This is not to say that Obama had no transformational effects in his first term. He changed the course of an unpopular foreign policy; shifted from labor-intensive counterinsurgency to less costly uses of military and cyber power; increased American soft power in many parts of the world; and began a rebalancing of attention on Asia, the fastest growing part of the world economy. David Sanger detected what he called an “Obama Doctrine” (though he faulted the president for not communicating it more clearly): a lighter military footprint combined with a willingness to use force unilaterally when American security interests are directly involved; a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security; and “a rebalancing away from the quagmires in the Middle East toward the continent of greatest promise in the future—Asia.”
The contrast between the killing of Bin Laden and the intervention in Libya illustrates the Obama Doctrine. In the former case, Obama personally managed a unilateral use of force. In the latter case, he demonstrated smart power by waiting until an Arab League and UN resolution provided the legitimacy that ensured that the soft power narrative would not be that of another American attack on a Muslim country. Then he shared the leadership of the hard power operation with NATO allies. An incautious comment by a midlevel White House official characterized the Libya policy as “leading from behind,” and this became a target for political criticism, but as we saw earlier, Eisenhower was a great exemplar of knowing that sometimes it is most effective to keep a low profile and to lead from behind.
Indyk, Lieberthal, and O’Hanlon summarize Obama as “a competent pragmatist” who has “protected American interests well given the circumstances, . . . but he has not yet put his indelible stamp on foreign affairs or bent the arc of human history in the positive transformational way to which he aspires.” The merits of Obama’s first-term shift from a transformational to an incremental approach are debated. Some critics argue that he was too cautious to take advantage of the revolutionary times, particularly in the Middle East. He made a big bet on a surge in Afghanistan (which may or may not pay off) and another on violating Pakistani sovereignty to kill Bin Laden (which worked), but most of his strategic choices have been cautious and hedged. There has been nothing akin to the Truman Doc- trine and the Marshall Plan or George H. W. Bush’s backing of German unification.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Big bets, however, often involve big risks, and we saw above that they raise important questions of what risks and costs foreign policy leaders should impose on their followers. Such bets should at least meet the just-war criterion of having a reasonable prospect of success, but even that is hard to judge. One of history’s great strategists, Otto von Bismarck, successfully bet in 1870 that a manufactured war with France would lead to Prussian unification of Germany, but he also bet that he could annex Alsace-Lorraine, with enormous costs that became clear only later in 1914. Wilson made a costly and mistaken bet on the Versailles Treaty. Kennedy and Johnson made mistaken bets that Vietnam was a game of dominoes, not checkers, where Eisenhower, who coined the domino terminology, refused to intervene. And Nixon, who bet successfully on an opening to China, made a nearly simultaneous but mistaken bet on the destruction of the Bretton Woods monetary system. Franklin Roosevelt and Truman made positive transformational bets before and after World War II, but only after initial cautious approaches.
As we saw earlier, there is little evidence to support the general assumptions of leadership theory and public discourse that transformational foreign policy leaders are better in either ethics or effectiveness. For one thing, the concept of transformational leadership is too ambiguously defined to be useful unless it is more carefully specified. But even with objectives distinguished from style, the evidence does not support the view that leaders with transformational objectives or inspirational style are better. Other leadership skills outlined in the first chapter are more important than the usual distinction between transformational and transactional leaders.
Here it is useful to compare Woodrow Wilson with the first Bush. In the long term Wilson’s vision was partially vindicated, but he lacked the leadership skill needed for its execution and implementation in his own time. With Bush 41, the “vision thing” and his educational impact were very limited, but his execution and management were very good. Perhaps the facetious moral of the story is that at some mythical day in the future, genetic engineers will be able to produce leaders equally endowed with both sets of skills. Comparing the two Bushes, who shared half their genes, makes it is clear that nature has not yet solved the problem.