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 caf├ęs 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.