Only the Dull and Stupid Fight Head-on: Some Strategic Thoughts

Reading and watching the news lately has inspired a few strategic tidbits I would like to share.

Force them off the negative: It is always easier to argue from the negative side–criticizing other people’s actions, dissecting their motives, etc. And that is why most people will opt for this. If they had to describe a positive vision of what they want in the world, or how they would accomplish a particular task, this would open them up to all kinds of attacks and criticisms. It takes effort and thought to establish a positive position. It takes less effort to work on what other people have done, and poke endless holes. It also makes you look tough and insightful, because people delight in hearing someone tear an idea apart.

Facing these negative-mongers in a debate or argument is infuriating. They can come at you from all angles. Hit you with sarcasm and snide comments, weave all kinds of abstractions that can make you look bad. If you lower yourself to their position, you end up like a boxer throwing punches into thin air. These opponents give you nothing to hit. (In war, it is always easier to hold ground than take ground.) Your task is to force them off this position by getting them to commit to some positive position. Now, you have a target. If they resist or refuse to do this, you can attack them for this resistance.

With the Iraq War, it is quite simple for President Bush to stand ground and shoot down all of his opponents by playing the doomsday card: quitting Iraq will mean all hell will break loose. The terrorists will come to America and unleash their jihad here. Bush’s pose is not particularly effective over time, because we have grown so tired of it and it has been revealed to be totally devoid of content. But he holds on to it like a hedgehog because it works well with his base and saves him from a worse option–having to iterate his goals. The strategy here would be to force him on to the positive: what is his vision for Iraq now? How long exactly will he commit the troops? Is it open-ended? Force him to put some flesh on his nebulous talk of the future–the Iraq he is trying to establish.


Recently, I watched Michael Moore face off with a Dr. Gupta on CNN concerning the veracity of the statistics in his new film Sicko. It was an infuriating argument from Doctor Gupta. He was merely quibbling with a few figures. The implication was–we cannot trust this movie because Moore fudged some statistics; the director has an agenda and therefore he does not present a rational argument. Gupta met Moore’s reasonable defenses with little snide comments and looks that implied the director is not forthright. This is very common with journalists who make a profession out of finding little things to attack, making it look like they are in the Woodward/Bernstein tradition of uncovering…something. Anything.

What Moore could have done was to try to get Herr Gupta to iterate his position: “All you are saying is that I might have missed on a few statistics?” If he agrees to that, then you get him to admit that the movie itself was valid in its points, and perhaps off on some minor technicalities. If he argues there is something inherently wrong with the film, then get him to state this. Get him to state that the American health system works well, has some minor problems that need fixing. “How would you, Mr. Gupta, fix them?” Once he commits to these positions, he reveals his belief in something patently absurd or unrealistic, and opens himself up to all kinds of sound counterattacks. It is a mistake to let him remain snide and quibbling.

Lure them into an unreasonable position: In a fight in which both sides seem deadlocked, the temptation is to rely on ‘bunker mentality,’ and hold on to your position no matter what the cost. Your emotions and pride become engaged and trump your reasoning powers. The best way out is to seemingly give in to the form of your opponent’s argument, while controlling the substance. You come up with an alternative that incorporates their ideas, but in a way that serves your interests in the long-run. You control the options, but it appears you are giving in, being reasonable. If they still hold their ground, they are revealed to be unreasonable, only interested in power. It is a soft form of counterattack.

In recent posts on Russia, I discussed President Putin as a strategist. It is known that he is an adept judo wrestler, and could have competed on an Olympic level if he had wanted to do so. I find many of his maneuvers to be infused with the soft art of defense. The United States and Russia have recently been tussling over the placement of missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians find this a growing infringement on their sovereignty (the missiles are too close to Russia). The Bush administration argues that these missiles pose no threat, as our side is willing to share information on them and make it a joint effort. Besides, the missiles are designed to protect Europe from an attack from Iran, and are not at all aimed at Russia. Both sides seem intransigent on the issue.

Instead of fighting Bush on this matter and getting nowhere, Putin recently came up with a clever response. He would give the U.S. access to information from an early-warning radar system the Russians have set up Azerbaijan. This is much closer geographically to Iran, would create a more effective warning system, and would be the first step in a series of cooperative moves between the two countries. There would no longer be a need for missiles in eastern Europe. In this gambit the Russians cannot lose. If the Bush side declines this offer, it reveals itself: it is not really interested in this missile defense, but in gaining political points in Poland and the Czech Republic, dividing European opinion. It really wants to aggravate Russia and use this as a political wedge. It wants to operate unilaterally while appearing to be cooperative. This makes the U.S. look bad, yet again, on the world stage and gives Russia leverage in other areas. If the Americans accept, the Russians gain in many ways.

The lesson in both these strategies is to avoid the immediate temptation to fight back on the same level as the opponent. In The 33 Strategies of War I refer to that as tactical hell; it is also known as fighting stupid. You must always shift the terms of the battle, on to terrain of your choice. In that moment of shifting, you have the initiative and the upper-hand. Train yourself to think that way and you will instantly become a better fighter.


Discuss Robert’s post, find more links, and analyze the topic through the lens of the 48 Laws of Power. Visit the Power, Seduction and War Room to hear from others and more from Robert Greene…

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