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Friday, September 14, 2007

Ask the Wrong Questions...

One of my "rules of management" is "Ask the wrong questions and you'll get the wrong answers." In other words, you have to ask appropriate questions to identify the correct answers that allow a problem to be solved. The appearances before Congress of General David Petraeus and Ambassodor Ryan Crocker and the September 13, 2007 address by President Bush serve as a classic study of this rule.

Even a quick glance at the resumes of Patraeus and Crocker conveys the fact they are easily two of the most qualified people ever appointed or promoted to a position of power during Bush's Presidency. Petraeus has been criticized for a "failure" in the training of the Iraqi police forces in 2004 but you can't hold him accountable for widespread desertions of Iraqi policemen trying to protect their family amidst ethnic cleansing made possible in part by our failure to properly staff the post-Saddam occupation. Patraeus understands more about fighting insurgencies than anyone Rumsfeld consulted in planning the war and the hole we're in might not be as deep had Patraeus been in charge instead of Tommy Franks. Crocker has spent much of his career on Foreign Service appointments actually stationed in the middle east or on middle east related domestic assignments. It's not hard to argue our management of the Coalition Provisional Authority would have been vastly more effective had someone with Crocker's insight into local ethnic / sectarian divisions led the effort instead of Paul Bremer.

Despite the competence and relative expertise of these witnesses before Congress, members of the House and Senate panels conducting the reviews failed to pose any question that drew any useful insight into where the current path is likely to lead or the nature of any change that could improve the short term or long term situation. In one case, hilariously lampooned on The Daily Show, Senator Barbara Boxer failed to even ask a single question --- IN SEVEN MINUTES. The pointless questioning of the lead military and civilian Americans in the theatre made it clear how poorly Congress understands the role of these two players, the role and responsibilities of the Commander in Chief and the role of Congress itself in conducting this war or any war.

Republican Senator Norm Coleman asked General Petraeus "Can we get a longer term plan? Can we say that we'll be down to half our troops in say five years? ; we can get to five years; we can be turning over our bases in some other paradigm?" (#1) WRONG. Ask him if the tools provided by the Pentagon enable the type of real-time communication from the field to commanders to conduct his assigned missions. Ask him if intelligence teams are providing sufficient information to identify and eliminate insurgent threats. Questions about whether and when bases should be turned over to a local government to alter the political climate involve decisions way above the pay grade and command authority of a field commander. If Congress has a question about what those goals are or the progress towards them, it should be directed to the Commander in Chief. In their frustration at not being able to ask the big questions of the big guy, Congress also blew its chance to ask questions it needs answered to fulfill its role in overseeing the execution of and spending on the war.

Democratic Senator Barack Obama asked Ryan Crocker "under what circumstances would you recommend more troop withdrawals?" (#1) WRONG. Crocker's responsibility as Ambassador is to maintain communication between the US government and the elected Iraqi leadership, serve as a resource to the Iraqi government on domestic Iraqi political and civil issues and work with our foreign service staff in neighboring countries to improve regional communication and support for the Iraqi government and people. He's not the guy to talk about whether troop levels should change, especially when he's sitting next to the General who DOES carry that tactical planning responsibility.

The cluelessness of Congressional Democrats and Republicans was only eclipsed by the cluelessness of the Command in Chief, demonstrated by his Oval Office address on September 13, 2007. (#2) Bush's obliviousness began with his opening sentence:

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Good evening. In the life of all free nations, there come moments that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people. We are now at such a moment.
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Quick!

Which country is being described, and in what sense? Our partner, Iraq, and their need to decide on unity and democracy to secure peace and stability? Or America, which needs to decide to stick with Bush's plan to thwart the "enemies of freedom"? Or maybe a meaning he didn't intend -- America, the country that needs to recognize the drain on its military strength, financial solvency and moral leadership in the world and stop its participation in a war of occupation which cannot be won?

The lack of thought that went into this epitome of Bush fuzzy logic was indicative of the rest of the address. Bush quickly jumped into used-car salesman mode and gave this upbeat assessment of progress in Anbar province as an example of what could happen elsewhere:

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Anbar province is a good example of how our strategy is working. Last year, an intelligence report concluded that Anbar had been lost to al Qaeda. Some cited this report as evidence that we had failed in Iraq and should cut our losses and pull out. Instead, we kept the pressure on the terrorists. The local people were suffering under the Taliban-like rule of al Qaeda, and they were sick of it. So they asked us for help.

To take advantage of this opportunity, I sent an additional 4,000 Marines to Anbar as part of the surge. Together, local sheiks, Iraqi forces, and coalition troops drove the terrorists from the capital of Ramadi and other population centers. Today, a city where al Qaeda once planted its flag is beginning to return to normal. Anbar citizens who once feared beheading for talking to an American or Iraqi soldier now come forward to tell us where the terrorists are hiding.

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Anbar is the best example you have for success? Anbar, the province you visited via a pre-dawn landing? Anbar, the province in which you never left the American air base during your entire half-day visit? Anbar, the home of the courageous Sunni sheik who actually fought with Al Qaeda, shook your hand personally no more than 10 days ago, and was converted to pink mist just this week in a terrorist bombing?

Bush and his speechwriters are so clueless, they failed to contemplate an obvious counter message that comes to mind from any reference to a murdered ally in a speech on progress and improved security. It seems likely Al Qaeda's bombing was aimed at telling the entire world they can reach ANYONE with violence, even someone high enough in the emerging Iraqi pecking order to be trusted with a face-to-face meeting the President of the United States.

Bush went on to say the Anbar miracle is spreading across Iraq, including to Baghdad.

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One year ago, much of Baghdad was under siege. Schools were closed, markets were shuttered, and sectarian violence was spiraling out of control. Today, most of Baghdad's neighborhoods are being patrolled by coalition and Iraqi forces who live among the people they protect. Many schools and markets are reopening. Citizens are coming forward with vital intelligence. Sectarian killings are down. And ordinary life is beginning to return.
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This phrasing implies a direct correlation between our presence and the reduction in sectarian violence. This overlooks a more obvious explanation made by CBS reporter Lara Logan, who stated in her September 13 report that we didn't "stop" the sectarian violence with our presence, the killings ended because they achieved their end -- formerly integrated sectors of Baghdad are now distinctly separated into Sunni and Shia camps with no Iraqis brave enough (or stupid enough) to stay in the "enemy" camp and risk execution. That's progress? Progress for the Islamic militants but not for Bush's surge strategy.

The tone of the President's address wasn't calming, confident or convincing. It sounded angry, arrogant and annoyed -- annoyed at reaching a position where he had to explain and justify, regardless of how poorly the attempt, his proposals and decisions. Bush set up the conclusion of his address with what for him is a classic exercise in idiotic circular logic. This logic was first lampooned by media watchers like Mark Crispin Miller, who included this gem in his book The Bush Dyslexicon: Dick Cheney and I do not want this nation to be in a recession. We want anybody who can work to be able to find work. Despite the political weight riding on this address, the best setup to Bush's pitch for spending hundreds of billions more dollars on a lost cause was this:

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Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East. We should be able to agree that we must defeat al Qaeda, counter Iran, help the Afghan government, work for peace in the Holy Land, and strengthen our military so we can prevail in the struggle against terrorists and extremists.
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WHAT?

We're not debating whether America should act to help preventing chaos and bloodshed anywhere in the world when it lies within our practical power and national interest to do so. No one's arguing about the need to defeat al Qaeda or keep Iran's nut-job leader from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We're listening to see if you can describe how ONE SINGLE immediate tactical strategy you've proposed contributes to any of these goals. YOU DIDN'T. YOU CAN'T.

The conclusion to the address was structured with a reference to a litany of particular audiences he wished to reach with specific messages. Given the importance of the speech to the country, the choice of audiences included is telling:

* Congress - who should reward the profound logic I've just cited with more billions
* the Iraqi people - who simply have to demand their leaders make tough choices to win their freedom
* Iraq's neighbors -- who need to support us in Iraq or elseā€¦
* the international community -- who need to support, among other things, the UN I ignored when starting this war
* our military personnel, families and contractors -- who are in large part responsible for the success so far

Notice any group missing?

How about the American public?

The address was obviously aired on network TV to the American public but a read of the actual text shows no actual direct reference to the American public in the address. We, the people, are barely an afterthought to a President who has spent over $500 billion dollars claiming to protect us but has actually harmed our country militarily, politically and financially.

Bush's exclusion of the American public from the conclusion of his address is the truest indicator of his view of his responsibility for the war to date and his obligations going forward. He has no intent to serve as a leader. He isn't running again, he got the votes in 2004, there's no sense of ACTUAL accountability or sense of the need to even CONVEY the ILLUSION of accountability to the American public at large. Even for a war. A disastrous war. He doesn't care. He will continue doing exactly what he wants, the opinions of Congress, the Courts or the American people be damned.

When you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers. For nine months, Congress and the American people have been asking "What will Patraeus say in September?"

WRONG QUESTION.

We should be asking "Who will write the articles of impeachment?"


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#1) http://www.slate.com/id/2173737/pagenum/all/#page_start

#2) http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/09/20070913-2.html