As I write this article, President Obama is weighing the wisdom of launching some kind of attack by the United States against the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons against part of the population.

I’m not going to join the chorus of those saying Obama should do this or do that. Rather, I wish to point out the inherent uncertainties, risks, and ambiguities involved in strategic decision-making at the international level when it involves conflict and the game of great power relations. Obama’s decisions in this conflict hold lessons for all of us, especially strategic leaders in business, government, public safety and others involved in weighing heavy risks and evaluating them against potential benefits of action…or inaction.

The first thing that strikes me is the overall ambiguity of the Syrian situation. It isn’t at all clear to me that there is a “good” side and a “bad” side. Sure, the Assad government is supported by Iran, Russia and, somewhat obliquely, China. Assad’s Alawite regime has also ruled the country for decades with an iron fist, but is the opposition any better? Moreover, the ramifications of any action by the US or other Western countries are likely to be mind-boggling in their complexity and scope. Can we really predict what will happen next, or what the outcomes of US actions are likely to be? The Middle East is a powder keg. Any decision to act has to be for the right reasons, and in this case, that would have to be reasons of state (raison d’état).

Speaking of which, what WOULD be the ostensible goal of a US-led intervention in the conflict? And why are chemical weapons any worse than others? Does the image of innocent children killed by sarin gas disgust us more than if we saw them mutilated by artillery shells or machine gun bullets? What is the REASON for the US and it’s allies to intervene? What are they expecting to achieve and to what end? As I wrote in Brilliant Manoeuvres: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles, selection and maintenance of the aim is the master principle of war and strategy. Is the US intervening just to assuage the collective conscience of part of the American public, or is there a greater raison d’état?

In setting strategic objectives and overall strategy, a leader must identify the ends, ways, and means of the particular military operation. He or she must also communicate these within the needs of security and confidentiality. The ends are the goals: What are we trying to achieve? The ways are the courses of action that are realistically at our disposal? As I learned in the army, there is always more than one way to achieve an aim, and they all have their inherent costs and benefits, risks and opportunities. Third, the ends and the ways determine the means that must be assigned to achieving the mission. There is an expression in French, which, loosely translated, means “We must give ourselves the means of our ambitions.” In other words, are we willing to pay the price to achieve our objectives, and is this price in line with our overall interests and purposes?

There is much public (and media) outcry about the situation in Syria. But what would the US be actually achieving by a military intervention? What is the purpose and what higher aims does it serve in the national interest? I know this may sound crass for all those people in Syria who have lost their lives in this civil war, but there are other civil wars around the globe, although not necessarily in such dangerous geopolitical regions. And why did the West, led by the US, aid the Libyan rebels, who turned out to be not exactly saintly themselves, while the West has hesitated to aid the rebels in Syria? There are many reasons, such as the refugee crisis in Italy that was caused by the civil war in Libya, as well as the fact that Syria is directly next to highly strategic countries, such as Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, plus the seemingly unwavering support of Iran and Russia.

All this goes to show that international relations and geopolitics require a decision calculus that varies from one situation to another. No two conflicts are ever alike, even moderately so. And as Sun Tzu said over 2,000 years ago, “War is the greatest affair of state, it must be thoroughly pondered.”

The last element that I find of interest is how Obama is must now perhaps eat his words from last year, when he said that if Assad used chemical weapons then the US would intervene. In leadership involving any kind of conflict or showdown, threats can’t be bandied about idly. If you utter a threat or a warning, you have to be ready to act on it otherwise you will be perceived, correctly in my estimation, as a lame duck.

Leadership isn’t easy, as we can see with the Syrian crisis. Selecting the best aim and developing a strategy and plan to achieve it are the most critical tasks of any strategic leader. Only time will tell if Obama is correct in his actions, whether he decides to intervene or not on behalf of the international community. Paraphrasing Sun Tzu, we can say that we need to thoroughly ponder strategic leadership. It holds lessons for all us, not just those making decisions over conflict and war.

© Alcera Consulting Inc. 2013. We encourage the sharing of this information and forwarding of this email with attribution. All other rights reserved.

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