Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Second Thoughts: Hard A-Port, Point Ho!
Wednesday, February 22nd, the day after the news broke that the government was allowing port operations at six major US ports to be managed by a state-owned company from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, with its history of connections to the Taliban and al Qaeda and of trafficking in nuclear bits and pieces going to bad folks who shouldn't have them, more odd details emerged. As reported here (and all over) - "President Bush was unaware of the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates until the deal already had been approved by his administration, the White House said Wednesday."
What? He didn't know?
So it wasn't only the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and all the Republican congressmen and senators who "carried the water" for the president, defending all he does (the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court excepted), who didn't know. Even the president had just found out what the Treasury Secretary John Snow's committee on foreign investments approved, a committee formed in the seventies with the purpose to encourage such investments, chaired by the former head of the transportation firm CSX that was sold to state-owned company from Dubai for a few billion after he left.
What does that make the president - uninformed but defiant anyway?
That late news led to comments like this - "Ok Congress didn't know, Bush didn't know, the Joint Chiefs didn't know, Rumsfeld didn't know. Who the hell is running our government? This is a total lack of oversight or a major lie. The GOP congressional hearings on this subject should get really interesting."
Our friend the high-powered Wall Street attorney, commented, while stuck in traffic at the Holland Tunnel waiting to get out city, that this was an odd thing - one supposed virtue of the man as he ran for president was that he would run the country like a business. Bush had an MBA and would be the first real CEO president, running the national like a finely-tuned prosperous corporation (don't think about Arbusto Oil or the Texas Rangers). Cheney would be his COO, the operations officer implementing the "vision" of the chief executive officer. But this? Our friend, whose expertise is corporate contract law, muttered that in most large corporations the staff comes up with ideas, concepts, plans - and the CEO considers them all and approves what seems best and matches his vision. Our friend sees here stuff is just done, and the staff tells the CEO what's happening after they've launched whatever it is into action. This takes trusting your staff to a new level. On the other hand, in the ongoing Enron trial this seems to be one line of defense that Key Lay, another Texas CEO, is using - the senior staff was acting without authority and he himself did nothing wrong. His only fault was trusting them too much, and how can you punish someone for trusting others?
But its seems there's lots that the president just doesn't know. Maybe too much, as noted here -
There's a pattern?
This is a somewhat detached management style - hold the "big vision" and articulate it in undemanding terms like a simple-minded third grader, appoint contributors and key friends to critical positions, let them do what they will without judging what's really a good thing to do, and defend them even if what they've done is bone-headed. It's hard to think of successful corporation that uses that model, other than Enron before the bankruptcy.
So we have this port thing with everyone hopping mad, and those congressional hearings looming next month, as Senator Norm Coleman is disconcerted -
He's not the only one upset, as in this letter to the president (PDF format) from Republican congresswoman Sue Myrick of North Carolina in regard to the "sale" of the ports - "...just say NO - HELL NO!" It's one sentence long and she released it to the press.
Well, any number of commentators who belong to the Cult of Bush - it may look wrong and actually be illegal, but if Bush does it you have to trust him as his motives are pure and he never wavers - are pointing to this Wall Street Journal editorial here - "So far, none of the critics have provided any evidence that the Administration hasn't done its due diligence. The deal has been blessed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multi-agency panel that includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security."
Bush trusted them, so we should?
Wouldn't normal practice be for this committee to recommend this and ask the CEO to approve? It seems, however, that everyone in the organization knows this CEO doesn't like detail. You wouldn't want to make him angry by troubling him with minor stuff. But then, if anyone on the committee had a sense that this could be political dynamite, they might have given him a heads-up, just so he knew they'd be some work ahead to calm the waters.
There are some odd management dynamics at play here. He doesn't tell them what to do and they don't tell him what they've done. Then he blusters and says this is all fine and dares those who are surprised to defy him. The word "dysfunctional" comes to mind here, in an organizational sense.
Do you suppose anyone told him his war seems to have, on Wednesday, February 22nd, finally failed - the sectarian civil war there has begun in earnest, as Sunni guys dressed in official-looking commando uniforms managed to blow up the Shiite al-Askari shrine in Samarra, the one with the big gold dome. This is a big deal, with the holy graves and all - kind of like mad Lutherans blowing up Saint Peters in Rome, instead of nailing things to doors.
Briefly this from Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor -
What happens next? Some bullet points from the BBC here -
And a detail in the Washington Post account here notes Iran is saying that American and Israeli forces are to blame for the bombing. And this melds with the cartoon wars, as there are reports that some nut cases are saying the Danes were behind the bombing of the Shiite al-Askari shrine in Samarra. Great.
The UN - and we have little use for them - is trying to get the various Shiite and Sunni leaders to stop right now and talk with each other - the news story is here and quotes our CEO president - "Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve."
Who knows what that means? The layers of irony are deep. What was that war about? He's on a "just say no to violence" kick now? The man can be confusing.
But it seems someone told him his war wasn't going well.
It's like this. Set some "transformative event" in motion and you never know what you're going to get. Call it "extreme delegation" - don't consider all possible consequences, discard the worst-case scenarios, disregard what's in the risks-assumptions tables, blow off the resource allocation analyses, do no if-then planning. And develop a cost-benefit decision matrix based on simple-minded idealism, not on real costs and realistic outcomes, but on what you wish were so. Delegate (give them their disassembled nation) and hope for the best.
Many of us know the basic management tools. Project planning is a pain in the ass. But you do it. You have to. What made these guys exempt from reality?
Ah well, the final insult is that Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, of all people, is now saying get us out Iraq as soon as possible. No kidding. See this. Three months ago he was calling those advocating immediate withdrawal from Iraq "pinheads" and compared them to Hitler appeasers. Now he's ticked.
Lyndon Johnson lost Walter Cronkite of CBS, and muttered to himself that it was all over. Vietnam was lost. And it was, even if it took years to wind down. George Bush has lost Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. What is he muttering to himself?
But O'Reilly is, if nothing else, mercurial, and may change his mind again. Who knows? The fifty-five percent of the country who now think the war is pointless may not flip back so easily, and even if our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has said we'll stop all aid if this gets any worse (here) - and we all see where this is going. Who wants to go there? "The volatility of the political process was exacerbated Monday by suggestions from Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, that the United States might decrease financial help to a government that excluded some sects and ethnic groups." We don't have a dog in this hunt.
Of course we removed the tyrant who held things together with terror, mass murder, and the brutal exclusion of the majority Shiites. We just laid the groundwork for a civil war based on religious fanaticism (as an outside sees it). Do we want to take sides regarding who is right about the true son of the Prophet Mohammed? Maybe we really should have built those risks-assumptions tables. Say, what did happen to Yugoslavia after Tito was gone?
But the port thing may be a red-herring, not a big deal, just a chance for lots of politicians to do a lot of posturing. Who really cares about protecting our country from the bad guys? Ah, it seems it isn't Bush. Yes, it is! No, he's giving away the ports to our enemies! No, he isn't!
Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly untangles things quite a bit here, first addressing the issue that Dubai Ports World (DPW) isn't a private company, it's a state-owned company. Yeah, so?
Drum points to this in the Financial Times explaining state-owned companies already operate terminals here - China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles and APL (owned by Singapore's state-owned NOL) in Oakland. From the Financial Times - "The US container port industry would be unworkable without companies controlled by foreign governments." And Drum notes "DPW and Singapore's state-owned PSA are the third and fourth largest port operators in the world, and China's Hutchison Ports already refuses to invest in the US. If all of these firms are shut out of the country, we lose access to some of the best and most efficient port operators in the world."
And Drum adds, "encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that's driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it's an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing."
You might want to check out his quotes from five different port operators who wonder what all the fuss is about. The problem is that this is just the nature of the shipping business.
Dock workers themselves would continue to be American union members, and port security would continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and Customs.
Well, logic sometimes works wonders. This seems to be more a chance for politicians to "make a statement" on how very, very, very seriously they take our security. It's a politically useful controversy.
Of course, you might, if you're really into realty and logic, read this, Daniel Engber in the slate.com "Explainer" series, well, explaining what a "port operator" does - gets cargo containers off of ships and puts them onto trucks or trains and does the paperwork to get incoming shipments through customs, and uses its computer system to help connect the goods with potential recipients, under tight specific contracts with the local government (the public port authority) that approves and monitors the operator's security plan. It's kind of boring, but the link to the computerized yard management system "to help each trucker connect with his payload" might interest some systems folks.
No one is "selling the ports" and giving the bad guys control of our lives.
So the controversy may resolve to how this was handled, not the deal, which may be safe.
And that means it's a management issue.
How is our CEO running things? He works for us, and we need to decide if he's running the joint effectively, or if he's the one running it at all.
There's this from Andrew Sullivan -
And there are the diplomatic issues.
James K. Glassman here -
In the conservative National Review there's this -
And one of Andrew Sullivan's readers, when Sullivan pointed to that, give us this -
Ah, the idea is to show good will it might be nice to stop with the other stuff and not worry about how to sell this port deal to the posturing politicians and the panicked masses.
But that other stuff isn't going to stop. And the civil war is on in Iraq, and our CEO is out of the loop.
Perhaps the Board of Directors should form a search committee for a new CEO or something.