Mark Hertling: Trump's "tough talk" on North Korea is not a good example of strategic leadership
Good leaders maintain calm, carefully consider all options and build coalitions of support, he writes
Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
It was January 6, 1991. A group of US soldiers and I were listening on BBC as Saddam Hussein gave a speech to the Iraqi army. It was on a static-filled radio in our squadron’s operation center in the middle of the desert, and we all knew we were about to go to war. The British interpreter paused with confusion as he tried to understand the phrase, and then he translated Saddam’s idiomatic threat as best he could: “Iraqi soldiers, the battle in which you are locked today is the mother of all battles. … Our rendezvous with victory is very near.”
We all looked at each other and laughed. “The mother of all battles?” Saddam’s quote became an immediate catchphrase. The next day, the Iraqi dictator was even more confident, boasting, “The great showdown has begun; the mother of all battles is now under way!”
But here’s the deal. Iraq lost the war the US called “Desert Storm” decisively and quickly. And Saddam’s catchphrase became a punch line.
My lesson from this experience was that strategic leaders should always show confidence and strength, but avoid cockiness and “tough talk.” President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric regarding North Korea, unfortunately, does not meet that standard.
So how should leaders strike this balance? Three simple thoughts, which I fully recognize are easier to say and harder to do.
First, the strategic leader must maintain a calm, logical and reasoned approach to any threat, no matter the perceived danger. The leader must control the tempo of decision-making while presenting a sensible and pragmatic approach in even the direst circumstance.
Great strategic leaders also look for innovative options, while ensuring their country’s physical and emotional energy are applied only to those things that are the most important: tackling the problem and finding the solutions rather than generating dissension and draining focus. In other words, stay cool, ensure calm, keep a clear eye and control the clock.
Second, the strategic leader must understand the implications of his anticipated action – or inaction. Determining the goals and objectives before making a threat is critical. The strategic leader must describe the desired end state of what he wants to achieve, analyze the potential outcomes that might occur if assumptions prove wrong, and envision what success might look like when all the critical components come together.
As important, that same strategic leader must anticipate what may happen if he takes no action. What will occur if either inertia or procrastination dominates decision making, and what is the best and worst that can result from such a choice?
Finally, while all that is occurring, the smart strategic leader musters overwhelming power – from allies, his team, the government and the people of his nation.
To win, no fight should be a fair fight. Every strategic leader knows that when addressing any issue of national importance – especially when placing the nation’s sons and daughters in harm’s way – that leader needs to have an overwhelming advantage because there is no substitute for victory or achievement of the objective.
Knowing this, the strategic leader must generate all the elements of diplomacy, economic leverage, information and military might to strengthen the nation’s capability. Then the strategic leader must also generate the power of allies who influence the situation – many of whom may have different approaches, some of which may not even match our desires. The leader must also ensure that he and his team communicate with one voice. And then the leader needs to get Congress and the people to support the proposed strategy, since that support is the most critical element of national power.
None of this is easy. But not doing all of this is often catastrophic.
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In other words, Trump should avoid the “tough talk” and instead tackle the work required for success. If he wants to address the North Korean nuclear threat, he’ll need to operate with laser focus and an intense application of energy.
And he should remember, it’ll be tough to bluff his way through a “mother of all battles.”