Opinion | What Happens When Our Leaders Lack Moral Courage

“Over the years, thousands of cadets at the United States Military Academy, myself included, have memorized and recited West Point’s Cadet Prayer. “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” the prayer goes, “and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice, and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.”

The prayer describes the value of acting for good, and how moral authority is itself the deepest source of power. Cadets are taught that one’s values ought to be the primary reason to seek power, and its only justification for use. This is the essence of the “courage” described in the prayer, the courage that should be a part of every leader’s core.

But we as a nation and as leaders have not always demonstrated this courage. Two major events in my career illustrate when we acted for good with our values in mind, and when we did not.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, was shot down over Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Their assassinations sparked a campaign of ethnic cleansing whose scope and brutality would shock the world. Early in the crisis, the American government expressed concern and called on Hutu authorities in Rwanda to halt the unfolding genocide. Washington pleaded for the United Nations to reinforce its small peacekeeping force in Rwanda to end the slaughter. But that was the extent of it.”

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