Role of Morality in Evaluating Presidential Leadership Legacies

Role of Morality in Evaluating Presidential Leadership Legacies

by Mariya Ilyas

Political scientist Joseph Nye contends that effective and ethical leadership have three dimensions: goals, means, and consequences—the last of which ultimately defines a leader’s legacy. The challenge of effective leadership is balancing soft and hard power skills while adapting to evolving circumstances. Like a knife that can both kill and defend, “good” leadership, asserts Nye, can mean ethical or effective.

Using Nye’s framework, did former Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton display good leadership in in how they approached armed intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia, respectively?

Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam

“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” became a public slogan that defined Johnson’s presidency during the unpopular Vietnam War. When an American base at Pleiku was attacked in 1965, killing advisors and wounding soldiers, Johnson immediately reacted with a two-step contingency plan to fight communist aggression, firstly with a retaliatory air strike in the South and secondly with sustained bombing of the North. Johnson was determined not to lose the war, and therefore increased the number of troops in Vietnam upon General William Westmoreland’s requests, committing over half a million boots on the ground by 1968. As the costs of Vietnam War piled up, the American public grew impatient and openly denounced the war.

Johnson’s approach to armed intervention was realist in nature. Doris Goodwin writes that because of his troubled childhood, Johnson found the source of his achievement in the acquisition of power and control. This is evident in his approach to Vietnam: Johnson excelled at the hard power Machiavellian skills he gained through his 26-year legislative background in the House and the Senate, but lacked the organizational capacity to be successful as an executive. For example, conflicts with John F. Kennedy’s advisors on Vietnam strategy exacerbated the crisis and even led Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to resign. Johnson’s hard power tendencies contributed to his mixed soft power skills: he was self-aware but not charismatic; he had a clear vision for domestic priorities but lacked foresight for foreign policy; he could effectively persuade a small group of people but not the public. Finally, Johnson lacked the contextual intelligence to adapt to the evolving context of the Vietnam intervention. Skills that made Johnson a legislative genius did not transfer to the White House; in fact, because Johnson’s power in the presidency was concentrated in a small concentric circle, his strategic understanding of the larger context was extremely limited.

From an ethical point of view, Johnson had mixed goals, poor means, and poor consequences in Vietnam. He was an advocate of the domino theory of Cold War, but he lacked the prudence of how to access his options. In other words, he had good intentions, but his strategy was deeply flawed. While he was committed to limited warfare with an incrementally toughening war strategy, his style thwarted the inter agency process and limited open dialogue. This led to terrible consequences: a superpower lost a war to a tiny, poor country. Johnson’s secretive and controlling approach undermined public trust, despite his quite ethical and socially progressive efforts to build a “Great Society” back home with education, civil rights, and anti-poverty acts.

George H.W. Bush and Iraq

President George H.W. Bush’s approach to armed intervention stands in stark contrast to Johnson’s. Bush’s one-term presidency was marked by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, and the triumph of a U.S.-led military coalition over the forces of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Bush was a celebrated Washingtonian, having held prestigious positions such as UN Ambassador, RNC Chairman, CIA Director, and U.S. Vice President. These experiences taught Bush the importance of collaboration, an evident skill in his leadership style that helped him achieve successful outcome in Iraq.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush famously championed a “New World Order” which would define the post-Cold War world with cooperation, stability, and balance of power. Therefore, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bush was determined to exercise collective efforts to defeat the aggressor. Bush obtained UN Security Council resolutions to condemn the invasion (Resolution 660), impose economic sanctions (Resolution 661), and authorize the use of force (Resolution 678). With a coalition of 35 nations—including Middle Eastern countries—against Iraq, the U.S. led the aerial and naval bombardments and a ground campaign that lasted 100 hours. Bush’s intervention in Iraq stands out as an example of successful goals, means, and outcomes. Unlike Johnson’s independent approach, Bush pursued a collaborative approach to armed intervention by utilizing international laws and institutions such as the United Nations and pooling a coalition of nations towards a common vision.

Bush was committed to achieving his well-defined, limited objectives in Iraq. He appointed a competent Cabinet and respected international norms while firmly pushing a U.S. agenda. Although he won respect from the international community for his collaborative efforts, not the American public because he lacked the soft skills of effective communication and could not effectively communicate his vision or success. Despite being a foreign policy guru, Bush is criticized for not removing Saddam from power—a job his son completed almost a decade later.

From an ethical framework, Bush had strong goals and means, but mixed outcomes with the Gulf War. His values and intentions were good (to suppress authoritarian regimes), as was the quality of his means (rolodex diplomacy); but his consequences did not produce equally beneficial results for both in-groups (American public) and outsiders (international community). While the multinational interventional created trust between Western and Middle Eastern powers, it ironically also ushered an era of American unipolarity especially after the collapse of the USSR.

Bill Clinton and the Former Yugoslavia

Like Bush, Clinton was a liberal interventionist, however in the case of Bosnia, he can also be considered a cosmopolitan. When the Socialist federation of Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1991 under the pressures of ethnic conflict, economic issues, and oppression of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a UN peacekeeping mission attempted to stabilize the situation. Bush had passed off the conflict as a European problem, but the lack of U.S. response became a contentious issue during the 1992 presidential campaign, associating Clinton with the conflict from the onset. Serbs’ widespread “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian Muslims horrified the American national conscience and Clinton thus intervened on a moral argument. Believing in human rights and equal individual worth, Clinton worked with the UN, European Union, and NATO to devise an effective airstrike strategy that eventually obliged Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to come to the negotiating table and accept the terms of the Dayton Peace Accords.

Clinton was an effective and ethical leader during this intervention. In Bosnia, Clinton judiciously utilized hard, soft, and smart power skills to achieve peace in the region. He had clear goals, utilized efficient means, and achieved successful consequences. Despite facing the ethical dilemma of “dirty hands”—constraints on morality in order to achieve great results or avoid a disaster—Clinton minimized harm by acting quickly.

The Moral Component

“America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1821. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”Adams’ advice is missing a moral component because it was morality—the urge to do the “right” thing—that led Johnson, Bush, and Clinton abroad in search of monsters to destroy.Johnson tried to stop the spread of communist ideology; Bush felt he had to take out an aggressor regime; and Clinton tried to stop a genocide. If moral values and principles did not force these leaders to authorize armed intervention, then what did?

Nye argues that foreign policy adds an additional level of complexity to exercising “good” leadership: to what extent should leaders pay attention to human rights, institutions, and the welfare of those who are not their direct followers (referring to the American public)? The reality of being a global power, however, is that your follower base extends beyond state borders or citizenship status.

Image "The White House" Courtesy Images By Lane / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mariya Ilyas Professional.JPG

Mariya Ilyas is a second-year MALD focusing on international security, global maritime affairs, and finance and banking. Prior to Fletcher, she taught journalism in Pakistan (Davis Projects for Peace Fellowship); taught English in Turkey (Fulbright Scholarship); served at The White House and the U.S. Department of State; and worked for a fortune-100 insurance company in Boston as a business analyst. She graduated from Bowdoin College in 2013 with degrees in Mathematics, Sociology, and Government. She was born in Pakistan and grew up in Alexandria, VA. Upon graduation, Mariya will join the U.S. Foreign Service as part of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. 

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