Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Robert McNamara's Lessons

Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defence under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In the documentary film, The Fog of War (2003), which I watched this week, he reflects on the mistakes he made in his time as well the things that he got right. He was a seriously brilliant man, and his advice is worth listening to. He discussed two great conflicts in his time, one of which was resolved well, the other lead to disaster. During the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the Russians placed ballistic missiles in Cuba, which threatened the United States. The Chiefs, Commanders of the armed forces, recommended an attack on Cuba, which would have resulted in the annihilation of the country. President Kennedy refused to take this advice. Instead, he negotiated with Khrushchev through a former ambassador who knew him, and the Russians dismantled the missiles. The Americans could claim that they protected the country from the threat of  of these missiles, while Khrushchev could claim that he defended Cuba from American attack. It was a win-win for both sides. In Vietnam President Johnson and his military advisers thought that they were fighting to save the world from the spread of communism, while the Vietnamese fought to free themselves from colonialism, as they did fighting the French. They had no intention of spreading Chinese communism, they had fought the Chinese for generations. But the Americans and the Chinese didn't listen to each other and didn't take the trouble to undeerstand each other. McNamara's first rule is:
  1. Empathize with your enemy
I am concerned about the current sabre rattling of the Israeli government, blaming the Hamas administration for the murder of the three boys and inflaming hatred within Israel, possibly encouraging vigilante action. It so happens that I am in the middle of reading David Landau's very long biography of Ariel Sharon. Begin and Sharon got involved in the Lebanon war on the pretext that they needed to revenge the murder of an Israeli diplomat. The war was a disaster and lead to the death of hundreds of young Israelis. It would be a tragedy if the murder of the three students would be used, as it threatens to be used, for political ends. It would be a more fitting memorial for them if the tragedy would lead to talks and a better understanding of the enemy, and perhaps a cessation of hostilities if not peace.