Sunday, December 31, 2006

Learning from mistakes

One of Jim Collin's key points in Good to Great is the need to learn from mistakes. The Iraq war is demonstrating the wisdom of this advice while providing a long list of mistakes to learn from.

Fiasco lists many of the mistakes that were made and are being made. Chief amongst them the failure to learn from history. Before the invasion I pointed out on a radio call in program that 50,000 civilians had died during the British occupation of Iraq and that an invasion was likely to lead to at least as many dead. So far even the grossly under-reported administration estimate is higher. Independent estimates are consistently above 400,000 and as high as 650,000 if deaths resulting from the damage done to the sanitation infrastructure are included.

The picture painted in Fiasco is of a bunch of ideological zealots convinced of the justness of their cause and the absolute rightness of their political prejudices carelessly ripping up the established order in Iraq but being entirely unable to replace it. This group of alleged conservatives do not appear to have recognized the inconsistency of their core belief that government is bad while establishing what amounts to a command economy.

The Green Zone follies are most familiar to anyone who has read biographies of Stalin or Mao. Both murdered millions but they killed tens of millions through incompetent economic management. Substitute rubber plants and steel mills for hospitals and schools and the rhetoric is depressingly familiar.

A command economy can work but only for limited purposes and for a limited time. The British economy was successfully put on a command basis during World War II. The war could not have been won under the free market but after five years the entire industrial infrastructure was run into the ground.

What seems to be missing in the conservative ideological view is the acceptance that the policies that are most beneficial to a modern industrial economy are not necessarily most beneficial to one attempting to recover from a dictatorship. The economies of Eastern Europe that mamaged the transition from communism most successfully were the ones that ignored the fashionable advice in favor of an immediate transition to a free market and instead took a moderate, pragmatic course.

The vingnettes are telling: a person is put in charge of managing the Iraqi stock market who does not speak Arabic and has no experience in finance. The Iraqis use whiteboards and a manual accounting system to track trades. This is 'obviously' not acceptable to the US administrator so an attempt is made to computerize the system. Management of a major computer project being yet another area where the US appointed expert has no expertise. What Ricks does not mention is that until recently the London and New York Markets both operated in essentially the same way.

What Ricks unfortunately does not provide is a solution to the mess. This is not so much a flaw in the book as a reflection of the lack of options which are in any case dwindling.

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