Saturday | April 05, 2003
The tyranny of ideas
In my other online posting life, I write for NetSlaves. What we have done there is discuss the tech business among other things. If you care, you can see my analyses of various companies which once did business during the tech boom.
Once upon a time, there was a company called Flake.com. They covered the world of breakfast cereals. Now, you're probably saying to yourself, who the hell cares about breakfast cereals. But people sunk, as I remember, a couple of million into the company, which would run a website which would cover breakfast cereals.
The logic behind this? Well, because cereals have such a large market, and are pretty much the most expensive non-meat/fish packaged good sold in a supermarket, the owners assumed that people would flock to the site, companies would advertise and they would make money discussing breakfast cereals.
Now, in the real world, the audience for news about breakfast cereals consists of seven year olds, Jerry Seinfeld ( a noted cereal fanatic) and a few thousand people who manage brands and develop new cereals. Hardly the kind of market which one would want to develop a company to sell information to.
If you ask me why I'm so pessimistic about post-war Iraq, well, my reporting on dot coms has taught me something: the tyranny of ideas can be deadly.
You're probably wondering how and why Flake.com got funded, and frankly, so was I. But after a while, it became clear. The people who pitched the project, and hundreds of others from Amazon to Kozmo to Webvan, came from a certain class and educational strata of Americans. They were usually young, white, men, many with graduate degrees, MBA's or both, who had great, but untested, ideas. The people who ran the Venture Capitalists (VC's) who gave them the money, came from the same social class. Now, some of you may be thinking Ivy League, but not really. It's not as simple as that.
You could go to Harvard, join the Peace Corps and have nothing in common with these people. What we found in our reporting was that they spoke the same language, shared the same interests, thought the same way. If you mentioned the Vulcan Mind Meld or talked about Wookies, no one would have stared at you as if you had escaped from a mental institution. They shared the same cultural identifiers and markers.
They had been educated to worship the value of ideas over any and everything else. Many of these people were very young, had very little life experience outside of a few key industries. Others were academics who had tired of the Ivy tower. What they all had in common was a lack of real-world experience in the industry they wanted to enter. They believed in the power and sanctity of ideas over any and every thing else.
When these companies started to fail, and they did rather quickly in some cases, the causes boiled down to two things, an inability to budget and a refusal to understand why other, more experienced companies had not done what they were attempting to do.
Why didn't Royal Ahold have a delivery service based on their chains in the US. Well, because they make money when you go to the store because of the sale of floor space and product placement. Oh and the margins are about 1 percent .
What people have to consider in looking at US plans for Iraq is that there is a negative feedback loop here. Let's grant that Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle are very bright men. However, what have they ever run? They've never held elective office, they've never administered an organization which had to meet quotas and time tables. They've advised people on what to do, but for the most part, they've never been responsible for delivering anything to anyone at any time.
Which is why they became so enamored of the Iraqi exiles.
These people are, for the most part, fellow academic travellers. They have the same education (I've read that Iraqis hold more Ph.D's than any other people on earth per capita), have the same tastes and cultural conceits and share a similar world view. They all live lives based on ideas.
Not one exile being consulted has run a ministry, delivered a grain of rice or ounce of water or actually had to meet a performance schedule to deliver services. While many are clearly competent, few, if any, hold an MPA (Masters in Public Administration) and have any modern understanding of Iraq. And by modern, I mean 2003. Not 1995 or 1968.
There a sort of irridentist tone poem among the exiles. That Saddam is evil and he ruined the country. If we get back, we can make things better. We can make Iraq great with our ideas.
As Gwynne Dyer said the hard men of Tehran are listening. They see someone like Ahmed Chalebi, who is under indictment in Jordan for embezzlement and Kenan Kamiya, who hasn't been inside Iran in 34 years, and they laugh. They have real time, on the ground intelligence on what to do and what works and what doesn't. They look at the sideshow of the Iraqi National Congress and know they have 10-15,000 fighters to enforce their rule. More importantly, they have the heart of their people. The exiles in the west are little better than strangers who can (barely) speak their language.
The Wolfowitz-Perle infatuation with the exiles is simple, Like the VC's of the 90's, they are looking in a cultural mirror and are becoming enchanted with the reflection. The problem is that there may be no less capable group to run anything, much less a country most have not been in for years, if since childhood. Those who have experience, like generals, are impossibly tainted by their own criminal acts in support of Saddam.
The idea men behind the new Iraq have little experience in the realities of delivering services. They have lots of plans and breezy ideas, but little experience. Their ideas may work, but in my experience, an idea is not nearly enough to carry the day. No matter how sound the idea, it must meet reality. And as we have seen, reality can be a very cruel thing.
Steve GilliardPosted April 05, 2003 12:32 PM | Comments (22)