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The Leadership Style of George Bush
by Scott D. O'Reilly
Intervention Magazine
June 3, 2004

George Bush once said, "A leader's job is to lead." Yet, "Bush the leader" is losing followers and gaining enemies worldwide.

The art of leadership consists of getting people to want to go where you want to take them. On this count the leadership style of George W. Bush is proving woefully inadequate. Two-thirds of the American public now believes that the country is heading in the wrong direction, the same percentage that now expresses deep reservations about Mr. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. The president's approval rating is hovering below fifty percent, and in some polls it is approaching forty percent, an ominous level for a candidate less than six months away from an election. And the president is not getting a boost on the domestic front, as most voters disapprove of his handling of the economy as well. But as bad as Bush's numbers are at home, they are a far cry from the truly dismal approval ratings the president elicits abroad. To the extent that the United States needs international cooperation to rebuild Iraq, confront terrorism, and meet global challenges, the worldwide lack of confidence in America's current leadership is deeply alarming.

The British writer Lord Acton once surmised, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." But a far more accurate sentiment might be that absolute power reveals character, or, as the case may be, character flaws. Bush's tenure in the oval office reflects a fundamental flaw in Bush's leadership style: the notion that people fall in line behind leaders who display decisive action, overwhelming force, and unyielding certitude. One problem with this leadership style is that it pays little heed to democratic processes such as deliberation, consultation, and consensus building. Bush has applied his leadership style in three key instances, and in each case it has led to short-term victories that have set the stage for defeats over the longer term.

The 2000 election was the first time that Bush had the opportunity to display his leadership style on a national and international stage. Rather than submit to the uncertainties of full democratic processes--manual vote recounts--Bush unilaterally declared that an examination of disputed, and in some cases uncounted, ballots could only taint the election. Though he had lost the popular vote, Bush correctly surmised that support for his opponent was tepid at best and that decisive action on his part to seize the mantle of power would embolden his immediate followers and enlist enough support among an apathetic electorate so that at the very least a majority of Americans would not oppose his questionable assumption of power. Fortunately for Bush, he did not have to apply too much force to achieve his aims, just some dubious judicial Jujitsu, and a well-timed "civic riot" during a local recount. Through it all, however, the Bush campaign never abandoned its public certitude that, despite tens of thousands of uncounted ballots and numerous electoral irregularities, its candidate was the one chosen by the voters. The unwillingness to submit to a bi-partisan review of the ballots cast a cloud over the legitimacy of Bush's election, a cloud that continues to grow with time.

Bush used much the same pattern in cajoling Congress and the U.N. to hand him the authority he demanded to launch a "preventive war" against Iraq. The Constitution explicitly provides that only Congress has the power to declare war, yet Bush simply asserted that as commander-in-chief he had the authority to invade Iraq. Rather than provoke a Constitutional crisis, Congress simply acquiesced, providing Bush with the blank check he demanded. The U.N. too was bullied into submission, providing a thin legal veneer to an invasion understood by most observers as a fait accompli. Initially, Bush's tactics worked, and the American public fell in line, supporting the invasion of Iraq by a nearly 3 to 1 margin. For Bush, the use of force would be self-legitimizing. Results after the successful exercise of force would legitimate whatever means used beforehand. But what the administration failed to realize is that autocratic or coerced "legitimacy" is far more brittle and unsustainable than consensual or democratic legitimacy. The administration would learn this lesson the hard way in Iraq.

The administration's "Shock and Awe" campaign was designed to display America's military might, not just to the Iraqis, but also to the entire world, particularly America's adversaries in the Middle East. Neoconservatives in the administration maintained that the Arab street, so to speak, could only be persuaded by force ("let them hate us, so long as they fear us," seemed to be their motto). But this approach contains a fatal contradiction--a majority of Iraqis see the imposition of democracy by force as illegitimate. Terrorism expert Richard Clarke captures the dilemma well when he writes, "Because the U.S apparently believes in imposing its ideology through the violence of war, many in the Arab world wonder how the United States can criticize the fundamentalists who also seek to impose their ideology through violence."

And so at this critical juncture the administration finds itself trying to lead a war on terror and the reconstruction of Iraq, yet fewer and fewer are willing to follow the administration's course. The fatal flaw in the administration's approach to leadership is that the unconstrained, unaccountable, and unchecked use of force lacks moral legitimacy; thus it breeds greater resistance as it loses adherents. Thus, George Bush's leadership style has had the perverse effect of disheartening our allies while emboldening our enemies. The administration may want to blame the media, liberals, and foreign appeasers for its predicament, but this quandary is a direct result of Bush's abuse of power. A leader who continues to lose followers while creating new enemies is not much of a leader. Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z and is working on Deconstructing Demagogues, a book which examines how politicians use and misuse language.

You can email your comments to Scott at: scott@interventionmag.com

Posted: June 4, 2004


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