Conflict is never attractive, even to those that are merely onlookers. If you watched the BBC’s recent screenplay based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin diaries, Christopher and his Kind (on iPlayer for a few more days), you may remember his mother’s words at the dinner table to her son and his German partner: “That’s what wars do: kill people.” Raising arms against another – as individuals or nations, as acts of aggression or of intervention to help protect the beleaguered – raises a dense moral cloud. The current action in Libya is proving to be no exception. The situation in Libya is one in which many world leaders have clearly – and entirely understandably – felt that “something needs to be done”. The difficulty has been to decide exactly what.

As the Financial Times has already commented:

But two days into this military action, a fundamental set of questions is being asked in all the western capitals concerned.

What is the coalition’s war aim? Is it, as UN Security Council Resolution 1973 states, simply “to protect civilians and civilian populations under threat of attack?” Or should the coalition go further, removing the Libyan leader from power to guarantee its mission is accomplished?

These are complicated circumstances, not least because of the on-off relationship between Colonel Gaddafi’s and other leaders – particularly Western ones – in recent years. It may be predictable, and even a little cheap, to raise the spectre of Tony Blair in this context, but many leaders, diplomats and military commanders will no doubt be conscious of the weight of “the hand of history” on their shoulders. Recent years have taught – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say proffered – a number of difficult lessons, both moral and strategic. Blair’s agonising over his legacy and lingering impact of the Iraq conflict are another lesson: that good intentions – or intentions judged to be good by those holding them – can still lead to disastrous situations.

We’ve written about leadership in the armed forces before, although the dilemma at present is primarily one amongst politicians. It’s worth reflecting on a quotation from the introduction to the Royal Military College document, Serve to Lead: apologies for requoting, but its point is timeless (indeed, that extract – a quotation from Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Governor General of Australia – was written in 1957):

We do not in the Army talk of “management”, but of “leadership”. This is significant. There is a difference between leadership and management. The leader and the men who follow him represent one of the oldest, most natural and most effective of all human relationships. The manager and those he manages are a later product, with neither so romantic nor so inspiring a history. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision: its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.

Many things – hope, the basic infrastructure of life – are fragile in times of conflict. In this instance, the coalition is itself highly delicate: that “hand of history” has left marks that many nations are wary of seeing made afresh in a new setting. The UN Resolution – an annotated version of its text can be seen at the BBC website, while the full text is online at The Guardian’s website – was passed thanks to the abstentions of key nations (Brazil, China, Germany, India, and the Russian Federation). Nor are those who are airing doubts – including Vladimir Putin, Amr Moussa (Head of the Arab League) and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle – simply echoing Mrs Isherwood’s words.

Leaders must lead at home as well as abroad, and reputations and domestic support are important considerations: there is little appetite in the US for another military conflict, firm opposition to it in Germany, and huge concern about Western intervention in Muslim nations among the Arab League. Difficulties were only to be expected, but the logistics of holding the coalition together will be very considerable.

Yet there is a basic and fundamental issue here. While a UN Resolution has been passed – thus avoiding the arguments of legitimacy that have lingered so long around Iraq – its interpretation is becoming a matter of front page news. US General Carter Ham, commanding the Libyan operation, spoke clearly on 21 March: “We protect civilians, we do not have a mission to support the opposition”. Yet there seems to be a lack of widely agreed total clarity: a decision has been taken to take action, but there are question marks about what action is allowed, and what it is intended to achieve.

As Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC News channel’s Chief political correspondent, has written:

There is clear support for this action from most MPs but a lot less clarity about whether or not Colonel Gaddafi can be a legitimate target for military action.

On Sunday the defence secretary suggested it was potentially possible. The foreign secretary refused to rule it out. Then the country’s most senior soldier, General Sir David Richards, said it would not be allowed under the terms of the UN resolution.

It’s usually foolish to bandy about phrases like “at times when leadership is needed” – leadership is almost always needed – but the failing here is a basic one: leading is not truly leading where it’s not clear where, how and why followers are being led. Even as basic a guide for setting objectives as the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) doesn’t appear to have been applied. What is the end-goal? How will we know when it has been achieved? How long are we prepared to spend on the task? (Indeed, given the frailty of the military coalition, is it truly ‘achievable’). In the absence of a SMART objective, the wise approach is to set an early date for review, so that initial actions, reactions and consequences can be reviewed, and a further attempt to define and clarify the objective can be made. We assume world leader’s diaries remain flexible, but no such date appears to have been made.

Last time we wrote about SMART objectives (back in August 2009), we came to the following conclusion:

But I still think SMART has two things to remind us: if we’re not sufficiently specific, our objective can’t be measurable, achievable, relevant, or time-bound – or, for that matter, significant, meaningful, action-oriented, results-focused or trackable. And I know CSMART added ‘challenging’ as an additional dimension, but the challenge should surely lie in the execution of the request rather than the understanding of it?

In 2009 we were talking about applying SMART to ordering scrambled eggs: in 2011 and the context of Libya, metaphorical eggshells are undoubtedly being walked on but many things more fragile and valuable than eggs stand to be broken. Whether they see SMART as an element of management or of leadership, it’s a model our leaders would benefit from remembering sooner rather than later.

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