Archive for the 'History' Category

Choose a big problem.

30 March 2006

This post from Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM cites Burt Rutan to make the point that "if you want teams of people to perform at an extraordinary level, you need to challenge them with problems that really inspire them."

I read that shortly after having a fascinating conversation with one of my professors in which he stressed the need for great works of scholarship to be "problem-driven." It's not enough for a scholar to pick an interesting era or an interesting phenomenon to study, and it's not enough to carry out a study that treats complex topics from interesting angles. There must be a problem that the scholar is trying to solve — some grand question that begs for a smart answer.

This resonates with something I quoted a couple of months back from Richard Hamming: "If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them." It also matches with Gian-Carlo Rota's description of Richard Feynman's methods.

I can't tell you how many bright people I know — in business, in scholarship, in art, or in life generally — who have never given themselves a big problem to solve.  They sometimes don't know what to work on, or what to do with themselves, in part because they haven't thought enough about what big problem awaits their assault on it.

The moral of this story:  go big. 


What we do know and what we don’t about foreign policy.

14 March 2006

Note this item from today’s Guardian:

‘An unbelievable mess’: Memo from John Sawer, Blair’s special envoy to Iraq after Saddam’s overthrow

It’s worth keeping in mind that the Guardian has a large ax to grind with the Bush Administration, with perhaps a separate, even larger, ax for the Anglo-American Iraq policy in particular. The Guardian is also, however, a newspaper of high quality, and anyway this item is a primary document rather than a piece of commentary derived at second hand.

What does it tell us?

The situation in Iraq today has long roots. These were in place long before any U.S. occupation was ever contemplated. But the mistakes made after the military invasion were myriad, and avoidable. This was clear to John Sawer in 2003, it was clear to James Fallows in 2004, it is clear today. The Bush administration did not lay plans for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Although many nastier things could have happened–biological weapons fired into Israel would be one example–the outcome of the fighting was foreordained . . . and yet chaos ensued as soon as the fighting was over. The prima facie explanation for this was that the administration did not concern itself with planning for the post-invasion phase.

Let me be very clear on this point, because often these things get lost in the partisan meta-analyses of the political media: I make no comment here on the good will of the administration. I make no comment on its intelligence or competence. I am saying, rather, that the administration made a choice not to focus on post-invasion planning–and that choice has had consequences.

If all I had to go on were Fallows’s attributions to anonymous military experts, I might be more skeptical. But I know a couple of senior military officers myself, and their evidence comports with his: there was no meaningful planning for the occupation phase of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Planning stopped at the invasion phase.

Some improvements were made later. Sawer was right that things would improve under Bremer’s leadership as compared to Garner’s. The U.S. military has continued to show its excellence in the field. But the plainest interpretation of events–based on a wealth of data–indicates that the administration, for whatever set of reasons, did not give much thought to what would happen after the GIs had won the shooting match. To my knowledge, there is no mass of data to the contrary.

What are the implications of that? There is one line of thinking that says it doesn’t matter if Iraq disintegrates–that the point was to change the status quo, to remove an enemy, and to insert the U.S. forcefully into the picture of Middle East affairs. Those objectives have been achieved; the rest is the breaking of crockery. So, at least, runs one interpretation.

But this is guesswork. The truth is, I don’t know what lurks in Bush’s heart–or Cheney’s, or Rumsfeld’s, or Rice’s. People guess at it every day, but to what end? Mostly it is for ascription of motive, which doesn’t really interest me much here. Yes, sure, in the long run, as a historian, I’d love to know more about exactly why the administration came to the conclusions that it did. But for now? Looking the policy as it unfolds? That doesn’t concern me much. I want to know what happened and how that has affected what’s happening now. Sawer’s memo gives us clues to this.

I have a friend who has defended Bush’s Iraq policy throughout, to the point of denying to me, late in 2004, that the administration had made a number of observable, objective, technical mistakes in carrying out its own stated grand strategy. In a recent e-mail this same friend criticized those writers who are writing the game story on Iraq when the game is only into the seventh inning. He has a point: it is too early to say what will happen in Iraq. It is too early for Bush defenders to declare a good outcome, and too early for Bush critics to declare a bad outcome. But parts of the story are clear on a factual basis. Things were not going well on the ground in 2003, and they might have gone better had the administration made different choices–obvious choices–about how to prosecute its policy. Supporters and detractors alike ought to do what they can to strip away the commentary, boil things down to the hard facts, and then build up their analysis from there. If nothing else, this is a tonic way to test our biases.

Unseen. Unforgotten.

1 March 2006

Ann Bartow of Sivacracy points to a trove of pictures from the civil rights movement on the site of The Birmingham News. These photos, which had not been published in the 1960s because they were seen as too inflammatory for the newspaper’s readers, were recently rediscovered by the News.

“Unseen. Unforgotten.”

I spent seven happy years of my childhood — in the 1970s — in Alabama. In my imperfect memory, it seems that the races mixed little even then: I can’t remember any black classmates at my private school, or black playmates in my neighborhood. It’s worth reflecting on how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, toward the promise of the day when everyone “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

These photos are well worth your attention.