President Obama has received continued criticism for being a weak leader. His military actions against IS in Iraq and Syria are now being used to demonstrate the contrary argument. I suggest that such assessments need to be made with great care
Popular and political judgements of a leader’s competence need to be tested carefully. Too often they are reactions to a single critical incident.
Critical incidents may not be all that critical
A news story often follows a ‘critical incident’. For example, the IS made headlines over brutal videoed execution of an American hostage. President Obama said at a Press Conference that there was no American strategy in place for dealing with the emerging Islamic State. The remark was widely taken to illustrate the President’s weakness as a leader.
Was it weak leadership to speak the truth?
A leader is expected to offer reassurance. Obama’s sound-bite was uncomfortable to hear. It could be used in Media Training as an example of a remark that might have been better expressed. An example of a weakly-expressed point. But was it weak leadership to speak the truth? Would it have been any better to say “We know exactly what to do, as you will learn very shortly” ?
Was it strong leadership to launch the air campaign against IS?
British politicians appear to be believe so. They debated the issue and voted overwhelmingly in favour of supplying air support in Iraq (where the new regime requested military support against IS) Here is where some careful testing of ideas is required. One view is that a strong leader is decisive and ‘sends signals of commitment and willingness to act’ unilaterally if necessary.
There seems a wide consensus that the initiative has little chance of a simple successful ending without ‘boots on the ground‘.
Yet there has been a remarkable level of regional and international support of at least a symbolic kind.
And the question of what is strong leadership remains a matter of perspective. If strong is understood as having the power to bring about desired change, President Obama is in a relatively weak position for someone in the role generally perceived as that of the most powerful political leader in the world.