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armchair strategist

An armchair strategist is a person who creates plans and military strategy without being directly involved in the area. The term is often used in a derogatory manner.

“Armchair general” is often used interchangeably with armchair strategist. Terms like “armchair soldier” or “armchair admiral” are less common but not unheard of. These expressions also have a life outside of politics or the military. In common usage, an armchair strategist or general is anyone who pretends to understand a specialized area.

In fact, the word “armchair” can be attached to virtually any word. There are armchair psychologists, armchair critics, and armchair journalists. In all these uses, “armchair” means that the person lacks a real-world understanding of a particular subject. Expressions like “Monday morning quarterback” have a similar meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the earliest use of “armchair” in this sense dates back to an 1809 article about an “arm-chair traveler.”

The OED defines the term as follows:

Based or taking place in the home as opposed to the world or environment outside; amateur, non-professional; (hence) lacking or not involving practical or direct experience of a particular subject or activity. Also: comfortable, gentle, easy.

Armchair strategists are generally seen as being either wrong or totally irrelevant. In 1988, reviewing a book about the Cold War, the New York Times wrote that “the competition between the superpowers would have occurred whatever the armchair strategists wrote.” 

In politics, of course, the term is often used to discredit someone’s ideas. Applying the term to a politician, especially a president, is generally considered damning.

During the Trump presidency, New York Magazine ran an article calling then-president Donald Trump an armchair general. The piece argued that the president was an armchair strategist who didn’t understand the complex situation in Afghanistan.

Before he decided to run for president, then–Armchair General Donald Trump was a harsh critic of the war in Afghanistan, tweeting periodic potshots at the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy between 2011 and 2015.”

A few years before that, Foreign Policy published a thought piece titled, “Obama: Tough commander in chief or insecure armchair general?” The piece suggested that then-president Obama might be the victim of his own insecurities; his need to be right might be stopping him from listening to the actual generals.

Of course, the term isn’t only applicable to presidents. In 2021, the Australian newspaper Sydney News Today ran an article under the headline “Washington Armchair General Encourages Biden to Continue War on Terror.” In this case, the alleged “armchair general” was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Talking heads and journalists are also often accused of being armchair strategists. It probably helps that they often appear on TV sitting in armchairs. A 1997 piece in Salon, for example, complained that “armchair pundits” were giving then-president Bill Clinton bad advice about his Iraq strategy. The article eventually explained that:

Not one of the armchair generals calling for cruise missiles and bombing attacks has explained why force is any more likely to remove Hussein’s secret weapons caches than the 88,000 tons of explosives we dropped last time.

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