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The Fog of War: Lessons One and Two

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  1. Introduction
  2. Lesson One: 'Empathize with Your Enemy'
  3. Lesson Two: 'Rationality Will Not Save Us'
  4. Contemporary foreign policy issue: Terrorism
  5. Conclusion

Through the process of critical oral history, Robert McNamara has re-evaluated his experience as the Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. Filmmaker Errol Morris shaped his documentary The Fog of War around eleven lessons from the life of McNamara. The first two lessons are ?Empathize with your enemy? and ?Rationality will not save us.? They are useful to think about for future foreign policy making, even though they have limits. The contemporary issue of terrorism shows how applicable the lessons are.
In the documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara gives a clear definition of empathy: ?We must try to put ourselves inside their [our enemies'] skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.? Empathy is different from sympathy; it does not imply having feelings, but rather it implies understanding the thoughts and feelings of one's enemy (Ralph K. White). R. White goes further by stating that decision-makers are wrong when they do not see their opponents' fear, anger, and longing for peace .
The Cuban Missile Crisis is the best-known case of empathy. In 1962, U.S. foreign policy makers did not trust Khrushchev. On October 26 and 27, the Kennedy administration received two letters from the Soviet leader: first a private letter offering the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba in exchange for a U.S. promise of non-invasion of Cuba, then a public letter adding the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey to the deal. Kennedy concluded that the public letter was the official position of USSR. He felt that the Soviets were likely to attack the U.S. missiles in Turkey if they were not satisfied by the American response. The only member of the ExComm who dared contradicting the President was Llewellyn ?Tommy? Thompson, former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow. Thompson, who had lived close to Khrushchev in Moscow, perceived that the Soviet leader was willing to avoid a conflict. He said to Kennedy: ?The important thing for Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say: ?I saved Cuba. I stopped an invasion.'? Thompson was right; President Kennedy responded to the private letter, and a nuclear war was avoided. After the crisis, the two countries reached the conclusion that more communication and understanding was necessary; therefore, the Hotline linking the White House with the Kremlin was established in 1963. During a discussion in Cambridge in 1987, Robert McNamara learned that the Soviet missiles had been deployed in Cuba because of the fear of an imminent U.S. invasion of Cuba. Twenty-five years later, it was still hard for the former Soviet decision-makers to believe that the United States had no plan to invade Cuba after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Soviets, as well as the Americans, had failed to occupy their enemy's mindset.

[...] The two scholars underline the importance of ethnography, which is a branch of anthropology aiming at interpreting alien cultures, and comparing and contrasting cultures. Of course, empathy alone will not save us; strict non-proliferation controls are also necessary. They require a stronger international community, which is not easy to achieve. As we saw in Lesson Two, great powers like the United States and Russia have signed non-proliferation treaties, but small powers, such as Iran, Pakistan, or North Korea, claim their right to develop nuclear programs. [...]


[...] Lesson Two: ?Rationality Will Not Save In The Fog of War, James Blight and Janet Lang explain that at the end of the Cold War, three measures were taken to avoid the possibility of being as close to a nuclear war as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, tried to maintain a balance of nuclear capabilities, build safeguards around launch procedures in order to prevent an irrational leader to act impulsively, and develop a more sophisticated technology to avoid wrong assessments. [...]


[...] Admittedly, the abolition of nuclear weapons is backed by a certain number of leaders and former leaders, but they are still a minority. When we observe the beginning of the 21st century, it seems that the opposite tendency has been occurring: more and more leaders are willing to achieve a nuclear program. This is the case of North Korea, Iran, and non-state actors such as al-Qaeda. The 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty is now obsolete, and it is almost impossible to stop nuclear proliferation without strong international organizations. [...]

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