Monday, August 22, 2005

Who's Driving the Bus?

In preparation for the start of my first semester as a graduate student, I spent a little time this weekend thumbing through my tattered copy of Stephanie Winston's Getting Organized. It's a nifty little book chock full of ideas for organizationally challenged individuals such as myself and it's something I like to review from time to time. While I'm never able to completely take its lessons to heart, I can usually employ them for long enough to substantially delay the point at which the wheels come entirely off the wagon. It's a modest goal to be sure, but we all have to aspire to something.

While this book covers many of the of the organizational challenges that we are likely to face in our daily lives, much of it is centered around a simple yet powerful concept that Ms. Winston refers to as "The Organizing Principle." The basic concept involves nothing more complex than making a list of priorities, identifying the tasks involved in accomplishing each priority item, and then scheduling a specific time to complete each task. Then, repeat as necessary. Not exactly what you would call rocket science.

Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways to going about this, and one of the wrong ways is to set up a list of priorities that is simply too vague. For example, one of my priorities this semester is to be a good student. But, if I write "Be a Good Student" on my list of priorities, I may have difficulty laying out the tasks involved in achieving that end. After all, what makes a student "good?" Is it someone who does all the reading? Someone who asks a lot of questions in class? Someone who writes great essays? Some combination of the above, plus other items not yet mentioned? I mean, it's great for me to have a grand vision about my scholastic career, but unless I have a very clear and specific understanding of what I wish to achieve as a student, I'm not going to have much direction as I proceed. Until I know exactly where I'm going, I'm not going to have much luck getting there.

With these ideas percolating in my brain, I sat down to catch yet another exciting episode of Meet the Press. This week's hero was Russ Feingold, who had been invited to expand upon his press release from the previous Thursday. As many of you know, contained within this release was a suggested target date for the completion of the military mission in Iraq. While this suggestion was certainly the headline grabber, this was only a one piece of a larger picture that predates this most recent step into the spotlight.
In June, Feingold introduced a resolution calling for the President to clarify the military mission in Iraq, lay out a timeframe for accomplishing that mission, and publicly articulate a plan for subsequent troop withdrawal. [Emphasis added]
In other words, Feingold is saying that Bush needs to review his own copy of Getting Organized -- either that or pick one up in the first place.

There's certainly no shortage of administration critics these days, and each one will give you a laundry list of gaffs and missteps that we should have avoided. But, as I watched Feingold this weekend, it struck me that one of the largest administrative blunders has been Bush's failure to clearly articulate a specific goal. Sure -- we hear a lot of talk about "fighting the terrorist threat", "making America safe", and "spreading freedom." But, while that's great rhetoric for a campaign stump speech, it's not very helpful when one is trying to flesh out policy. I mean, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of implementation, is it even remotely clear what we are trying to achieve?

Take "spreading freedom." This simple assertion can have numerous interpretations -- all of which seem to have been operative at one point or another. Are we talking about freedom from the tyranny of Hussein's rule? Or is it the freedom of self-determination? Does it mean a western-style liberal democracy? Economic freedom? The freedoms defined by our Bill of Rights? If you fail to define what is meant by "freedom", there is nothing clear to work toward.

Naturally, there is a political advantage to leaving our goals undefined. If the finish line is never drawn, your opponents cannot definitively identify failure. The elasticity of our objectives therefore turns discussion of progress into a he said/she said debate. This is, of course, familiar territory for the modern conservative movement and thus it's not hard to see why they're willing to tolerate such sloppy management.

But this isn't just about a face being shown to the world; direction is missing, not hidden. The longer our involvement in Iraq continues, the more glaring the absence of direction becomes. Part of this stems from the fact that reality has crushed some of our more hyperbolicly optimistic initial expectations. Yet, these failures shouldn't have left us completely adrift. New goals -- goals that serve our interests -- should have been devised to take their place. Instead, we now seem to be accepting any sign as an indication of progress. And it might be -- but to what end?

When Bush ran for president, much was made of his professional pedigree. He is the first president in our history to wield a MBA from that high office. Since his election, much has been made of his "grand vision" for peace and prosperity in the new century. But, there's more to the office than fancy rhetoric and a diploma that hangs on the wall. We need big ideas -- but more than that, we need specific ideas. We need to know what his vision is about in concrete terms. Only then can we begin to rationally work toward them.

Until then, we are most certainly headed nowhere at all.

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