Archive for the ‘Geopolitics’ Category

Since the IS-perpetrated terrorist strikes in Paris there has been surge of “advice” and debate on the best strategy to adopt against the Islamic State in the Middle East. The problem is that most of the discussion confuses tactics with strategy and then presents these as mutual exclusive. Air strikes are not effective. No, air strikes are the way to go. No, we need to put boots on the ground. Actually, no. We need to concentrate on humanitarian action.

In reality, all of those approaches are needed in order to create dilemmas for IS and its operatives. You have to take the fight to the enemy by seizing and maintaining the initiative. Air power must be combined with ground forces in order to achieve maximum synergy and effect on the battlefield. You can knock out a command post, but that only creates a delay and temporary confusion. You can buy a bit of time, but it’s all much more effective when you can hit a command post and use the ensuing confusion to launch a ground assault. Moreover, you have to realize that a command post is a physical entity, but a headquarters with its commander and staff are a team. Command, control and communications (C3) can be degraded, but it is much harder to eliminate them entirely, especially if the enemy has a very decentralized structure with competing factions.

Here is a non-exhaustive listing of other thrusts in the strategy:

  • Economic warfare to disrupt the enemy “home front” such as it is,
  • Financial warfare to disrupt and interrupt the flow of funds, because gold is the sinews of war,
  • Humanitarian aid to support the non-belligerent population and refugees,
  • Psychological warfare against foreign and home-grown terrorist threats,
  • Information warfare to degrade the enemy’s psychological and media warfare capabilities and build up domestic and foreign support to fight IS, and
  • Numerous other aspects of combat, kinetic and non-kinetic.

The basic point here is that you need a strategy that attacks and “pinches off” IS wherever it tries to operate. IS combatants in a theatre of war must be treated as prisoners of war, while those who have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity must be treated as such. IS and allied terrorists operating in other nations must be treated as criminals.

Another critical point is to realize that there is no such thing as a “war on terrorism.” You can fight an identified enemy, opponent or belligerent group. You can’t fight a tactic, much less a vague concept.

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

The great 19th century military theorist Clausewitz wrote that — I’m paraphrasing here — the first and most important task of a leader is to understand the type of conflict or struggle he is engaged in. Poker players apparently have a more mundane way of putting things. If you’re the only one at the table who’s wondering who the patsy is, then you’re it.

In the last week we’ve seen just how amateurish the Obama administration is when it comes to the Great Game of great power relations, war, and diplomacy. The Keystone Cops routine that is the Obama policy on Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be funny were the consequences and implications not so deadly and ominous. President Putin of Russia is not so dilettantish in his approach to Syria. He sees the civil war there as a struggle to maintain and reinforce his influence with thugish regimes all around the world. It is also a confirmation within Russia, if any was needed, of his status as a classic strongman. The situation is even starker for Assad, for whom this war is not just a political struggle, but a fight to the death. Given what has happened to other dictators after their downfall throughout the world (Mubarak, Khaddafi, Saddam), it’s not surprising that he sees things in this light. The US is playing with its credibility and standing on the world stage and its ability to influence the policies and alignments of other nations. Obama is also gambling with the prerogatives of the office of president as commander-in-chief. All because he apparently doesn’t have the stomach for the fight — which came with the job — or because he doesn’t realize how significant the current crisis is.

We can see this all the time in organizations and business. A market leading company sees a new product as a minor irritant or insignificant (as one of RIM’s co-CEOs Mike Laziridis said on seeing the first iPhone) whereas the attacker sees it as a matter of life and death. An executive is playing nice, but there are other people in the company who are gunning for his position.

Food for Thought
Are you in a fight? Do you know its nature? Do you competitors or opponents view it in the same light? Are you willing to pay the price to win or to “fall on your sword”?

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

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.

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In Brilliant Manoeuvres: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles, I wrote, “You can’t be a leader if you’re afraid to seek and accept responsibility. By definition, a leader is in front, which implies a willingess to accept responsibility and be accountable for his or her decisions and actions, as well as those of the people he or she is leading.”

As Obama is currently wondering what actions to take about Syria, I feel we are facing one of the great failings of leadership in the last decade. One of the things I learned in commanding troops on peacekeeping duty is that you have to say what you mean, and mean what you say. Consistently. Words have to be carefully weighed, but threats and promises must be kept. By flip-flopping so many times on the issue of retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, Obama has shown himself incapable of accepting the difficult responsibilities of the office of commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. I’m not saying he should attack or not attack, but he seems completely incapable of accepting the responsibility that goes with the decision. Either way, own up to your ethical responsibilities as leader; say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

The resistance in the US and Canada to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline by Transcanada Pipelines has hemmed in that company’s ability to bring new oil to refineries on the US Gulf coast. It has also left Transcanada vulnerable to political whim and environmental protests. I’m not necessarily saying that the latter are bad things, but they do restrict freedom of action. Transcanada’s decision to start the process to build the Energy East Pipeline to ship Alberta and Saskatchewan oil to eastern Canada and eventually overseas markets provides additional options and freedom of action to sell western Canadian oil.

With freedom of action, you can select the time and place to attack and keep your competitors off guard. It is also an opportunity to diversify options which create dilemmas for competitors and additional ways around existing or potential obstacles to growth.

Are your decisions today likely to hem you in in the short, medium, or long term? What can you do to innovate now while maintaining or safeguarding future freedom of action?

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

The Obama Administration seems quite clueless about realpolitik. It’s foreign policy reduces to “be nice and hope for the best.” They need to grow some cojones. Cancelling a meeting with Putin is nothing compared to real leverage.

The Russians are not Western allies, and never have been. I think I read last week or something in the WSJ that Putin is a classic strongman. He has to be perceived as strong in order to maintain his power. If he looses power, he’s probably going to end up the same way that Mubarak did in Egypt, which is also what awaits Assad. Or worse, like Saddam or Khaddafi.

The US and its Western allies should be doing things to put Putin on the spot and force him back. But since Obama came to power, there has been nothing but “strong words” and posturing, but no real action, from what I can perceive. The idea of cancelling plans for ballistic missile defence in eastern Europe without any Russian concessions set the tone. The Russians are trying to push everyone around in the Arctic. Surely there is something to be done.

On the other hand, I don’t perceive that the US has a very strong hand right now. For instance, NASA is completely dependent on the Russians for sending astronauts into space and bringing them back. The Russians have maintained their position in space and consequently have a lot of concrete leverage. They also send a lot of natural gas to Europe. The Western countries have been saving the Russians from themselves since the end of the Cold War by helping them disarm and clean up their nuclear mess. However, striking at that might not be a good idea because it could lead to proliferation.

If the Obama administration isn’t doing this kind of assessment, they need to start right now and use it to good effect. Why not expulse a few Russian diplomats? I’m sure there are few that could be caught spying. Or how about saying something to embarass Putin, put him on the spot and diminish him in the eyes of the Russian people?

The Great Game is on (it was never off), so Obama needs to get in gear and start pressuring the Soviets… oops I mean the Russians. Talk is good, but so is real leverage.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

Brilliant Manoeuvre
Disable your opponent’s centre of gravity–his unique source of balance and strength–and do so quickly and with resolve when you have a window of opportunity.

Discussion
Whatever you make think of the overall political and strategic rationale, the US-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003 is a textbook case of attacking when the time is right even though you aren’t fully ‘ready.’ Coalition forces invaded Iraq with lightning speed and continually kept the Iraqi forces reeling. The offensive had so much momentum that there was barely time to assemble and process prisoners. American forces headed almost straight for Baghdad–the strategic objective–and didn’t waste time with sidefights and securing flanks. This is also exactly how the German invasion of France in 1940 played out. The Germans headed straight for the Channel coast in order to cut off the bulk of French mobile forces that had moved forward into Belgium where they expected the bulk of the German army to attack.

Tip
These historical military examples show that there are occasions when boldness and speed can more than make up for uncertainty, relative weakness, and lack of resources. They also demonstrate that you have to aim for the centre of gravity to disable it as quickly as possible. Whether you’re in sales, product development, procurement, etc., the best objective is to attack your opponent’s or your problem’s centre of gravity quickly and directly.

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.