This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom surprised everyone by suddenly lifting the near-complete lockdown he ordered late last year to help contain the COVID-19 outbreak that has made the state one of the epicenters of the pandemic.
The governor’s decision came without warning, and with apparent disregard for the very metrics that he said would be used to determine when businesses could reopen when he issued the lockdown order late last year. Critics say it was a reaction to a strengthening recall campaign being mounted by his political opponents.
Reacting is never a good strategy. In fact, it’s not even bad strategy, because when you react, you are abandoning strategic thinking entirely.
Unfortunately, a lot of leaders are reacting these days, rather than thinking their way through this crisis.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done nothing but react, with government policies sometimes changing by the day. Nor is Newsom alone in abandoning a strategy that was working in reaction to pressures that have nothing to do with public health.
Look at Dubai: Here was a country that seemed to have the coronavirus in check, at least until its leaders decided to reopen the tourism sector and remove restrictions on international travel that were proving so effective in keeping the worst of the pandemic at bay. That was in November. Today, Dubai is locking down again as new infections have more than tripled.
The thing about strategies is that none of them work if you don’t let them – and the same goes for strategic thinking.
The U.S. Army learned that the hard way shortly after rolling out its vaunted red teaming program in the mid-2000s.
Red teaming is a powerful aid to decision making that was developed by the military and intelligence agencies in the wake of 9/11 and the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the first real tests for this new approach came in 2006, when then-President George W. Bush decided the time had come to cut America’s losses and pull U.S. forces out of Iraq. Americans were weary of the war in Iraq. So were the Iraqis. The obvious solution, and the one favored by most Americans, was for the United States to cut its losses and withdraw completely.
However, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of Coalition forces and an early advocate for red team thinking, used this contrarian approach to analyze the planned pullout and uncovered some big problems: While it might appease the electorate at home, it would further damage America’s reputation in the world and create a security nightmare for the Iraqis. The country might even collapse and create a new haven for terrorists.
So, instead of pulling American troops out, he requested that 30,000 troops more be sent in to restore something resembling peace in the country – a strategy he dubbed “the surge.”
But Petraeus did not just ask for more troops. He also changed the way those troops operated. Instead of hunkering down on fortified bases and only emerging for aggressive, heavily armed patrols that invited confrontation, Petraeus ordered his soldiers out among the population. Coalition troops were soon separating Sunnis from Shi’ites, patrolling with Iraqi forces the most dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities, and working among the people to resolve the myriad of problems that prevented a return to normal life in Iraq.
Petraeus would later say “the surge that mattered most in Iraq was not the surge of forces. It was the surge of ideas, which guided the strategy that ultimately reduced violence in the country so substantially.” And it did work – at least until politicians in Washington intervened, declared victory prematurely, and began pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq before the work Petraeus had them doing was finished.
The country’s subsequent descent into chaos did not represent a failure of the surge but rather painful proof that it had been the right strategy all along. Even politicians who had opposed the troop buildup would later acknowledge as much.
The Army learned a valuable lesson from all of this, albeit a painful one: red team thinking only works if you let it. And the same goes for strategic thinking in general. As I said, even the best strategies only works if you execute them – not part way, or only until the going gets tough, or until you start getting pushback from voters, but all the way to the end, to the final phase, to victory.
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