August 28, 2005


So, David Brooks finally rolled out of the cave, took a stretch, and looked around. And saw, according to his Aug. 28 column in the Times, which regards the Pentagon's approach to Iraq, that "The answers have been disturbing. There is no clear strategy. There are no clear metrics."

First of all: welcome to the party, Dave. Nice of you to show. Even nicer of you to have finally doffed the rose-colored sleeping shades and opened those puffy nearsighted eyes. And please do let us know if you trip over any further brilliant observations.

Meanwhile, a more general question: why is it that the most vociferous advocates of market philosophies are the very first ones to jettison them when it becomes momentarily convenient to do so? I'm thinking, for example, of those champions of competition who, after a few years of comfy success, devote the main of their energies toward the elimination, often by foul means, of any potential competition — rather than, say, on improving their product or service, which is what competition, by their own textbooks, is supposed to engender.

Or, for another example, of a Pentagon supposedly staffed by corporate wonks and run on the philosophies of efficiency and managerial oversight so supposedly central to the free market way of life. And as we consider such an example, let's note that Brooks raises an interesting subject: metrics. In the enlightened corporate community of the last eight years, metrics has been one of the busiest watchwords. Many an expensive corporate retreat has been devoted to spreading their gospel — to naming them, tracking them, charting and graphing them, draping them across the pages of equally expensive annual reports. Promotions have been earned by them, as well as pink slips. I knew of an entire company in San Francisco — and this was pre-dot-com — devoted solely to the identification and grooming of them, in any context. They've been seen for quite some time as a kind of magic key for understanding what, exactly, is going on with whatever it is your company is up to.

And so you'd think that when a group of devotees of corporate philosophy moved into the Pentagon and began remodelling it according to corporate philosophy's tenets, the first thing on the list would be metrics. First you define a goal; then you define the metrics by which you will measure progress toward that goal (and by the way — and this is telling — corporate metrics philosophy holds that if you can't put your finger on a set of metrics by which you can measure your progress, your goal is probably not worth pursuing as such). Nowhere would this seem more applicable than the military, and nowhere in the military would it seem more applicable — or more necessary — than in the planning for and conduct of a war. Having a clearly defined objective is supposed to be the central tenet of all modern military operations, is it not? Bringing a corporate approach which presumably values efficiency should only have reinforced this.

And yet, as Brooks belatedly notes, it has not been so. Curiously, the lack of metrics and strategy he cites fit with a range of other behaviors which are equally surprising in light of the presumptive focus on efficiency this Pentagon has espoused.

Take the dramatic increase in outsourcing. Private companies haven't been contracted for so great a portion of a war effort in over a hundred years; the Pentagon has outsourced tasks from transportation to engineering to mechanics to security — which is to say nearly everything they possibly could. Their argument for the wisdom of this rests firmly on the grounds of efficiency. Yet repeated attempts to check their progress — to see that in fact greater efficiencies are being achieved — yield not contradictory data, but no data at all. The Pentagon can't tell you how much it's spending on private security companies, for example: it doesn't know. (See Daniel Bergner's "The Other Army" in the August 14 NY Times Magazine.)

This is stunning. Rumsfeld wants to dramatically redefine how this nation goes to war; the changes he's proposed — and that he is in fact making, at this very moment — are profound in their ethical and philosophical as well as practical implications. And yet he's making no attempt to measure their success. Efficiency — bang for buck — is one of the few goals that his team has identified, one of the core justifications for radical policies like outsourcing of military duties; yet they can't even tell you what their outlay is. How will they know they've been more efficient — by some kind of tingling sensation in their backsides? How would that go over in your average enlightened corporate board meeting?

CHAIR: "How'd we do this year, Bob?"

CEO: "Well, Tom, I think we did great."

CHAIR: "You think?"

CEO: "Tom, I really do."

CHAIR: "Well, did our revenues increase?"

CEO: "Couldn't tell ya, Tom. We didn't count 'em."

CHAIR: "Wow, Bob. Well, then, did our costs decrease?"

CEO: "No idea, Tom. Didn't count those either."

CHAIR: "So what makes you think we did well?"

CEO: "Oh, I don't know. Doesn't it seem like we ought to've? I mean, we're such a great bunch of guys ..."

Though consultants get paid handsomely to lecture on the subject, metrics, as a concept, isn't terribly difficult. The crucial part is knowing what you want. Without that, it's impossible to know when, or whether, you've got it.

As usual, Brooks is right, up to a point. Strategy is a good thing. Metrics are a good thing. They keep almost any endeavor from devolving into aimlessness and eternal futility. Where he goes wrong is in believing that their application in Iraq will do anything but prolong the slow, steady, tragic bleed. The example he cites — the British in Malaysia fighting the ethnic Chinese communist insurgency — is less a support for his argument than it is a capsule refutation. The British project in Malaysia was thoroughly colonial, and thoroughly self-serving (which the US claims its enterprise in Iraq is not); and while it did have some military and even a smattering of political success, it was, in the end, a failure. It could not and did not last. The Brits were forced out of Malaysia in the late '50s, by movements representing the spectrum from nationalism to communism to Islam; the country they left behind was officially Islamic, subject in many respects to sharia, and riven by racial tensions. It lives today under virtual one-party rule and the diminished civil liberties inflicted by an "emergency rule" imposed during the race riots of 1969 and never lifted. And anti-Western sentiment, a legacy of the Portuguese and British eras, remains a strong undercurrent.

(Come to think of it, Brooks may have chosen a more apt example than he intended.)

The invasion of Iraq was doomed to failure even before it began. It was doomed, yes, by lack of planning, lack of intelligence, lack of strategy, and even — give Brooks credit — lack of metrics. But more fundamentally it was doomed by a misreading of human history, and worse still of human nature. The Bush administration wanted a pliant, secular, oil-rich state in a strategically central location in the Arab middle East. They never put it that way, of course, at least not for public consumption. They talked instead about WMD, and then about terrorism and 9/11, and then about that amorphous perennial, "freedom." Each of these was halfhearted. Each was also, in the end, demonstrably false. It hardly matters. An invasion was never going to get them what they wanted, and it never will.

One might ask Brooks, not to mention Rumsfeld et al., about a different kind of metrics: the metrics of failure. How many bodies does it take, for example — American, Iraqi, or otherwise — to make a tragic mistake? How many freshly minted anti-Western militants does it take to make a national security threat?

Now that Brooks is awake, maybe he can keep count.

August 12, 2005

Lessons in History

The headlines might as well read, "Bush succumbs completely to hallucinatory foreign-policy fantasies." Troop levels, it was announced yesterday, will stay the same. And by the way, it's still called the Global War on Terror, not G-WAVE.

For the second week in a row, Bush woke up from a nap, stepped onto a nearby lawn, and proceeded to contradict what his own aides had been saying for the previous three days. If there's any kind of plan in the White House (and they continue to insist there is — but then someone could step out to reverse that claim any minute now), it must be one of disinformation via confusion. Perhaps, seeing things aren't going so well in Iraq, Rove & co. have decided to wage psychological warfare on the American people instead, figuring the targets are agreeably softer.

Bush's claims he is not willing to "sacrifice" the Iraqi people. By which he means, I guess, that he is willing to sacrifice the American people, figuratively and literally.

Ah yes — well do I remember the days before the war, when millions of Americans lay awake at night burdened by thoughts of their suffering Iraqi brothers, with whom they felt such a strong personal and historical bond. When the burning question on their minds as they moved through their underemployed days was what they could do — what sacrifice they, personally, could make — to bring the dreams of their Iraqi friends to fruition. How they gathered in cafés and on street corners, or at night in bars, nursing beers and all but ignoring the sporting events on the muted televisions overhead, to discuss these preoccupations with friends.

Were they aware, I wonder, that the dream a good many of those Iraqi brothers longed to pursue was that of living in a place much more like neighboring Iran? Or that others longed to pursue the dream of jihad against Westerners, or against fellow Iraqis who don't subscribe to their particular brand of faith? Or that still others longed to pursue the dream of redirecting the stream of oil revenues from the previous dictator's pockets to their own?

It's not the dream that matters. It's the pursuit.

Bush's declaration that Americans are not yet done sacrificing themselves for Iraqis who no longer wish to have them around came on a day when one of the more significant Shiite sects — Shiites are the majority in Iraq, lest we forget, and were long oppressed by the previous regime, and are now somewhat understandably but not altogether productively determined to get a little payback — announced that it wanted not to participate in a united, free Iraq at all, but to participate in a little nation-building experiment of its own — on its own. No doubt they'll be wanting to take along an oil field or two when they go.

Thus the dreaded civil war.

How to avoid the dreaded civil war? There may be only one way, and that may be to let them go. And then to let the Kurds go. And then to let go whoever's left, in as many directions as they demand. That's self-determination, after all. It will, of course, doom the region to militarized border disputes for the next century or two. But let's be honest: there was probably no way to avoid that, short of replacing the old brutal regime with a new brutal regime. As in the former Soviet Union, the brutal regime was the only thing keeping a lid on sectarian and tribal rivalries that go back intractable centuries. Did the Pentagon really think a few American leaflets were going to cure that?

It is ironic that American exceptionalism leads Americans to view America not as an exception at all, but rather as the inevitable rule. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, in America, the civic self has — at least until recent months — been placed ahead of the ethnic and religious self as definitive within the context of nationality. More than much-touted "freedom," more than much-touted "rule of law" (both of which have been practiced more or less similarly in Europe for more or less as long as they have been here), this is what's definitive in the American experience. It's also what may be least transferrable. Even in Europe, where people are extremely well-educated, sophisticated, and wealthy by global standards, it's proving impossible to make broad federalism work. If the French and Italians can't let go of ancient sectarian rivalries — most of them having, by the way, nothing to do with god and everything to do with cheese — how ever will the Shiites and Sunnis?

In most of the world, history is destiny, more or less. Americans — so fortunately, so sadly history-less — tend to forget this. But that doesn't mean Iraqis will. They know it even if we don't, even if Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice don't (though one suspects somehow that Rice, who seems the least idiotic of the three, does know it, in a deep dark corner she'll discover after a quarter of a million in post-administration therapy). Sooner or later, we'll be gone. Americans, unwilling to confront their demons at home, will have their adventures abroad. But eventually they run out of patience and/or money and/or will, and they withdraw. There is only the question of how long you must endure them — of how many of them you must kill, of how many of your own people must be killed by them — before they go. But they will go. And then your future truly will be your own to devise.

Bush — never an adept student at anything, especially history, and an absentee during the Vietnam era — will have to learn this in his own hard way. It's just too bad the text must be written in the blood of Cindy Sheehan's son, and in the blood of so many other sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives and friends. Unlike sectarian rivalries, our loved ones cannot be resurrected.

August 03, 2005

Lost in Space

Eugene F. Kranz, in the Times today, is "disgusted" with the reluctance of NASA managers to, as he sees it, take risks with the lives of its astronauts. Appropriate risks, one assumes he must mean. Progress must be made, says Mr Kranz; America's future competitiveness is at stake.

I don't altogether disagree, at least as far as the lives of astronauts are concerned. Astronauts are adults. They're highly educated, well-trained, versed in the obstacles of their business and the mathematics of success and failure. Those who choose to go into space presumably understand the imperfect nature of engineering, and are cognizant of the risks they face.

Kranz has less to say, though, about the taxpayers who fund space exploration. What are the risks we face? What competitiveness hangs in the balance for the rest of us?

I'm not a particular Thomas Friedman fan, but a few elements of his recent preachings on the changing global environment are worth taking to heart. Next to Kranz's editorial today, in fact, is one by Friedman in which he chastises the nation again for abandoning its leadership position in the technological sphere, this time with respect to wireless and broadband technologies. It's a point he's touched on numerous times in editorials, public speaking engagements, and interviews since the release of his latest book, The World is Flat. America's competitiveness is threatened, Friedman has argued; and he lays the blame at our refusal to invest ourselves more heavily in education, training, health care. We don't invest more heavily, goes the argument, because we simply don't sufficiently value those things as a society. Or perhaps its because we've lost the capacity, or the will, to follow the trail of cause and effect that begins at sensible priorities and ends at a growing, thriving middle class society. Friedman's argument comes down in many ways to the premium we're willing to place on our human resources.

At a billion dollars per launch, there's a lot of science education being squandered in favor of manned space flight — and that doesn't count the massive media-enhanced marketing campaign. As exciting as the shuttle program may be, its actual value in terms of new and improved science pales in comparison to explorations in subatomic, mathematical and theoretical physics; to genetic exploration; and even to unmanned extraterrestrial missions. All of these promise greater potential benefits with lower associated costs. They're going to matter more to our future.

Which is no small matter. With Mr Bush recently out of his closet on the issue of intelligent design, the US appears all but determined to throw itself a half century backward. As science is pushed out of our education system in favor of theology, our students will find themselves comparatively less prepared than their counterparts in India, Japan, Europe and elsewhere. They'll fare worse in competition for jobs. They'll be less inclined, and less able, to innovate. The center of gravity in the world of technology will move elsewhere. And the trickle-down effects of a shift like that will be far more profound than any Bush tax cut.

Once upon a time, the space program might have inspired young people to enter the sciences. But that time seems past, in spite of the best efforts of NASA, the president, and the mainstream media. When Bush called the shuttle this week, the only thing that came out of the astronauts' mouths was a mini-sermon about our need for the space program. It was half ad sloganeering, half desperate plea; and while I understand their desire to keep their jobs, the pitch has no legs. The big stories about the shuttle program these days are not the scientific leaps they represent. The big stories these days are crashed or didn't crash. And while I guess that makes for great headlines, it's not likely to mobilize 8 to 12 year olds to spend an extra hour on their physics homework.

Kids and adults alike have spent half a century or more being entertained by fantasies of space as either escape from or resolution of the problems of the modernizing world. Space stations or interplanetary colonies would solve overpopulation; alien biologies would eliminate famine. Criminals could be stored on distant blocks of ice, out of sight and out of reach.

It was fun while it lasted. But it looks increasingly like we'll have to solve our problems right down here on Earth. We're risking too much if we don't.

July 28, 2005


A day of more shuttle news: official tally comes in at $1 billion. Yes, $1 billion, for one launch whose stated purpose was to "test new safety equipment" and deliver "supplies" to the space station. Kind of an expensive test-the-brakes-and-pick-up-some-beer run. For a commentary that's amusingly on the money, check out this segment of Ed Gordon's show.

Here's the part where the centrist-conservative wonk pooh-pooh's space program grumps like Joe Citizen by saying something blisteringly insightful like, Hey, in a budget the size of the US government's, one billion dollars is a drop in the bucket. And maybe he's right. But then how come we can never find what to drink when someone's really thirsty?

I'm sure that if you're a big-shot wonky insider with a fat stipend from Rand or Heritage or the Manhattan Foundation, and you hobnob at swank beltway parties with senators and elite media execs and the directors of major multinationals (parties at which, by the way, neither drugs nor sex of any kind ever make an appearance, ever), then maybe a billion dollars is nothing more to you than the next wire transfer to your offshore shelter in the Caymans. But to Joe Citizen, a billion dollars is still, like, a billion dollars. That buys a lot of potato chips and beer. Or a lot of trips to the doc's office. Or a lot of public transit rides. Or a lot of books for elementary and high school classrooms. (Any of you out there have friends who are teachers? If yes, how much do they spend each year — of their own money, I mean: of their own insultingly measly public-servant salaries — on books for the kids they teach?)

For that matter, I bet it buys a lot of armor plating for personnel carriers in the desert — unless, that is, you're shopping at one of those megamarts of corporate bilk who have relatives at the White House and an army of lobbyists. But even with them you could probably cover 10 or 20 humvees and get back a little change. How many American soldiers might that save?

I know, I know. Joe Citizen sucks at math.

Speaking of corporate bilk and relatives in Washington: the House passed a new energy bill today, and those in the bidness can rejoice. Not only are oil prices at a record high, but our free-market-loving legislators have decided they love the free market so much they'd like to give it a hand. They have thus incentivized deep-water drilling. I guess they just wanted to make double, triple sure no one sits on his ass letting deposits of the most valuable commodity on earth lie untended.

No one's rejoicing quite so much as certain residents of the majority leader's home district, though. At the last minute (no, really), a provision was added to throw $1.5 billion at "drilling research." Apparently there just wasn't enough left over from oil revenues themselves; the bidness needed a goverment handout (just a drop and a half in the bucket, as the wonks would remind). And I'm sure it's completely coincidental, but the primary beneficiary of said handout will be an energy consortium in Tom DeLay's district in Texas.

And you thought socialism was dead.

Sadly, the addition of the DeLay boondoggle so increased the size of the legislation that a number of other provisions had to be left out — purely for reasons of space. Among these were fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and trucks. Yes, it's true: such a provision might have done more to cure our country of its disastrous dependence on foreign oil than all the rest of the bill's measures combined. But adding more pages would have been — well, a waste of energy. Besides, wouldn't you rather keep waging war overseas to secure a steady oil supply? Even when it doesn't work, we get years of great future documentary footage, plus a geography lesson and a stack of new vocab. It almost makes up for those missing school textbooks.

Also this week: the Patriot Act was signed on for a return engagement by — again — your good friends and caretakers in the House. Which means, as far as Joe Citizen is concerned, that Joe Citizen took one more itty bitty step toward becoming Joe Subject.

July 26, 2005

Misery Gets Company

The only trouble with Seymour Hersh's recent exposé in the New Yorker (July 25) is just how unsurprising it really is. Last week, hersh reported on allegations that the United States engaged in a covert operation to funnel money and logistical support to certain candidates' factions during the Iraqi elections last January, thus showing a favoritism it had not only vowed to forego but that might threaten the administration's entire post-invasion project. It's not exactly democracy proper, that's for sure. It would make hypocrites of Bush and any number of subordinates, and it could make them criminals as well. It'd certainly rob them of whatever shreds of credibility they still possess.

The trouble is they're already criminals, and their credibility was shredded and burned a long time ago. In truth, this is exactly the kind of thing we expect from the Bush administration. They've shown themselves to be buffoons and arrogant snobs; they've shown themselves to be cynics and corrupt opportunists. That they should be liars and cheats on top of it all is anything but shocking. I'm glad Hersh did his research, and I'm glad the New Yorker published it. But it's been apparent for a long time that we're governed by thugs and criminals, and the only question that truly puzzles is what's to be done about it. We tried having an election already; you can see where that got us. You can see where it got the Iraqis. No shock could begin to compare with the results last November, and every day that passes in Bush's meandering, ineffectual, insultingly chaotic and destructive second term only makes this more so. Everything that everyone said could go wrong has gone wrong, and not just in Iraq. There is perhaps some cause for relief w/r/t supreme court nominee #1, though that remains largely to be seen — and besides, there will almost surely be another, and he or she will almost certainly be worse. I am more inclined to agree with Hendrick Hertzberg, who, this week, also in the New Yorker, sees Roberts as a sign of Bush's weakness. Bush, Hertzberg theorizes, knows he can't get away with anyone grander. And he also wants to pull the spotlight off Karl Rove and further evidence of corruption, thuggery, and ill-will (and in this the main stream media has been its usual accomodating self: seen Rove's name on the top of the fold in the last five days? Seen any demands for information or release of testimony, even for comment by the relevant parties?).


On another note in the MSM song, what was behind the blanket of space-shuttle-launch coverage on Tuesday? When did everyone drink the space-program kool-aid? (Or should that be "tang"?) According to the Times (which ran picture after picture on its web site — not of the shuttle itself but of people watching the shuttle), the primary purpose of this mission is to test new safety equipment. So in other words, they're spending billions in taxpayer dollars not to locate a cure for cancer or HIV, not to end the war in Iraq or protect our subways, not to find health insurance for the almost fifty million Americans who lack it. They're spending hard-earned cash to test fresh brakes. But don't look for that in the New York Times.

July 20, 2005

One Bad Week

Two fascinating articles in the Times this week which taken together ought to form a solid indictment not only of the execution of this fool's errand (I mean the US excursion in Iraq) but of the theory behind it — namely, that it's a fine idea to attempt the violent imposition of a political culture. In the first article we find a jarring tally of Iraqi civilian deaths resulting from the invasion and its aftermath, known to some as "the occupation" and to others as "the counterinsurgency." Call it what you like; the numbers couldn't care less. 24,865 — that's the number. Nearly 25,000 men, women, and children. Let's break it down farther: 11,281 men; 1,198 women; 1,332 children. More than a third of these were killed by American forces directly. Almost half were lost in Baghdad alone. Put that in perspective. I grew up in a town of slightly less than 5,000; that's as though every man, woman, and child in my hometown had been shot or blown up or stabbed or otherwise murdered — and then the same thing happened four more times in nearby towns of the same size. Think of it: everyone: killed. And you can say, by way of diminishing your sense of responsibility as an American, that only a third of them were killed by our troops. But the truth is that each and every death was a result, direct or indirect, of the US invasion.

The second article concerns the Iraqi constitution — specifically, the most recent draft of the document, in which the role of women in the new Iraqi society is restricted to bring it more fully into compliance with Sh'aria, or Islamic law. If "liberty" in the western tradition is your stated goal, this can hardly be considered a victory. In fact it may be something much worse. Women in post-invasion Iraq could actually end up with fewer rights than they had under Saddam Hussien. This doesn't diminish the brutality of the former regime, but it does cast a grim light on American efforts. Currently Iraq is shaping up not as a bastion of enlightened Middle Eastern democracy but as a second, and more sectarian, Iran — all at a price tag of well over 30,000 lives. Talk about not getting your money's worth. Though I guess at least Haliburton and the Shiite mullahs will go home happy.

Other bad news from Iraq — and it's not easy keeping up — include the assassination of two Sunni members of the constitutional drafting panel and the revelation that the US tampered with the much-lauded "free-and-fair" Iraqi elections (see The New Yorker, July 25, 2005). There are even allegations of ballot stuffing. Once again you have to wonder what the US government means when it says it wants to teach the world democracy. Did anyone caucus the Latin Americans on that?

This is just the latest. It has been a long ugly journey. The road is getting worse, and there's no end in sight. And the worst is that it was all predictable. Not just predictable: predicted. Forecast, even, and with an accuracy weathermen can only envy. Few in the mainstream took any kind of heed at the time. Even fewer take an interest in looking back now. But the information was all there — the assessments of intertribal strife, the seeping religious fundametalism, the predictions of powerplays by factions with ties to Syria and Iran. Some of it came from or own intelligence services. Most if not all of it appeared in readily available English-language media. And if I could read it, then certainly members of Congress and the Administration could read it. Which means that they all could have known. Which means — given who they are, and what they do — that, really, they should have known.

We can all keep playing silly games over this. We can stick to the slogans, we can scratch our heads earnestly. We can punch the well-we-can't-leave-now-with-the-job-half-done clock a few more times. (Even liberals love to punch this particular clock — it spares them from uttering the dirty "withdrawal" word, which will inevitably lead someone to utter the dirty "wimp" word in response.) We can take the David Brooks-slash-John Tierney route, and frown concernedly while holding fast to our highbrow-homespun optimism, and expressing naive faith in the latest baby step, or report of water being turned back on in some remote village. Go ahead: it's all well and good. Just let the rest of us know what number it will take — how much death and chaos, how many failed policies, how many squandered opportunities, how grim the outlook will have to get — before you start having the honest adult conversation about what a collosal fuck-up this entire enterprise has been. Should we check back next year when the number of Iraqi dead has topped 35,000? The following year, when it's almost 50,000? Will it take 100,000? Half a million? Will another Taliban-style regime have to come to power, perhaps even be elected (though perhaps not altogether legitimately — the Iraqis are being trained by us, after all)? Will it take an Arab civil war, pitting Shiite Iran and the new Shiite Iraq against the rest of the Sunni Muslim Arab world, and possibly against the Kurds as well (though by then they may be too busy waging a quiet war at the Turkish border)? Will we have to start drafting young Americans, driving up the domestic death toll as well, and — in all likelihood, giving the steeply declining stomach shown on the home front for this war — start another bitter civil cold war of our own?

Just let us know what it will take.

Or, on the other hand, we could start having the adult conversation now, and maybe spare everyone some grief.