Who has the right stuff?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2006, 12:00am

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra seems to have changed his mind, in recent days, about whether he has what it takes to be the country's leader. After winning elections he called three years early - boycotted by the main opposition parties - he is unsure whether to retain the job, do it some of the time or quit.

In the tradition of decisive, clear-thinking and incorruptible leaders of bygone eras, Mr Thaksin has opted to try all three over the next month, just to see which he prefers. There is a sense that he will eventually opt for none of these and decide on another, tried-and-tested Thai tradition: the military dictatorship.

Whichever he chooses to impose on Thailand's tolerant people, there is no doubt that the policeman-turned-business-tycoon-turned politician has what it takes. During his dozen years in politics, he has been prime minister for five years, deputy prime minister for two years and foreign minister for one year.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw does not have such a track record, nor does he have what it takes to be a leader. He was flying at the weekend with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her plane on a mercy mission from Britain to Iraq. He felt a bit sleepy and ended up on the bed in her cabin. Mr Straw is a happily married man, and there was nothing untoward about this.

Dr Rice had suggested he take advantage of the bed during the six-hour flight, while she worked. On awakening, he learned that the world's most powerful diplomat had also been taking a nap - on an air mattress in the plane's aisle - and that cabin crew had had to step over her sleeping form to go about their duties.

Not only does this episode bar Mr Straw from the prime minister's job - the jokes around Whitehall will keep coming for years ('How do you get straw on the bed and rice on the floor?', and so forth) - but, more damagingly, it proves that British chivalry is dead.

Dr Rice is perfectly positioned to succeed her boss, US President George W. Bush, though. In American presidential candidate circles, she is known as a 'twofor', or two-for-one - black and a woman, the ideal combination for a nation that has embarrassingly had neither as a leader despite its proud claim to be a democracy with a high regard for equality. She also knows a thing or two about chivalry.

I don't know if that is a quality US Vice-President Dick Cheney has; I know, however, that when he has a shotgun in hand, he is a weapon of mass destruction, as shown by the accidental shooting of his buddy in Texas during a recent hunting trip.

That aside, he will never be the US leader because one of the key attributes of leadership is selflessness. Dr Rice clearly has plenty of that, as Mr Straw can attest, but not Mr Cheney, if 'The Smoking Gun' website can be believed.

The respected site, dedicated to revealing the outrageous demands made by stars of stage, screen and sound when they do a gig or check into a hotel room, recently claimed to have found a list headed 'Vice-president's downtime requirements'.

When Mr Cheney is travelling, it seems the temperature in his hotel suite must be preset to 20 degrees Celsius, the television tuned to Fox News, extra lights provided and, in addition to the local newspaper, there must be copies of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

He also wants freshly brewed, decaffeinated coffee, four to six bottles of water and four cans of caffeine-free Diet Sprite. There was no mention whether, like some rowdier rock stars, he has the option of trashing the room or shooting the television.

Dr Rice and Mr Thaksin would never make such demands - they know far too much about leadership to be so petty.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor