian government on counterterrorism efforts, which became an important part of his agenda during his tenure. Relatedly, he had many thoughts regarding the Iraq Invasion, controversial to this day because of its moral and political consequences. The Ambassador admitted that the “jury is still out,” but that in his opinion, the invasion was the right choice based on the information the government had at the time: mass weapons of destruction. Ambassador Schieffer demonstrated that political integrity, however important it may be, is not always well defined, despite obvious consequences.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq serves as an example of how public servants face the challenge of putting political integrity above politics. Political integrity is all the more important at a time when being morally right can be politically wrong. Regardless of the political debate, the truth is worth pursuing both for the sake of history and the future. As the Ambassador explained, political integrity is about being honest, even with colleagues with whom one disagrees. However, because the information Ambassador Schieffer and the President  received was much the same, they were often on the same page. “We [the George W. Bush Administration] did things as a team and took into account each other’s views. This helped shape our thinking,” he said.

Ambassador Schieffer’s dilemma demonstrates that one’s integrity becomes harder to exercise in times of war. Some issues have no “right” answer but certainly have unexpected or unwanted consequences. Ambassador Schieffer argued that if he had had the information that he had today, the situation would have been different. “Presidents don’t have do-overs,” he said, and described that based on the knowledge of the intelligence at the time, Iraq had acquired weapons of mass destruction. However, he said the world was better without Saddam Hussein. The Ambassador admitted that the invasion was a far more complicated issue than whether to invade. When an issue has merits and drawbacks, which also happens to involve killing civilians abroad to protect civilians at home, it is likely that one will be at a crossroads.

His comment is a wake-up call that we, as individuals, have one life to leave behind lessons and a legacy for future generations. What we do today determines what we have left tomorrow. We are creating history. Protecting democracy and engaging in war seem to contradict fundamental values. Whether a leader uses politics or morality can determine the consequences of the war. While history warns society to act on moral grounds, many leaders today repeat the same mistakes, acting without dignity and resorting to violence. Chemical weapons have killed children, and immigrants face discrimination and are treated as criminals—for wanting to be safe. Perhaps it is the ego of many of our world’s leaders—the notion that they are somehow immune to failure—that contributes to our fractured democracy.

Political integrity can be difficult to practice. As the invasion of Iraq demonstrates, choices can lead to tragedies and rifts between countries for many years; yet, whether it was right to invade the country is still a topic of debate without answers. The challenge of our time is to leave behind a legacy that will benefit future generations, a legacy of which they can be proud, both politically and morally. Some leaders believe they are above the law; true leaders are above power. They know how to use it in a way that shapes history for the better. Ambassador Schieffer reminds the younger generation that where there is courage, there is hope; where there is integrity, there is a future.


Marina Yoshimura is a student at Waseda University in Japan. You can contact her at marina.yoshimura@yale.edu.