I’m watching on C-SPAN a book talk by S. M. Plokhy on his new book Yalta: The Price of Peace. The talk is going on in a small-room format at Harvard University. A woman in the audience has just challenged Plokhy’s belief that Stalin was very intelligent by arguing that nobody who killed so many people as Stalin did could possibly be intelligent, that murder was incompatible with smarts.
This is not an isolated incident. I was immediately reminded of a book review I once read of a work on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, I think it was Charles Shrader’s The Muslim-Croat Civil War in Central Bosnia: A Military History, 1992-1994, which criticized Shrader for speaking highly of the military capability of the Bosnian-Croat forces, despite the fact that they were (according to the reviewer) on the wrong side of the moral divide. I also recall how often Saddam Hussein has been called “incompetent.” Jeffrey Record, John Robb, among others have done this.
(On Saddam: I believe he was a man of remarkable capabilities. Not many people I know could have clawed their way to the top of such a murderous political system as existed in Iraq and survived there for 25 years. Admittedly, his performance against the United States wasn’t exemplary, but he optimized his military and security apparatus to deal with what, reasonably enough, appeared to him as more proximate threats: internal challenges, and Iran and Israel. For great explanation of this, see the works of my friend Kevin Woods: this and this.)
I am hard-pressed to think of a more dangerous mistake than assuming that those of whom we do not approve must be stupid. Laymen can, perhaps, be forgiven for making such mistakes but those of us who think about security-related topic must never, ever engage in such flabby, self-righteous thinking. To do so is to court disaster. Whenever one is inclined to assess a foreign leader as stupid, ask how he/she got into his/her position. Consider what the incentive structures operating on this person are. Whenever one is inclined to think a foreign military force incompetent, mentally put American uniforms (or the uniform of your choice), and see if they still look incompetent.
Certainly there are stupid leaders and there are incompetent military forces, our adversaries are not all ten feet tall, but let’s be judicious in our contempt–unless we actually enjoy unpleasant surprises.