06/24/2014 06:44 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Presidents and Strategic Leadership

Americans (57 percent of them, at any rate) recently gave President Obama a failing grade for his leadership in foreign policy. In Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine and now Iraq, the president has seemed, to many, to lack a coherent strategy and the ability to advance U.S. interests. Before concluding that this is a singular phenomenon, we should recall that as President Bush prepared to leave office in 2009, 69 percent of those polled said America's position in the world had lost ground during his presidency. Seventy-one percent disapproved of his handling of Iraq.

There may be many reasons for Americans' sense that the capability of the past two presidents to strategically lead the United States in a hostile world is wanting. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the "comfort" of a bipolar world where most conflicts were held in check by two superpowers has evaporated. That world has been replaced by a proliferation of ethnic, religious and terrorist actions often involving non-state or failed state actors in asymmetrical warfare not amenable to the clarity of causes, means, or definitions of success to which we had grown accustomed. Since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East has seemed a series of Black Swans (to use Nicholas Naseem Taleb's phrase) that seem easy to critique in hindsight but never predictable. Add to this partisan extremism that has escalated over the past five presidents' terms, and it would not be surprising if even a George Washington would be pilloried for his performance in foreign affairs.

We should, of course, be careful. Time and events sometimes refine perspectives and make us regret hasty judgments. But hope for vindication or a resigned acceptance-of-mistakes approach to presidential foreign policy struggles assumes no one could have done better. More significantly, it consigns us to expect similar performance in future presidencies. We need not be so pessimistic.

Rather than railing at failure, we might profit by asking what traits and skills in a future president might lead to more success in foreign affairs. If we know what we need, we may be more careful in who we select. We know what to avoid (as when Sarah Palin said she understood foreign policy because she could see Russia from her home), but that's not much help.

Bush had no foreign policy experience when he ascended from governor to president. Obama had served less than one term on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he entered the Oval Office. While Bush majored in history and Obama studied international affairs, learning from college courses is not the same as learning from experience. Experience with international issues, organizations, leaders, languages, and cultures can help prepare a future president for foreign policy duties. An openness to, and excitement about, gaining such experiences would also contribute to a future president's preparation. Unfortunately, the lack of openness and experience is seldom taken as disqualifying a candidate. Indeed, the extent of one's Americanism rather than globalism is sometimes an issue. Were a presidential candidate to speak Farsi, visit Islamic cultural centers or show an understanding for the nuances of Arabic or Russian cultures, many would wonder if he was sufficiently 'America-first.' The mere fact that Obama's middle name is Hussein led to no end of carping that he has secret Islamic leanings.

Strategic leadership at the presidential level also requires deep reading in and understanding of history. Secretary of State George Marshall, whose Marshall Plan was perhaps the single greatest foreign policy achievement of the twentieth century, once said that: " I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens." Such immersion not only alerts one to the lessons of the past but enables avoiding the false historical analogies often applied to current situations. Staying out of the Vietnamese civil war in the 1960s would not have been Munich-style appeasement all over again.

Presidential candidates should also have a healthy future orientation. They should be conversant with global social, technological, environment, economic, and political trends and drivers. They should be comfortable with scenario thinking, have developed some foresight capability, and approach the future proactively. Unfortunately, the time frame in which we ask our candidates to think, and in which they seem most willing to act, is often a year or much less. It should not shock us, then, when they seem surprised by events.

International experience as well as past and futures thinking rely for their effectiveness on being able to handle cognitive complexity, think systemically, and construct - and be ready to change - mental models of the world to guide foreign policy actions. If you cannot recall the last time a reporter asked a candidate for a thoughtful statement on, for example, the historical and cultural forces affecting Middle Eastern affairs as well as their short and long-term implications for U.S. foreign policy, you have a sense of the nature of the problem. Sound bite reporting only demands sound bite thinking.

It is a fair question, of course, whether a president must be able to do all this or just have advisers who can. What we should expect in a president, however, is someone with a wide personal network of individuals and organizations, domestically and internationally, to be called upon. We should also expect that a president can select great talent for a foreign policy team and lead that team with an effective dose of cognitive (vs. affective) conflict. And we should expect a president with enough humility to avoid hubris and enough moral courage to stand up to poor advice.

But, in a democracy, even getting foreign policy decisions right is not enough. A president who wants followers must have the capability to communicate. This requires clarity on goals, elegance in message (the ability to put complex messages in simple terms), confidence (not arrogance), and the capability to tell a story that resonates, emotionally as well as logically, with the American people. Strategic leadership also means truthful leadership - both honesty in the content and the willingness to tell the public what it may not want to hear.

All of this is a tough test for a potential president. Those who fail the test, however, stand a good chance of failing the American people. The yardstick we have been using in judging candidates for the presidency is missing key measures. We have put too much attention on being ideologically pure, free of the taint of the federal government, and unapologetically domestic and insular in background and interests. You would not hire a handyman to do heart surgery. Nor should we elect people without the requisite qualifications to look after our lives in the dangerous world we face.