Transformational Leadership and U.S. Grand Strategy

Courtesy Reuters


George W. Bush likes to boast that he does not play "small ball." The Economist describes him as "obsessed by the idea of being a 'transformational' president: not just a status-quo operator like Bill Clinton but a man who changes the direction of history." But will he become that man?

Bush's bid for a legacy of transformation rests on the three major changes he made to U.S. grand strategy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: reducing Washington's reliance on permanent alliances and international institutions, expanding the traditional right of preemption into a new doctrine of preventive war, and advocating coercive democratization as a solution to Middle Eastern terrorism. Those changes, codified in the 2002 National Security Strategy, were widely understood as revolutionary at the time. The British journalist Philip Stephens, for example, wrote in March 2003 that he felt as if he were "present at the destruction" of the international order the Truman administration had created half a century earlier.

Transformation in this regard is more than ordinary adaptation; it implies a major alteration of U.S. grand strategy. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the failure to find either weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, two of the three pillars of Bush's effort at transformation have been shaken. Accordingly, Bush has increasingly emphasized the democratization component of his grand strategy. The 2006 National Security Strategy refers to democracy and freedom more than 200 times (three times as often as the 2002 document), downplays preventive war, and even includes a chapter on globalization (a subject Bush once privately derided as "mushy Clintonism"). The shift has been more than rhetorical: Bush's diplomacy toward North Korea and Iran has recently been much more multilateral than it was during his first term.

Senior administration officials believe that Bush's aggressive democratization will prove successful and that the next president will be bound to follow the broad lines of Bush's new strategy. Vice President Dick

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