I have just finished reading Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, which seeks to provide answers to why the “best and brightest”, who, after skilfully navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis, led the US into the tragic Vietnam War. President Barack Obama’s team, apparently, diligently studied this period of history when they drew up the new administration’s Afghanistan policy — a longer campaign than Vietnam.

My own personal interest was sparked by my own conversations at Harvard about how, and why, the US and Great Britain became embroiled in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. I have been privileged to hear a wide range of perspectives ranging from former UK prime ministers Tony Blair (in church of course!) and Gordon Brown, to the former US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, to a former head of Pakistan’s intelligence service. At a breakfast, Brown spoke very generally, but interestingly, about the need to now re-examine the “just war” thesis and develop a new concept of “just peace”.

It is against this backdrop that I have carefully considered McNamara’s works and, in particular, his famous ninth lesson in The Fog of War that “in order to do good you have to sometimes engage in evil”. This lesson has been integral to the world of statecraft from Machiavelli’s Florence to today’s nuclear era. South Africa’s courageous freedom fighters must have grappled with this most difficult of questions, too.

The first difficultly in evaluating this question is to define the term “good”. A “good” outcome ultimately hinges upon if you are the victor or the vanquished. One must therefore clearly define “ethical” and “effective” leadership as a function of good leadership. Joseph Nye — who came to know McNamara in 1987 when they worked together on an oral history of the Cuban Missile Crisis at Harvard — believes that both the ethics and effectiveness of leadership can be judged in three dimensions: goals, means and consequences. Effective leadership is characterised by efficiency in achieving the goals, while ethical leadership is dependent on the quality of the operation. A leader’s effectiveness is also directly linked to the ethical consideration for the loser as well as the winner. Nelson Mandela provides the gold standard of this truth.

An ethical and effective leader, in a time of war, must ask how much force, proportionality, is required to change the tide of events in their favour without resorting to gratuitous violence. However, when one recalls that America’s bombing campaign in Vietnam exceeded all the bombs dropped by all sides in WWII, proportionality is one of the murkiest of just war theories.

Within the context of McNamara’s ninth lesson, one is led to ask: was the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities in WWII, in which 100 000 civilians died, justified? If the detonation of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki expedited Japan’s surrender and the end of the war, were the unprecedented human death toll and subsequent nuclear arms race a price worth paying for the Allies’ victory? When I made this observation in an exam paper, Nye wrote in the margin “would that have occurred anyway?” The counterfactual is always fascinating.

It is also now forgotten that bitter questions were asked in the House of Commons when, one month earlier, Winston Churchill had given the order to bomb Dresden where tens of thousands of innocent Germans were killed in a series of British and American raids that produced an enormous firestorm.

McNamara later realised that there were flaws in the American approach when evaluating the Vietnam War. That deception and excessive force tend to be counterproductive. That greater consideration had to be given to the consequences, as well as the means, of American statecraft. It is a pity George W Bush probably never read In Retrospect before his “War on Terror”.

Thus, the challenge for the ethical and effective leader must be to know when and where, to use a metaphor, to find the hairline crack, take up the chisel and hammer, and deal a strong and decisive blow.

The related “problem of dirty hands” describes the extent to which leaders may wield political authority to perform acts that would be perceived as evil if they were performed in the private realm. The line between the public and private realm is a fine and grey one. At what point does the Abrahamic principle of not taking an innocent life collapse before the burden of far worse consequences?

In the South African context, Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders pursued the armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa that resulted in the deaths of innocent people including, on occasion, children. Yet today only the most ardent white supremacist would describe Mandela as an evil terrorist, but many whites once did. Margaret Thatcher once disgracefully described the ANC as “terrorists”. Yet “to do good”, the banned ANC had “to engage in evil” because the tools of passive resistance and international sanctions were not working. Former president FW de Klerk told me in 2002 that he believed that it would be “unscientific” to quantify which strategy was the most decisive, but he was clear that the armed struggle played a pivotal role in ending apartheid. In any case, most judge that Mandela’s actions were proportional to the evil being perpetrated.

(As an aside, in my diplomacy class last week, led by one of America’s most senior diplomats and former ambassador to Nato, Nick Burns, we examined Madiba’s leadership. Though moved by their admiration for Mandela and knowledge of the transition, I was surprised that my classmates knew little about how violent this period was. Although one group did ask if Mandela should have seen Mangosuthu Buthelezi when he was released to try and stop the violence between the ANC and Inkatha warlords in Natal).

It equally follows from the premise of the ninth lesson that it is not axiomatic that good intentions and “moral clarity” are one and the same. To use the hackneyed cliché, the “road to perdition (can be) paved with good intentions”.

We saw this in Blair’s evangelical sense of moral certitude. In the style of a Pentecostal preacher, he would — still does — frequent intone, “I did what I thought was right for our country” in justifying the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Yet it is held by many that Blair, inspired by the ethical doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” was culpable of, at least, “inaccurate précis” about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction programme which provided the foundation for the British government’s casus belli.

If there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Blair’s situation, like that of Bush, would have exemplified the dilemma of a leader who must choose between respecting persons or acting for the greater good. This cuts to the heart of the ninth lesson. The judgment exercised was, I think, to determine if respecting the Iraqi people by not invading might have led to greater carnage in the future? Bush and Blair would have perhaps emerged with their leadership credibility more intact if, ironically, they had not gilded their case, like evangelists do, in starkly defined moral terms of good and evil.

The debate around the ninth lesson and dirty hands is therefore, unsurprisingly, knotted with contradictory tensions: the intuitive values of leaders themselves; the consequences of intervention and, (insert Vietnam or Iraq), the search for realistic alternatives and the weighing of likely outcomes.

Deceptions employed by Franklin D Roosevelt in leading the US into WWII tend today to be downplayed because most people now believe he pursued the right policy in terms of global security. So the question of when does the means justify the ends is a highly subjective one, particularly when viewed through the prism of hindsight. Had, in terms of the counterfactual, the bombing of Hiroshima failed to obviate a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands, the case for its “goodness” would be nearly impossible to make.

In retrospect, will future generations judge — that by committing troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, a worse catastrophe, such as the need to invade Iran, was averted — Bush’s and Blair’s decision, if not the ethics that underpinned it, more favourably? I suspect not in this example because the US is likely to blink first and resume diplomacy with Tehran. Why? Iran, unlike Saddam, does possess weapons of mass destruction.

In the world of statecraft the choice is rarely between right and wrong, but more often requires an ability to discern between shades of grey, and “right versus right”. One would conclude that a leader with a heightened sense of possessing “dirty hands” is more likely to act upon the elusive intersection of ethical and effective leadership than the one who sets themselves up as a moral paragon. This may — or may not — be of some comfort to President Jacob Zuma, the heir to the ANC’s founding fathers, when he bats for South Africa in the world’s corridors of power.


  • Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service Fellowship. Jon is the speechwriter to Democratic Alliance Leader, Helen Zille. He has also served as the speechwriter to the leader of the official opposition, private secretary to elder statesman, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and, briefly, as the Head of Ministry of Transport and Public Works in the Democratic Alliance-led Western Cape Provincial Government. He spent time at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London in 2011 working on the Faith and Globalisation, and Faiths Acts programmes. In 2000 he worked as a consultant policy writer for the then Democratic Party. [email protected] Twitter: jonthekaizer


Jon Cayzer

Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service...

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