It is telling, if depressing, that in their just concluded second debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton referred to “leadership” just three times. After all, a majority of Americans will distrust the leadership abilities of whoever is elected. To find a paragon of modern leadership, one must look south of our border, to Colombia, at Alvaro Uribe, arguably the greatest leader of 21st century.
Although Uribe’s time as the head of state ended some six years ago, he continues to lead his people. Just last week, at Uribe’s urging, Colombians rejected a peace deal negotiated by his former protégé and successor, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, to end a five-decade long civil war with the Marxist, narco-trafficking guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Santos just received the Nobel Peace Prize for this deal, which President Obama supported, but Colombians correctly were less enthralled– 83 percent of the country either voted against the deal in a referendum or did not vote at all.
A trained lawyer who was moved to public service after his rancher father was gunned down by the FARC in 1983, Uribe rose up the political ranks and was ultimately elected president in 2002 at the age of 49. When Uribe took office, he inherited a country on the brink of collapse.
Colombia’s previous president had tried to buy peace by ceding to the FARC, which by then had grown to roughly 20,000 guerrilla fighters, a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland. As a result, by 2002, there were 3,000 kidnappings in the country and over 28,000 murders in a population of about 40 million. The economy was contracting. The FARC even launched a mortar attack on the presidential palace during Uribe’s inauguration, and is estimated to have attempted to kill him at least a dozen times in his first two years in office alone.
Despite these challenges and the threats to his own life, Uribe, supported by U.S. aid, prosecuted the war against terror with a fierce resolve rare outside of Israel—he decapitated FARC’s leadership and decimated it forces. Moreover, he recognized that it was vital to not only to win on the battlefield but to rebuild Colombians’ trust in the government. Under a plan called “democratic security,” each week he, and other officials, would travel to a different municipality, often ones that his security forces had just wrested control of, to listen to various complaints, in public meetings that would last hours and be televised. He then instructed his staff and Cabinet to address each complaint. He even publicized his cell number.
When Uribe left office in 2010, kidnappings had plummeted by 90 percent, the murder rate was cut in half, and the FARC – as well as right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to fight it – had been crushed. Colombia’s economy rebounded markedly: GDP tripled, the poverty rate fell by one-third, and foreign investment quintupled. Colombia emerged as a shining example of a successful democracy amid the oppression and failures of Latin America’s left-wing governments. His favorability ratings were in the 70s.
I had the honor of getting Uribe involved in a foreign policy program I directed at a think tank and befriending him after he left the presidency. I was struck by his humility, decency, indifference to monetary rewards, and warmth. I recall how, after a lunch we convened for him, he would not leave until he spoke to every member of the service staff, and they, mostly Latino, beamed with pride. He was remarkably inquisitive; once during dinner he peppered me with questions about Iran’s nuclear program for over two hours. Uribe always exuded a fierce belief in liberal Western ideas, firm alignment with the United States, and a visceral Churchillian determination to improve his country with every fiber of his being.
Indeed, when constitutionally required to leave office after two terms, rather than enjoy life, give speeches, and make money, Uribe stayed in the thicket of Colombian politics. Displeased with Santos’ approach to peace talks, Uribe formed a new party, was elected to the Senate, and has ever since led the opposition to Santos’ plan to offer the FARC blanket amnesty and unelected seats in parliament. Santos staked his presidency on last week’s referendum on the deal, but a new path forward will now require Uribe’s support.
In a world of rising terrorism, weak Western leaders, declining belief in Western civilization, disenchantment with political elites, and emboldened anti-American dictators and radicals, the world could use more Uribes. Of course, given the current state of our political leadership, it might be best to first have a Uribe lead America.