Big, Bad Idea

Especially when it comes to Afghanistan, the “quarterly report” is one of America’s worst inventions

No doubt about it, many good ideas have come from America. OK, so we can’t take credit for aspirin — but acetaminophen isn’t a bad second. Then there was the Salk vaccine. And who can quarrel with personal computers (especially Apple’s)? National parks are a good idea. So was public education (for the most part). And don’t forget who got to the moon first.

But the truth is America, “exceptionalism” mythology aside, has produced more than its share of bad ideas. Here are just a few of my favorites: “highway” trust fund (aka “Who needs railroads?”); urban renewal (aka let’s call them “slums” and make a lot of money destroying neighborhoods at the public’s expense); the “Marlboro Man” (symbolic of a more insidious bad idea — i.e., anything that sells is a good idea); the Laffer Curve (which promised us that if we just lowered the tax rate on the wealthy, then the likes of Carly Fiorina and Kerry Killinger would work all that much harder making money for all of us); Las Vegas (when they run out of water, and they will, we will all be asked to fi x things); “talking heads” (they get louder and louder but have less and less to say); strip zoning (the paean to the automobile and the sterilizer of both neighborhoods and commerce); reality TV (on the other hand, what else is on TV these days?); cheap gasoline (see highway trust fund and strip zoning above); Power Point (reduces communication to outlines, charts and graphs, all in bright colors, but wit nary a developed thought); and 24/7 news (all bad, but Fox, more than any other “news” network ever, has turned “news” and “editorial comment” into self-confirming circular yammering — i.e., whatever they say is news automatically becomes editorial comment; whatever they produce as editorial comment automatically becomes news, such that Fox has become the Tokyo Rose of news reporting).

We have somehow survived all these bad ideas — which you might think would give us a sense of modesty, alas. These bad ideas share one thing in common: measurable results regularly calculated.

Now let me give you America’s baddest, most dangerous innovation ever: “the quarterly report.” It’s the black hole of wise policy, the bete noire of research and development, the Antichrist of historiography, the crack cocaine of illusion… and when it comes to national security matters? A disaster!

Which brings me to Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever other bad ideas have plagued America’s invasion and involvement, none has been so destructive as our addiction to the various forms of “the quarterly report” by way of measuring progress.

Consider the “surge.” It was viewed as a total success. And why? Because we got several good quarterly reports out of it.

Consider the “surge.” It was viewed as a total success.

And why? Because we got several good quarterly reports out of it.

But real success in Iraq — a permanent, reasonably stable, somewhat democratic, mildly pro-Western government — who knows? Are recent bombings a harbinger of things to come? And after our troops leave? Will there be a military strong man, maybe? And then 10 years later? Still too soon to tell. And 50 years from now?

In any case, we actually didn’t implement General David Petraeus’s counter-insurgency strategy. It calls for many more than the 20,000 or 30,000 troops he got, upwards of several hundred thousand. So did General Petraeus unintentionally manage to mask the possible irrelevance of his overall strategy? After all, in the end, didn’t he pick up on a tried-and-true urban political-machine strategy? Didn’t the general buy off the opposition, in this case the beleaguered Sunnis? Whatever it was he did with those surging troops, it produced some welcome quarterly reports. And in America, that’s what counts.

The result? Buy, buy, buy, the stock is going up.

And in Afghanistan — want to succeed? Want a good quarterly report? Surge, surge, surge.

We should be grateful that President Obama is subjecting the counter-insurgency strategy to serious cost-benefit analysis. Our current wars have tweaked Ralph Waldo Emerson’s line about how “events are in the saddle and riding mankind”; instead, in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the quarterly report culture has been in the saddle and riding policy choices.

Obama seeks to avoid being held captive to this really bad idea. But he proclaimed Afghanistan to be a war of necessity, thus he backed himself into a corner papered over by the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual. Surges aside, the good news is that the manual does actually provide us a roadmap, just not the one General Stanley McChrystal recommends.

The manual instructs us to consider troop levels with reference to the limiting factors of culture. It even provides some specifics: If the moral basis of the culture views petty crime and corruption as the norm, then counter-insurgency is transformed into occupation, and you throw out the manual altogether.

As I write this President Obama is wrapping up his trip to China. To no surprise, he is left to discuss “quarterly report” stuff — cost of money, trade relations, even short-term climate change. But he is talking to the Chinese leaders who, not trapped by quarterly report stuff, are thinking about their preferred geopolitical position in a century or so. You get my point.

Obama is attempting to force his national security and foreign policy team to shift their collective gaze from quarterly report terms such as “progress” to the less measurable variable of “cultural limitations.”

And that’s another American good idea.