Clem Sunter

Another tactical victory, another strategic nightmare

2016-09-19 07:15

Clem Sunter

In several of my recent columns, I have tried to get across the difference between a strategic and tactical decision. The success or failure of a strategic decision can only be decided after 5 to 10 years because it is related to the long-term direction of the country, business or family about which the decision is being made. A tactical decision is about how you want to get to your chosen destination in the best possible way. It relates to your next move in the here and now. You can judge pretty quickly if you were right or wrong.

Logically, therefore, you have to decide on the best strategy before you decide on how to accomplish it tactically. You have to aim a rifle before you fire it. Even then, you must be prepared to revise your aim in light of the fact that the future is a moving target. It can serve up surprises for the most well thought through of plans. In other words, formulating your best strategy and tactics is a dynamic process which requires a constant updating of the options available. Only then do you give yourself the greatest chance of success in the long run.

Sad to say we now have another example of this crucial distinction between strategy and tactics being utterly ignored. In a damning report just released by the foreign affairs committee of the UK House of Commons, the decision by the British Government, led by David Cameron, to take military action in Libya in conjunction with the French in 2011 has been roundly criticised. The action, you may remember, resulted in the death of its leader Muammar Gaddafi. Other more peaceful options to play a role in the future of Libya, all of which were on the table at the time, were discarded.

 Remember those pictures of a smiling Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy visiting Tripoli in the aftermath to greet the new rulers. That was the celebration of a tactical victory which was supposed to begin the journey to the promised land of a functional democracy. It achieved the exact opposite as the country descended into civil war between rival factions.

To repeat the final line of a famous folk song of the 1960s, when will they ever learn? What really baffles me is that this action was taken when the consequences of exactly the same type of decision taken eight years earlier to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq were becoming painfully clear. Remember George Bush declaring victory on an American warship with the banner ‘Mission Accomplished’ behind him. Remember Tony Blair giving his unqualified support to US military action, despite the UN-appointed Hans Blix announcing he had found no weapons of mass destruction during his inspections of potential sites. Why was the peaceful option of allowing him to continue his search not countenanced?

 Now the two US presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, cannot distance themselves further from the decision to invade Iraq. In retrospect it was a tactical victory that led to a strategic mess, albeit a less violent one than Libya is today. Yet the mistake is currently being made for a third time in Syria. Western and Russian military involvement has reduced Syria to ground zero for most of its citizens as they try to survive amidst the rubble of their once prosperous cities. I know that the purpose is to eliminate the terrorist threat but do you have to destroy a whole country in order to achieve it? Has anybody thought about the long term future of the nation together with the strategy and tactics to make it happen?

So the question is simple: why do political leaders- Western ones in particular-go on making this elementary error when they are supposed to have been elected for their astuteness and foresight? Apart from a tendency to club together, I think there are three principal reasons.

The first reason has to do with the essential nature of the political game that they are playing. Democracy compels leaders to think in the short term about the next general election in the same way that many CEOs of publicly quoted companies think of the next quarter’s financial statement. They get stuck in the groove of trying to achieve immediate results. Very seldom are they willing to accept short term pain for long term gain. Consider the soaring national debt level around the world but perish the thought of promoting austerity to reduce it. That loses you votes.

The second reason is the itch to have a fight somewhere else so that you inspire patriotism among the locals in the neighbourhood. An external war now and then is a jolly good thing to take people’s minds off the problems at home. Hence, a plan for reconstruction of the countries in which a war is being fought and the measures to stimulate their economies are the least of your worries. Have you heard of any Marshall Aid programmes being announced by the West to get the nations affected by war in the Middle East out of the quagmire that they are in? At least the US demonstrated strategic thinking after the Second World War by helping Germany and Japan to recover from defeat.

The third reason is personal arrogance and not accepting that much of the future is beyond your control, no matter how powerful you are as a player. Chantell Ilbury and I have been preaching this concept endlessly since writing The Mind of a Fox. The majority of political leaders will not accept any formulation of scenarios that are not consistent with the decision they are taking according to their definition of the public good. Look at the dodgy dossier that was produced in Britain prior to entry into the war in Iraq. Much of it came from a student’s thesis and the rest was intelligence data selected to favour military intervention. Think of the so-called facts given in America’s pre-conflict lecture to the UN most of which turned out to be totally incorrect when the war in Iraq was over.

By contrast, Chantell and I feel that any strategic decision should start with identifying all the relevant flags changing the game in the next 5 to 10 years, irrespective of whether or not they suit the decision under review. Positive and negative scenarios must be painted without bias and probabilities have to be attached without emotion getting in the way. Only then can you select the path that has the highest chance of success and work out the tactical steps to get you on your way.

Let me end with a bit of irony. Here is an example of a tactical decision that was made for all the wrong reasons but could in the end prove to be a brilliant strategic one: Brexit. It is irrelevant what the EU is like today. It is what it could be like in the 2020s and there are some very red flags. Sometimes the public may be wiser than the leaders they choose! We will have to wait for the verdict once Britain’s departure from Europe becomes a reality.


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