Thatcher Rules

by Clifford D. May

I have a signed copy of Margaret Thatcher’s Statecraft on the mantle above my fireplace. On the front cover is a formal portrait, exactly what you’d expect: She appears to be attempting to smile, not entirely successfully. Her hair is a golden halo. She wears a dark jacket, with two strings of pearls around her neck and matching earrings. A large globe hovers just behind her. The picture I like better is on the back cover: It shows her leaning into a microphone with a fierce expression, her left hand extended, elbow on the desk, an index finger pointing up to the sky — you can tell she’s about to tear some jerk a new one.

When I was a New York Times correspondent in Africa in the mid 1980s, I would occasionally go for meals or drinks with BBC correspondents — men of the Left who almost invariably disdained Thatcher. That probably doesn’t surprise you, but the tack they took. I particularly recall one reporter pronouncing her “a grocer’s daughter.”

Statecraft was published in 2002 and it very much deserves to be re-read today. She notes that “democracy, liberty and tolerance are all under threat from violent Islamist fanatics embracing terrorism. But winning wars requires more than moral fervor: it demands clear thinking about targets and timetables, accurate estimates of the enemy’s strength and intentions, pre-emptive action to minimize risks and guard against consequences.”

She goes on to provide five guidelines:

Don’t believe that military interventions, no matter how morally justified, can succeed without clear military goals.
Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the West can remake societies.
Don’t take public opinion for granted — but also don’t underrate the degree to which good people will endure sacrifices for a worthwhile cause.
Don’t allow tyrants and aggressors to get away with it.
And when you fight — fight to win.

We would have done well to follow Thatcher’s rules over the past decade. We’d be wise to consult them in the years ahead.

Let me share one more Thatcher thought that I highlighted in the book: “Throughout my political life I have usually sought to avoid compromise, because it more often than not turns out to involve an abdication of principle. In international affairs, it is often also symptomatic of muddle and weakness.”

I hope we’ll see her like again, but I’m not confident.

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