It’s amazing that decades later no one seems to have learned anything from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus decided to use the Hamas war to plug his latest book with advice about winning hearts and minds.
“In our research of wars of all kinds since World War II, we found that the key to winning is sound strategic leadership. What exactly is sound strategic leadership? As we examined in writing Conflict, good strategic leadership — that at the very top of a government and a military command — has to be both practical and visionary. Big ideas are at its core, and getting them right is of paramount importance; without the right big ideas, all else will be built on a shaky intellectual foundation. Hence, a strategic leader’s first task is to develop those big ideas, ones that reflect an astute understanding of all aspects of the conflict at hand.”
Winning a war doesn’t need big ideas. War is not a TED talk. It requires intelligence, common sense, flexibility, a good working knowledge of the battlefield, the tools at hand and the enemy.
As Benjamin Netanyahu contemplates his options for punishing Hamas for the worst single massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, he must above all, provide sound strategic leadership, performing the four tasks of a leader at the very top — and, above all, getting the big ideas right.
There’s a wartime cabinet which needs to destroy Hamas, deter Hezbollah and other Iranian allies, while being prepared for drone warfare in ways that they may not be yet.
“The ‘big idea’ for Israel to offer ordinary Palestinians who are not members of Hamas might include a resuscitation of the two-state solution, in which they are offered their own state, despite the two obvious pitfalls to any actual implementation of that in the short to medium term… Needless to say, the situation in the West Bank has also been intractable for many years, as well. Were Netanyahu somehow able to square these seemingly impossible circles, he would emerge as one of the greatest statesmen of the modern Middle East. Nonetheless, he would be wise to provide a vision of the future for those in the West Bank, as well as Gaza, as he also describes the mission he is assigning the Israeli Defense Forces.”
Have 1,400 of your people just been killed? Figure out a way to offer the enemy a “vision of the future”.
If you want to understand why we lost in Afghanistan, this is as good a starting point as any. I don’t hate Petraeus. Of the various generals, I think he was probably the most competent. But this is a genuinely scary read because it perfectly captures a military leadership that has lost touch with its fundamental mission.
Forget for a moment that the two-state solution was an unworkable delusion for a moment, Petraeus is brushing past the actual military challenges to emphasize it as a political and philosophical phenomenon. The problem isn’t winning a war, it’s appeasing enemies.
Or winning hearts and minds.
Templer’s experience — and that of the coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — remind us of the question that should always be asked before operations are conducted: “Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?” Needless to say, that question looms over the campaign Israel is contemplating for Gaza.
Templer’s call for winning “hearts and minds” — a very big idea — has so often been cited as to become a cliché in the decades since. Nonetheless, that concept remains the most succinct explanation for how to win a counterinsurgency.
How many counterinsurgencies have we won through ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns? How many against Islamic terrorists?
Petraeus clings to the ‘cycle of violence’ and ‘hearts and minds’ stuff that wasted so many American lives, lost wars and squandered our resistance to terrorism in futile nation-building, and the saddest part is he hasn’t learned a thing. He’s offering Israel the same advice that bled us endlessly without accomplishing anything. And he doesn’t seem to even understand that it’s lacking.
And it’s not just Petraeus. You would be hard-pressed to find political and military leaders who don’t think like this.
Reading this you have to wonder, could Petraeus really be this shallow and clueless about, of all things, war?
Zelenskyy subsequently prevented military-age Ukrainian men from leaving the country, delivered inspirational nightly updates to the Ukrainian people, and mobilized the totality of his country to repel the invaders. These decisions, together with his brilliant communications to the world, including pitch-perfect messages to the parliaments of key countries, and his energy, example and fortitude have all earned him the right to be regarded as a leader in the mold of Winston Churchill. He was, in fact, the first wartime leader since Churchill to address the U.S. Congress, something he did movingly in December of 2022.
Delivering inspirational speeches, ordering mass mobilization and a draft do not make one a Churchill.
What made Churchill who he was, among other things, was seeing the war coming early on and the futility of compromise. Along with the willingness to make big, bad, and highly controversial decisions. Like attacking the French fleet to keep it out of enemy hands.
Churchill had military experience and used it to make important decisions. His “inspirational” skills were debatable. We look back on his addresses as inspirational, but they were far from universally cheered at the time. But then Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was reviled at the time. They’re compelling in retrospect because they were ahead of their time.
Petraeus knows that what was really relevant were things like Churchill’s focus on opening a second front, his determination to keep pushing and probing the enemy, and his commitment to strategic bombing. Or you would think he would and yet instead he talks about “big ideas” and “communications” as if those matter more than actually winning.
We’ve tried to TED talk our way through wars. Hopefully, Israel will actually try to win by killing the enemy instead of trying to come up with big ideas.
What is the purpose of war? Is it big ideas or defeating the enemy?