Best Defense

Edgar on Strategy (Part VII): When evaluating strategies, go beyond good and evil, and keep the narrative in mind

Our propensity to see the world in terms of good and evil might be described as a shared, though ill-defined, moral conviction so strong that it blinds leaders to the complex motives, interests, and perspectives of other actors.

Portrait of John F. Kennedy; Portrait of Ho Chi Minh (White House Press Office; Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of John F. Kennedy; Portrait of Ho Chi Minh (White House Press Office; Wikimedia Commons)


From the series editor: Starting this week, and for most of the remainder of this series, we’ll address themes that are more readily recognized and addressed in contemporary discussions of strategy. (This week the theme is narrative; next week it is creativity.) Some readers have commented that the series has been too eclectic, with no discernible direction. An understandable critique at this point, but not entirely accurate. Stay calm! I’ll contextualize the more eclectic themes in relation to the more familiar ones when we conclude the series in a couple of months. – Paul Edgar

By Peter Sarasohn
Best Defense office of strategic synthesis

There are several versions of the story of America’s involvement in Vietnam, as it snowballed from the late 1950s and through the late 1960s. But let’s just summarize two of them.

In one version, the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations stood firmly against a quintessentially Soviet form of brutal and expansionist communism. This viral strain of communism was fundamentally evil, while the liberal democracies of the West, especially the United States, were fundamentally good. As a communist, Ho Chi Minh and his team were posed to desolate South Vietnam just like Joseph Stalin did to Ukraine a few decades before. And once South Vietnam had caved, the rest of South Asia would likely follow. Communists would soon be on the doorstep of our close ally, Australia.

A second version goes like this: Vietnamese visionary Ho Chi Minh was deeply inspired by the democratic characteristics of communist theory and by President Franklin Roosevelt’s twofold commitment to end colonialism and to support self determination. Stirred by complementary aspects of communism and democracy, Ho Chi Minh reached out to the United States for assistance and guidance. But consumed with too many other responsibilities, especially Atlantic alliances, the United States missed or dismissed Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam. Doing so, the West prolonged an untenable colonial world order. And worse, when the French finally woke up and vacated Vietnam, the United States strangely stepped into the gap. The United States was assuming a role that ten years earlier had earned France severe rebukes from Roosevelt and other senior American leaders.

This essay is not about determining which of those stories is true, but rather about acknowledging that both versions exist. Acknowledging that fact helps define more precisely the problem that needed solving and the strategic solutions that might have helped. We often frame our conflicts in terms of good and evil, freedom and oppression. In so doing, we blind ourselves to complexities that underlie these conflicts. Rigid good-evil dichotomy tends to cloud American thought and inhibits more productive responses to global and domestic challenges. Good-evil dichotomies too often produce strategies that are dead on arrival.

The Iraq War, of course, is the poster boy for American strategy hamstrung by framing a complicated problem in simplistic terms. In the lead-up to the invasion (and even for a few years after), American leaders summarized the conflict in terms of a good and generous people overthrowing a vile and evil dictator. With the dictator out of the way, the oppressed would greet American soldiers in the streets with flowers and candy. Iraqi patriots would quickly reestablish a strong and fair government. There was no sense of the perverse balance Saddam Hussein had established between the Sunni minority and the long oppressed Shia majority, nor what the conflict would mean for regional rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Broadly, our leaders also assumed that the Iraqi people would consent to prominent Western presence and influence because the West was good. And who would oppose goodness? Simplifying the problem of Iraq to binary terms, the United States committed itself to a complicated, long, and bloody war with results that even today remain unpredictable.

Thinking in terms of good and evil, we can lose our ability to think strategically about what actually works and what we are really trying to accomplish. Instead, the overriding impulse becomes confronting and destroying apparent evil, a pursuit which almost inevitably becomes elusive.

Consider the perennial and inflexible critics of our policies towards Iran as another example. The international community placed direct and severe sanctions on Iran to get them to agree to give up its nuclear weapons program. The plan largely worked. Iran relented in the most important respects. In 2015, a deal to lift sanctions was struck.

Yet many in the United States and the West opposed lifting sanctions. Iran, with a fundamentally evil government, was inherently untrustworthy and merited no quarter. Because Iran was evil and untrustworthy, the United States, a good and honorable nation, had a moral obligation to scuttle the deal and ratchet down even more. (One must wonder about the point of sanctions without a discernible end state.) Thankfully, policy makers with overly simplistic views did not win the first round of that one.

Since the Vietnam War, there has been a conspicuous recognition of the dangers of groupthink, a propensity for conformity that hijacks the decision making process. Similarly, our propensity to see the world in terms of good and evil might be described as groupfeel, a shared, though ill-defined, moral conviction so strong that it blinds leaders and constituents alike to the complex motives, interests, and perspectives of other actors. Groupfeel is a constant challenge to policy makers. In order to develop the best strategies, Americans must be willing to see a variety of perspectives, beyond a limited vision of good versus evil.

Peter Sarasohn attended graduate school at the University of Texas in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. For over five years, he served as the chief of staff for Oregon Representative Margaret Doherty and is currently a policy associate for Feed America.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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