Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 9, Issue 1  /  

The Roots of Bad Strategy

The Roots of Bad Strategy The Roots of Bad Strategy
Jarrod Morris -, Public Domain,
To cite this article: Smith, M.L.R., “The Roots of Bad Strategy,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1, summer 2023, pages 10-18.

Over the previous three decades of teaching strategic theory, I have inquired of many a tutorial group as to what should be considered ‘good strategy’. From the outset the students proceed to tick off numerous markers of good strategy: the ability to achieve goals; attaining values and outcomes that are meaningful; maximising interests; accomplishing aims as efficiently as possible; evaluating the costs and benefits of different courses of action; balancing risk and reward; gaining an appreciation of the adversary; assessing one’s own strengths and limitations; arriving at an outcome better than where one began; knowing when to stop.

There is no obvious way of distilling these level-headed observations except to infer that the essence of good strategy is premised upon the principle of proportionality. This begs the question: what is proportionality? Proportionality, my students deduce, connotes weighing up the balance of advantages relative to disadvantages; gauging the value of one’s goals and the price one might be willing to pay to achieve them; the willingness to modify, change or abandon certain aims or behaviours if one is not getting what one wants through a chosen course of action.

Acting with prudence might also be another way of describing the principle of proportionality. A prudential attitude is not a recipe for inaction. Neither does it mean that one cannot take risks. It does suggest, however, that those risks are calculated, are not undertaken rashly but are sufficiently thought through. They are also premised on the preparedness to ask searching questions about why and with what intent one is embarking on a course of action, and crucially, is it likely to be worth it?

Framing the argument

The point is that if 20-year-old undergraduates can comprehend the precepts of effective strategy, why cannot higher decision makers and policy analysts, who seem – at least in the context of contemporary Western practice – to exhibit poor judgment time and again? Yes, it may be tiresome to rehearse the litany of recent failures in military intervention, but do we not fail as strategic analysts if we don’t at least ask the question why?

This article, then, seeks to discern whether we – and by ‘we’ I mean those of us who operate in the intellectual space where policy and strategy intersect, be it in academia, think-tanks, government, and armed forces – can initiate a serious debate as to how and why systematic errors of judgement have arisen. Can we, in other words, get to the roots of what constitutes bad strategy?

Although I usually try to avoid discursive forms of writing, I would like to narrate the argument here partly through my own engagement with this question over the past three decades, to show how I have arrived at my observations about where the roots of bad strategy may be said to originate. On that score, I hope the reader will be patient, and bear with me as I endeavour to establish the premises of my argument.

By bad strategy, I mean the formation and execution of policies that manifestly do not obtain their original goals. In building an argument about the roots of bad strategy, I am conscious that I will be skating over questions that cannot be dealt with adequately in the space of a short article: such as whether meaningful distinctions between policy and strategy can be made, or whether political failures can be distinguished from strategic failures, or for that matter, just who are the strategists?

With respect to these questions, while there is no ‘guild’ of strategists as such,[i] I have intimated that there does exist an interface between policy makers, armed forces practitioners, along with analysts and commentators in policy think-tanks and the scholarly world, who do aspire to have – and in some cases have had and continue to have – an influence over how national policy and strategy are moulded, as will be shown. The ultimate point that this article thus attempts to convey is that those who may be said to comprise the strategic fraternity, howsoever defined, should not evade their responsibility for the formation of bad strategy.

Good judgement… a commodity in short supply?

Approaching matters prudentially – asking the questions about what one is seeking to achieve at proportional cost – is no guarantee of future success but it is one of the tenets that underpins the notion of ‘good judgement’: a mixture of sound reasoning and appreciation of context, along with an intuitive grasp of what constitutes a sensibly pragmatic response to the circumstances in which one finds oneself. This, again, may be the most approximate way that one can capture this most elusive of attributes.

The practice of good judgement – good strategy – is a classic case of easier said than done. Deciding on a preferable course of action must often be made in conditions of uncertainty, sometimes in the presence of a wilful adversary who is seeking to assert its interests against your own.[ii] All manner of circumstances mitigates against the exercise of good judgement – time constraints, pressure to act, lack of resources, lack of knowledge: all those elements that the Prussian soldier-scholar of war, Carl von Clausewitz, argued comprise ‘fog and friction’ that made the simplest of things in strategy difficult.[iii]

All of this may be true, and obvious. But why, my students wonder, has the evidence of good judgement – the willingness to act with due consideration to potential costs and consequences – been so notably lacking in contemporary Western politics? They have a point. It is a question that I have increasingly pondered. Those of us who write about what constitutes ‘good strategy’, and who have sought to teach its principles to generations of undergraduates, post-graduates and working professionals in public service do not have much to be proud of judging by the lack of success our efforts seem to have produced.

The roll call of failure

A register of Western strategic failure in the current era is hard to ignore. A pattern of sustained error has been demonstrated particularly, though not exclusively, in the realms of foreign policy. The low point was the humiliating end of the twenty-year military commitment in Afghanistan, concluding in the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces in the summer of 2021.[iv] Afghanistan was merely the culmination of a series of setbacks and miscalculations, which includes the by now familiar roll call of Iraq, Libya, and Syria – amongst others – where Western interventions manifestly failed to fulfil their original policy aims at proportionate cost.[v]

These calamities succeeded only in eroding Western power and prestige, collapsing functioning – if imperfect – systems of governance, causing widespread regional instability, while inflicting enormous human suffering. The proximate reason for these tragedies is often laid at the door of a reckless advocacy of regime change and military intervention after 2001. Rhetorically this advocacy intended to pre-empt threats to Western security after 9/11 by striking at bases that supposedly incubated jihadist conspiracies. By almost any metric, the consequences were not better than the conditions that preceded them.[vi]

More controversially still, the impetus behind these misadventures derived from an ideologically driven belief that externally induced regime change would enable countries to re-make themselves along more liberal democratic lines.[vii] Through such a process, the thinking went, societies and regions would bring themselves into alignment with a liberal international order that would be congenial to Western, and specifically U.S., interests. In the words of one its leading exponents, Charles Krauthammer, the U.S. should ‘lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them’.[viii]

Discounting geopolitics?

That these grand strategic programmes did not play out as their architects hoped, underlines a broader critique of Western foreign and military policy, which maintains that for the better part of two-decades geopolitical realities have been neglected in favour of ethicist based abstractions that wish to fashion the world on the basis of what ‘ought’ to be, rather than what ‘is’.[ix] Ideas like the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine that, in theory, legitimises military intervention in the internal affairs of states in times of extreme crisis, or the belief that admitting China into the World Trade Organization in 2002 would moderate the People’s Republic’s hegemonic ambitions and inculcate it into the norms of good regional citizenship, are taken as symbols of this misplaced idealism.[x]

As far back as the 2010s critical appraisals emerged from seasoned foreign policy watchers lamenting a decline in the rigour of Western strategic formulation. Such commentary opined that Western nations were ‘distracted [and] weak’, susceptible to being outmanoeuvred on the world stage by the likes of Russia and China, who pursued their national interests unencumbered by notions that geopolitics was somehow ‘old-fashioned and unappealing’.[xi] Writing in 2014, Charles Powell, former foreign policy adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, complained that a ‘false doctrine of soft power’ and ‘creeping legalism’ made it increasingly ‘hard to galvanise democratic societies to meet new threats’.[xii]

The systematic malfunctions in foreign and military policy speaks to a paradox. It is in those countries that constitute the generic West, most notably the Anglophone countries of the United States and the United Kingdom, where a reflective practice of strategic thought is explicitly cultivated, be it in institutes and think tanks, university departments and courses, books, and academic journals. Much of this intellectual endeavour is directed towards identifying national security priorities, evaluating the ‘lessons’ of history, and the pre-conditions for policy implementation.[xiii] In other words, the precepts of good strategic practice. Yet, it is from within this socio-intellectual milieu, and the broader national polities whence they originate, that has yielded so many examples of recent strategic failure.

Strategic humility

All this can become personally embarrassing. For several years I have given lectures to Oman’s National Defence College on the principles of strategic thought. In the past two years, I have felt the need to acknowledge that perhaps my value in standing before these mid/senior level military officers is as a representative of a general construct that has in recent decades been responsible for the production of so much flawed strategy. Images of decimated cityscapes across the Middle East or the anarchic sight of U.S. military transport aircraft departing from Kabul surrounded by crowds of civilians, are sufficient to make the point. I wonder why they would want to listen to me, or indeed any other know-it-all flown in from one of the prestige centres of strategic learning in the West to preach at them about the theories of ‘good strategy’?

An acknowledgement of Western strategic deficiency does, though, strike a chord with my Omani audience. They see the results of Western foreign policy mistakes all around them, but – I sense – are receptive to someone prepared to concede that there are systemic defects, and that Western based ‘experts’ do not have all the answers. Humility, I have come to understand, is perhaps the one unimpeachable component of ‘good strategy’.

Nevertheless, the self-recognition that I do not occupy a position of Olympian detachment on the matters of good strategic practice, usually provides a stimulus for excellent discussions about why Western strategic policy has proved so deficient. Such discussions provide the gateway into a subject that is, to my mind, not nearly discussed enough in the circles that debate strategy: namely, that while much time is dedicated to detailing the rules of ‘good strategy’, little time is dedicated to identifying the roots of bad strategy.

The problem is proportionality not actionability

Works like Richard Rumelt’s, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, have sought to describe the contours of bad strategy. Good strategy, according to Rumelt, is the concentration of resources and focus towards resolving the ‘crux’ of specific problems.[xiv] Bad strategies, on the other hand, are nebulous aspirational statements that define no actionable objectives.[xv] Though Rumelt’s observations contain much relevance for non-state organisations, be they businesses or bureaucracies, they have less specificity for policy and strategy at the national level where the theoretical signifiers of bad strategy are less evident. After all, the failures of contemporary Western strategy are rarely because they were devoid of actionable goals. The problem is not that they have lacked action. It is that they have lacked proportion.

The question is why do Western nations seem to have a problem with taking actions at proportional cost? Historical reflection suggests that prudential calculations of how to advance national goals were in previous eras put at far more of a premium. A case in point was the way Britain managed the growth of its empire. That a small maritime nation for nearly 150 years succeeded in controlling a third of the world’s land surface, often with fewer administrators than a large city council, indicates a high level of strategic management, which balanced resources with perceived needs in multiple theatres.[xvi] When the era of decolonisation dawned, moreover, the calculation became one of withdrawing from empire at minimum cost and on the best possible terms with new post-imperial governments.[xvii]

All this is not to argue that policy makers in the past were not susceptible to miscalculations and that foreign and strategic policies have since the end of the Cold War been everywhere wrong or futile. The Coalition effort to eject Iraq from Kuwait in 1990/91 was a model demonstration of how to wage a contained conflict for specific goals. While the utility of Western strategy in the Balkans in the mid/late 1990s – in Bosnia and Kosovo – can be debated, the cumulative impact of NATO-led military actions was to steer these conflicts towards a conclusion. British intervention to deal with the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000 is generally rated a success.[xviii]

The rise of anti-strategy: a case of serial repeat-offending

Even so, it is hard to deny that much has gone awry, certainly in Anglo-American strategic planning, both in concept and execution since 2001. To reiterate, the problem is the inability to relate to problems proportionately, with a propensity to get drawn into wars of extended duration, or else attempting ill-thought through acts of regime change.[xix] Lest anyone think that this is an exaggeration, or that it is somehow a bit unfair to blame policy failures on ‘strategists’ who are entirely innocent of the foolish decisions of politicians, let us reflect upon the advocacy of those in the academic and policy analysis sphere who, regardless of whether they would choose to describe themselves as strategists, nevertheless have clearly aspired to have an influence upon U.S. strategy.

In a ‘Letter to President Clinton on Iraq’ of 26 January 1998, various luminaries representing the Project for a New American Century including Francis Fukuyama, Paula Dobriansky, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, William Schneider, amongst others – every one of them highly credentialled members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, armed with Ivy League degrees, ensconced in prestigious Washington think-tanks, or sinecures at renowned universities – urged the President to ‘enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim above all at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power’. They continued: ‘The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing’. The signatories went onto state that they were ‘fully aware of the dangers and difficulties’ but if the President acted decisively, he would be ‘acting in the most fundamental national security interests of the country’.[xx]

The explicit rejection of the principles of prudence and proportionality in this advocacy were laid out even more glaringly in a January 2002 paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, by Robert Kagan and William Kristol, which lambasted those ‘who argued for limiting American involvement overseas, for avoiding the use of ground troops, for using force in a limited way and only as a last resort, for steering clear of nation-building, for exit strategies and burden-sharing – those who prided themselves on their prudence and realism’. ‘If we fail to address the grave threat we know exist’, the authors intoned, ‘what will we tell the families of future victims? That they were “prudent”?’[xxi]

One trusts that these quotations above speak for themselves and require no elaboration in terms of their strategic nescience.[xxii] They illustrate how an almost anti-strategy way of thinking is embedded in sections – and influential sections at that – of the Western foreign policy establishment.[xxiii] There are many levels of explanation that might account for this particular pathology of Western strategic failure,[xxiv] but for the purposes of igniting a debate, let me posit the following hypothesis: the roots of bad strategy over the past two decades resides in the continuing influence of a total war mentality.

The distorting influence of total war

Total war – the idea that all national efforts should be galvanised towards titanic struggles for survival – resonates in the Western consciousness as the path to victory in both world wars:[xxv] the prevailing side being the one most able to comprehensively mobilise society towards collective goals, bear the costs, and wear down the other side to exhaustion.[xxvi] The total war mindset was one that transferred easily into the Cold War era, with the ideological clash between the Soviet and U.S.-led alliance blocs: a clash that was to yield a clear victor with the collapse of the USSR in 1990/91. However, it is the enduring sense that totalising solutions should be applied to problems which this study contends is responsible for much strategic failure.

Notions of total war frame a Manichean view of victory and defeat, which undermines prudential reasoning in favour of expansive objectives, which are often conceived in terms of a stark morality of good versus evil. The persistence of moral dichotomies into the post-Cold War era informed the U.S. Administration’s ‘war on terror’ and ‘Axis of evil’ rhetoric after 9/11, which legitimised the targeting of states of concern for possible military intervention.[xxvii] More generally, the prolongation of a total war mentality can be observed in how a warlike idiom permeated public and policy discourse after 1945 in relation to non-warlike phenomena, be it the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on poverty’, the ‘war on cancer’, and the ‘war on alcoholism’.[xxviii]

Recently this tendency was evidenced by the ‘war on covid’. The British Medical Journal noted how speech around Covid-19 was flooded with biomilitary metaphors about patients being ‘struck with illness’, and where physicians ‘were the warriors deployed to the front lines’.[xxix] The rhetoric of winning the fight against the pandemic was widely applied in the media and government.[xxx] The totalising implications of this outlook were manifest in the practical responses to the Covid-19 era that saw governments assume vast powers to direct national efforts towards ‘beating the virus’ – closing schools and businesses, restricting human contact, enforcing social-distancing, mandating masks and vaccines, and making it difficult, if not quasi-illegal, for anyone to question the efficacy of these measures.[xxxi]

The influence of total war thinking during this era was not latent, but clearly articulated. Writing in late 2020, one U.S. analyst, for example, stated that ‘Clausewitz would almost certainly endorse a national COVID-19 strategy and war effort in which the government executes its powers to compel the entire nation state into a uniform response and ensure that all resources are concentrated in the pursuit of fighting the same kind of war as everyone else’.[xxxii] Such sentiments are not dissimilar from those offered by the progenitors of total war thinking, like Erich Ludendorff’s, overtly anti-Clausewitzian, 1935 tract Der Totale Krieg.[xxxiii]

Leaving aside the question as to whether it is plausible to speak of divining Clausewitz’s response to Covid-19 from beyond the grave, let alone whether applying militarised language to non-violent medical or social challenges represents a coherent understanding of war, the rhetoric of total war places the notion of proportionality and prudence at a discount. It is a lens through which socio-political problems, no matter how limited or potentially containable, determines that they must be met with an overwhelming response.

The totalising mind

And this goes to the root of what often constitutes bad strategy. A totalising mind is usually an ideologically fixated one. While a fixated mind can articulate a focal point for action, it is one that is often inflexible, and unwilling to concede that it might be wrong. The price to be paid for proving its error, moreover, is inordinately high. It is a mindset that takes over fifty thousand combat deaths and $141 billion to affirm that trying to prevent a corrupt state like South Vietnam from falling to the communists in the North was not worth the effort.[xxxiv]

It is an outlook that must witness years of insurgency against occupying forces and the infliction of a devastating sectarian civil war on a country, the de facto control of which was later handed over to Iran, to show that invading Iraq was futile, especially when no weapons of mass destruction could be found and when the people made it clear they were none too enamoured with being ‘liberated’.[xxxv] It is a mentality that can only be convinced of the follies of nation-building in a country like Afghanistan after the vast wastage of human and material resources expended over a twenty-year period.[xxxvi]

For that matter, it is also a state of mind that is prepared to tolerate enormous expenditure – trillions of dollars – along with numerous other social harms, imposed with the intention of halting the spread of a virus, all to achieve an outcome which studies suggest may only have reduced mortality rates by 0.2 percent.[xxxvii] Contrary to the strategic clairvoyants who invoked Clausewitz’s name to ‘endorse a unified, nationally directed response to COVID-19, because it more effectively concentrates force and promotes shared understanding of the objectives of the war’,[xxxviii] one authoritative study by Johns Hopkins University concluded that lockdowns ‘are ill-founded and should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument’.[xxxix]

All of which is to say that these examples illustrate that lack of proportion, excessive and inordinately costly responses, seem baked into Western policy formation, often because they are cast in terms of an essential ‘investment’ in national security.[xl] Poor strategic choices are not simply the product of a few unfortunate miscalculations. This is a record of serial repeat offending. The question, which rarely seems to get asked, is why? What is the cause of this enduring strategic recidivism? The provisional answer this argument has advanced is that it is the preponderant influence of total war thinking. But can one get any further beyond this observation?

Totalisation and the people

Totalising responses may be cogent in times of supreme emergency where national survival is placed in jeopardy. When the stakes are this high, as they were for many states in World War II, much of the populace is likely to see – or be persuaded of – the necessity for large-scale sacrifices. They are likely also to accept the need for unrestricted objectives such as the policy of unconditional surrender, which demanded the invasion, occupation and – in the case of Germany – dismemberment of adversaries as the requirement for victory.

People, in other words, discern the response as proportionate to the threat being confronted. It is, though, the tendency towards applying the prism of total war to threats and situations that cannot be said to endanger the physical survival of nations that represents the most pernicious aspect of strategic thinking, or what passes for strategic thinking, in the post-total war era. How to explain this curious feature of current day Western strategic responses?

One way to approach an answer is to appreciate that the total wars of the twentieth century were manifestations of wars of the people: they involved the mobilisation of entire populations against one another.[xli] To sustain this level of commitment over time required wide popular support. A shared fate and the desire to defend a particular national way of life were prerequisites for total war to exist as a coherent idea. It is the popular consensus for action that enables total wars to be prosecuted.

The question is, then, what happens in the absence of totalising causes? In 1998, after the end of the last total struggle – the Cold War – the philosopher Anthony Giddens proclaimed that the nations of the West were ‘without enemies’ and the prospects for large-scale inter-state war unlikely.[xlii] Rather than heralding a period of laissez faire peace, where individual states could be left to their own devices, those like Giddens envisaged a new grand strategic project where ‘it was no longer utopian to connect issues of national and global governance’.[xliii] A ‘liberal imperialist posture’ aiming to impose a democratic ‘rules’ based global order was to replace the era of superpower struggle.[xliv]

Unlimited aims in an age of non-total threats

The total war predisposition is one that is underpinned by a comprehensive ideological agenda. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the continuation of a total war mentality revealed itself in the perpetuation of an all-encompassing liberal teleology: an idealistic cause to create a ‘New World Order’. This appealed to many Western political elites at the ‘end of history’.[xlv] A single, overarching strategic narrative thus displaced more sceptical and prudential appreciations of the national interest, in favour of military interventions based on the espousal of cosmopolitan normative values.

The strategic problem here is that totalising ideologies cannot maintain coherence without the ‘total’ support of the population. The sacrifices demanded to uphold a liberal international order, be it interventions to displace ‘rogue’ regimes in the Middle East or to maintain Western support of Ukraine against Russia, are – in the absence of direct threats to national survival – unlikely to garner the full support of the populace, who proceed to question the wisdom of throwing human and material resources at problems that do not yield clear and realisable objectives. Totalising liberal aspirations that aim to ‘defend democracy’ or ensure ‘social justice’ begin to outrun the willingness of people to support imprecise, open-ended goals. Sections of the populace come to question the proportionality of the response and the domestic consensus for the strategy breaks down.

We have seen this pattern play out time and again in Western policy. The issue is already presaging a faultline in U.S. politics over the Russia-Ukraine war, with Republicans likely to contest the next presidential election in 2024 on the cost of aiding Ukraine and whether U.S. national interests are being served. By contrast President Joe Biden’s foreign policy team invoke a Wilsonian/Manichean worldview where democracy is pitched against autocracy, and freedom vs. tyranny.[xlvi] The latter line is promoted by many governments, political parties, and mainstream media outlets in the West often with little reflection. In this manner, grand strategy – a potentially useful term to describe the effort to unify national focus and resources – is stretched and manipulated in pursuit of totalistic progressive abstractions like human rights, global justice, and increasingly climate change and environmental sustainability, in a way that leaves students of prudential diplomacy and statecraft bemused, and a great deal of the public alienated.[xlvii]

Conclusion: the real roots of rotten strategy?

Not nearly enough attention, this study maintains, is devoted to discovering the causes of defective strategy. Dissecting how poor judgement, disproportionate responses, and a lack of prudential reasoning arises might enable better choices to be made in the future.

A totalising liberal idealism promoted in an age of non-total threats is therefore one level of explanation that accounts for the poor strategic outcomes witnessed in recent times. When populations do not perceive themselves to be in mortal danger or at war with opposing ideas or nations, they are unlikely to accept the trade-offs and long-term commitments demanded of them by others who inhabit a neo-total war mindset. The outstanding question is why policymaking has become substantially detached from popular consent, and continues to perpetuate a total war way of thinking?

There are many possible layers of explanation here regarding the social forces pushing Western societies towards a post-democratic age,[xlviii] where new elites seek to exclude the popular voice,[xlix] but one notable result has been to confine strategic matters within a technique of specialist advocacy that is often dismissive of popular sentiments, because they are seen as unsophisticated and out of step with expansive liberal cosmopolitan norms.[l] It is this technocratic coterie who credentialise themselves as experts in grand strategy and appoint themselves as arbiters of what they consider effective policy making.

We arrive, then, at something of a paradox. It is as if good strategy – if the past three decades is anything to go by – exists in inverse proportion to the number of students and centres of learning dedicated to studying strategy. Seemingly, the greater the highbrow effort devoted to expostulating about grand strategy the worse the outcomes.

In the final analysis we are left to wrestle with the most ironic of questions, which is are we part of the problem? Are we who traffic in the currency of strategic learning, responsible for promoting an almost gnostic idea that strategy is a form of secret knowledge, available only to a few select initiates and certainly beyond the reach of the common person to apprehend,[li] whose views should, naturally, be excluded from any consideration?

Are we, who pretend to the knowledge of what constitutes good strategy, the real harbingers of bad strategy?


[i] M.L.R. Smith, ‘On efficacy: A beginners guide to strategic theory’, Military Strategy Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 10-17.
[ii] See Lawrence Freedman, ‘The master strategist is still a myth’, War on the Rocks, 14 October 2014,
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 119-121.
[iv] Graeme Herd, ‘The causes and the consequences of strategic failure in Afghanistan?’ George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, 21 August 2021,
[v] Michael Clarke, ‘Afghanistan and the UK’s illusion of strategy’, RUSI Commentary, 16 August 2021,
[vi] See Anthony H. Cordesman, America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East: Losing Iraq and the Gulf (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2020), pp. 1-14.
[vii] Benjamin Denison, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same: The failure of regime change’, Policy Analysis, No. 883, Cato Institute, Washington, DC, January 6, 2020; Sam Meyerson, ‘How to fail at regime change’, Harvard Political Review, 22 January 2020,
[viii] Charles Krauthammer, ‘The unipolar moment’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 1 (1990–91), p. 33.
[ix] David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, ‘History restarted: The return of the Machiavellian moment’, War on the Rocks, 23 September 2015,
[x] Mina Al-Oraibi, ‘“Responsibility to Protect” is just one more casualty of the Syrian war’, Foreign Policy, 14 June 2021,; Faisal Islam, ‘How the west invited China to eat its lunch’, BBC News, 10 December 2021,
[xi] Edward Lucas, ‘Ukraine protests: we’re letting Putin win’, Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2014.
[xii] Charles Powell, ‘The West will pay for losing its backbone in Iraq and Ukraine’, Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2014.
[xiii] See Linda Robinson, Paul. D Miller, John Gordon IV, Jeffrey Decker, Michael Schwille and Raphael S. Cohen, Lessons From 13 Years of War Point to a Better U.S. Strategy (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation 2014).
[xiv] Richard P. Rumelt, The Crux: How Leaders Become Strategists (London: Profile, 2022).
[xv] Richard P. Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (London: Profile. 2011).
[xvi] See Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Boston: Little Brown, 1997).
[xvii] See John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[xviii] Andrew Dorman, Blair’s Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone (London: Routledge, 2009).
[xix] A. Trevor Thrall and Eric Goepner, ‘Step back: Lessons for US foreign policy of the failed war on terror’, Policy Analysis, Cato Institute, No. 814, 26 June 2017,
[xx] Eliott Abrams, et al, ‘Letter to President Clinton on Iraq’, 26 January 1998, Project for a New American Century. See ‘1998 Letter on Iraq’, New York Times, 3 December 2001,
[xxi] Robert Kagan and William Kristol, ‘What to do about Iraq?’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 21 January 2002 (reprinted from The Weekly Standard, 21 January 2002).
[xxii] These quotations also demonstrate that strategic failures cannot be ascribed simply to the idea that U.S. interventions lose the run of themselves, beginning with limited strategic intent and then involuntarily ending up in crusades to transform the target society into a version of America. The evidence cited here shows that the elements of a messianic mission to re-cast societies and regions are prior assumptions ingrained in these advocacies.
[xxiii] See James Wirtz, ‘Fooling all the people some of the time’, Review of John M. Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics and American Democracy, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 31, No. 4 (2018), pp. 843-847.
[xxiv] Here we might note, among other things, the influence of commercial interests in fuelling foreign military adventures, but also in particular, the lack of penalties for analytical failure. Analysts have not suffered any injury to their careers for predictive ineptitude or reckless advocacy in recent years and in many cases, they continue to prosper in their sinecures or advance further through the corridors of power. The correlation is therefore obvious, if no sanction attaches to lack of aptitude, then repeated incompetence is the logical outcome.
[xxv] See Peter Calvocorressi and Guy Wint, Total War: The Story of World War II (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
[xxvi] William Philpott, ‘Total war’, in Matthew Hughes and William Philpott (eds.), Palgrave Advances in Modern Military History (London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006), pp. 131-152.
[xxvii] David Frum, ‘The enduring lessons from the “Axis of Evil” speech’, The Atlantic, 29 January 2022,
[xxviii] ‘War on drugs: Unites States history’, Britannica,; ‘War on poverty: United States history, Britannica,; ‘The “war on cancer “isn’t yet won’, Nature, 19 January 2022,; ‘Pharmacists declare war on alcoholism month’, National Today, 13 June 2023,
[xxix] Katherine A.A. Clark, S. Elissa Altin, ‘Calling time on the use of war metaphors in covid-19’, BMJ, No. 377, 13 May 2022,
[xxx] Poonam Khetrapal Singh, ‘Together, forward in the fight against COVID-19’, World Health Organisation, 10 May 2020,; Sam Baker and Andrew Whetherspoon, ‘America is finally winning its fight against the coronavirus’, Axios, 13 May 2021,
[xxxi] Kevin Rawlinson, ‘This enemy can be deadly: Boris Johnson invokes war time language’, The Guardian, 18 March 2020,
[xxxii] Jordan Beauregard, ‘Covid-19 and Clausewtiz (Masters of War Part 2)’, Wavell Room, 15 October 2020,
[xxxiii] Erich Ludendorff, Der Totale Krieg (Munich: Ludendorffs Verlag, 1935).
[xxxiv] ‘US spent $141-billion in Vietnam in 14 years’, New York Times, 1 May 1975.
[xxxv] Ron Suskind, ‘Faith, certainty and the presidency of George W. Bush’, New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004,
[xxxvi] Kori Schake, Jim Mattis, Jim Ellis, and Joe Felter, ‘Defence in depth: Why U.S. security depends on alliances—now more than ever’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 99, No. 6 (November/December 2020),
[xxxvii] James Herby, Lars Jonung and Steve H. Hanke, ‘A literature review and meta-analysis of the effects of lockdowns on covid-19 mortality’, Studies in Applied Economics (Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise), No. 200, January 2022.
[xxxviii] Beauregard, ‘Covid-19 and Clausewitz (Masters of War Part 2)’.
[xxxix] Herby, Jonung and Hanke, ‘A literature review and meta-analysis of the effects of lockdowns on covid-19 mortality’, p. 43.
[xl] Schake, Mattis, Ellis, and Felter, ‘Defence in depth’.
[xli] Kate Clements, Paul Cornish, Vikki Hawkins, Margaret Macmillan, Total War: A People’s History (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2021).
[xlii] Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 1998), p. 140.
[xliii] Ibid., p. 140.
[xliv] John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Imperial by design’, National Interest, No. 111 (January-February 2011), p. 19.
[xlv] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
[xlvi] Walter Russell Mead, ‘The cost of Biden’s “democracy” fixation’, Wall Street Journal, 3 April 2023,
[xlvii] Charlotte Hume, ‘Grand strategy in an age of climate change: A theory of emergent grand strategy’, The Strategy Bridge, 29 September 2019;; Laura Leddy, ‘A grand strategy for the climate’, American Security Project, 20 October 2019;; Elizabeth G. Boulton, ‘Plan E: A grand strategy for the twenty-first era of entangled security and hyperthreats’, Journal of Military Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2022), pp. 92-128.
[xlviii] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).
[xlix] Matthew Goodwin, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics (London: Penguin, 2023).
[l] Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
[li] See for example, William Kristol, ‘Surge’s success going unnoticed’, CBS News, 19 March 2007,