Politicians make mistakes and some even learn a thing or two from them. If they are exceptionally intelligent, they might learn something from each other’s mistakes and visions. Soon after John F. Kennedy became President, there was a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro, the leader of the communist government in Cuba. A communist country so close to the United States was seen as a threat to American security and safety. President Kennedy approved the plan to invade Cuba, and an army of exiled Cubans landed at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a complete failure; more than a thousand men were captured and imprisoned. Others were killed.

The President was accused of being badly informed and impulsive, and he took full responsibility for the disaster. The Bay of Pigs fiasco made American credibility plummet in the eyes of the world. And then, the greatest crisis of Kennedy’s presidency came to the fore, involving Cuba once more, on the morning of October 16, 1962. There were Soviet missiles in Cuba, which, it was feared could strike the United States and they had to be removed. Kennedy was under immense pressure to bomb the missile sites, but he was wary. He had not forgotten the Bay of Pigs disaster. He knew he had to think and act with the utmost care. If he did not, a nuclear war could start; a war that could potentially destroy the world.

Kennedy decided to blockade Cuba. 180 American ships were ordered to sail into the Caribbean, forming a queue five hundred miles long. No ships coming from the Soviet Union could get through to Cuba – not unless they attacked the American ships. When Russian ships appeared on the horizon, tensions were high. Would they attack and set off a war? Needless to say, no attack took place, tensions gradually subsided and a huge global disaster was averted. President Kennedy spent the next few days talking with the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, and an agreement was made to remove the missiles. It was Kennedy’s single handed resolve that avoided the war.

At the 1960 democratic convention in Los Angeles, John Kennedy, despite his youth, had won the Democratic nomination to run for president. He ran against republican Richard Nixon who had been vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon wanted the government to help private business (sound familiar?), but Kennedy believed that the government should help make people’s lives better. For the first time in history, the debate was telecast all across the country. Millions of Americans could see Nixon and Kennedy discuss and hash out issues. After the debates, in a poll of four million people, three million voted for Kennedy. He was the youngest man – forty-three years old– to ever be elected as United States President. Though it was a narrow victory, John was even more determined to prove himself a great leader.

In one of the many examples he made for the progress of civil and human rights, Kennedy introduced a bill that would give government money to get rid of slums and provide decent, low-rent housing to the poor. The powerful legion opposed the bill. Congressman Kennedy spoke out: “The leadership of the American Legion has not had a constructive thought for the benefit of the country since 1918, the year it was founded.” He was far too frustrated at how slowly things moved in the House of Representatives. His sudden death just before the 1964 elections took away his great dreams for the American people.

This role model’s determination, devotion, service and practical idealism entitled him to the role he lived and died for. He was both a political and organizational leader.

The scope of political action has to be visualized correctly. Maturity and good intentions are essential elements. Wrongs must be corrected quickly but the ends should not justify means. Democratic and constitutional requirements must be satisfied. We must realize that impulsive moves and street politics resolve no conflicts. In fact, they lead to anarchy. Politicians must learn from past mistakes and from current failures (their own, and of those around them). This, they have to do in the greater national interest; thinking and acting beyond a personal agenda and motive. It is the rule of national situations, a universal guideline for a way forward.

It causes one to wonder how many of our own political leaders qualify to play the roles they’ve been asked to play. All politicians cannot be great leaders. Every man in office cannot be John Kennedy. But are our leaders thinking solely of serving Pakistan and its people, and strengthening civilian democratic rule for a way forward? The question at its most basic level must be asked, and deeply pondered over.

n    The writer is a former director NIPA, a political analyst, a public policy expert

    and an author.