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Turning Sun Tzu on His Head


In the opening line of Book 1 of Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War (circa 400 BC), the first treatise ever written on the subject, the Chinese master said,”War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life and death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” He then goes on to describe a systematic method for assembling the information needed to make a rational decision to go to war.

Today, in Pentagonese, we would call his method a “net assessment,” that is to say Sun Tzu described a very thoughtful way to perform a comparative analysis of one’s own strengths and weaknesses with those of the adversary. Sun Tzu’s strategic outlook is amazingly relevant to contemporary circumstances; indeed, it is timeless, and I submit it provides the gold standard for for evaluating our own efforts to grapple with the question of going to war or to escalate a war — basically, his advice was simple: know your enemy and know yourself before plunging into war.

When the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s gold standard is compared to the crude domestic political machinations used to steamroller President Obama into escalating the war in Afghanistan, a horrifying picture emerges at the most basic of level decision making. The public debate concentrated on only one side of that net assessment — the side advocating escalation, and even the argument for that side was conceptually flawed in that it did not examine its own strengths and weaknesses.

The recently leaked cables by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry bring this imbalance into sharp relief. Eikenberry raised some thoughtful objections to the McChrystal/Petraeus/Gates/Clinton escalation plan from the perspective of its limitations on “knowing ourselves” (US, Karzai government, and the Afghan security forces). He did not really address the strengths and weaknesses on other side of the net assessment–i.e., those of our adversaries. But his analysis is damning enough. Eikenberry’s objections were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in secret cables. Presumably President Obama studied them prior to his decision to accede to the escalation pressures. Eikenberry’s analyses are both an interesting and important counterpoints to what I still believe was an ill advised decision.

Bear in mind, as far as public awareness is concerned, the McChrystal plan, which was also secret, was leaked in redacted form to the Washington Post well before Mr. Obama caved into the domestic political pressures for escalation — in fact, that leak was part of a carefully orchestrated public political steamroller to pressure Mr. Obama to accede to the escalation. Yet McChrystal’s escalation plan was by no means a self evident winner. In fact, it was conceptually flawed in its own terms — — namely that McChrystal failed to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan National Security Forces, yet his whole strategy depended depended on a rapid increase in the effectiveness of those forces. My discussion of this flaw, as well as the raw political character of the escalation steamroller, can found here, here, and here. In short, there is very little evidence that the proponents of escalation on our side did the kind of systematic analysis advocated by Sun Tzu to really “know ourselves,” let alone know the enemy.

On the other hand, Amb. Eikenberry’s thoughtful objections to that escalation plan at least provided some first order information to redress one side of this conceptual disaster. While his objections were reported in very general terms prior to the escalation decision, they were not leaked to the press (NYT) until well after Mr. Obama’s decision. So, given the asymmetric leaking tactics in the bureaucratic war, the net result was that the public and the Congress were presented with a one-sided picture of the debate over a vital question of state — and this lopsided picture was then pounded into the people, the Congress, and the President by the thumping echo chamber of hysterical warmongers in the mainstream electronic media and talk radio.

So, I pose a question: Read the Eikenberry cables and then ask yourself whether we the people and our representatives in Congress would have had a more constructive political debate over this most vital of questions if the details of Ambassador Eikenberry’s objections were known and understood to the same extent as the details of the escalation plan were understood prior to Mr. Obama’s decision.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at


Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at

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