Column: The Public Eye: The Difference Between Getting it Right and Getting it Done By BOB BURNETT

Friday September 02, 2005

A key Silicon Valley rule is that to be successful at developing new products one must focus on getting the job done, rather than on being right. The failure of the Iraq constitutional process brings America to a critical decision-point, where the American public has been presented with only two options, both based on the notion of taking the “right” next step in Iraq. 

The Bush administration champions a conservative view of rightness. They contend that we must fight terrorists in Iraq, so that we don’t have to fight them at home. Bush argues that the United States must stay in Iraq until “the job gets done,” the insurgency ends. There are two problems with his position: One is that it is open-ended—there are no cost limits in terms of time, money, or American lives. The other is that this conservative view turns a blind eye to the increased risk of another 9/11; it ignores the reality that America has been weakened by the Iraqi occupation, that resources spent in Iraq would be better spent on real homeland security measures, such as fortifying chemical plants, 

Progressives propose a competing view of what is right. They argue that the justification for the Iraq war was fabricated and, therefore, the occupation has no moral authority. They insist upon a withdrawal plan, that troops must begin to leave Iraq by Oct. 1, 2006. The problem with this approach is that a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would likely plunge the nation into civil war, where hundreds of thousands would perish in sectarian battles and ethnic cleansing. Inevitably, this fighting would spill over into the rest of the Middle East, and impact the economy and security of the United States. 

Giving up the notion of being right and substituting “getting the job done” represents a significant departure from both the conservative and progressive views. Such a stance recognizes that our occupation of Iraq has not worked, but that the United States cannot simply walk away. After all, it is one thing for a married couple to divorce after two months, and quite another for them to divorce after 10 years and two children. Whether we like it or not, our “marriage” with the Iraqis has produced “children” that we must take responsibility for. 

Getting the job done means that Americans, first, get our priorities straight. It reasons that rather than asking how we win in Iraq, or how we get out as fast as possible, we should instead ask ourselves what course of action will make America safer, in the long run. It recognizes that the United States is expending resources in Iraq that should, instead, be used to bolster homeland security; for example, rather than build enduring military bases in Iraq, we should be strengthening our first responders here at home, pumping funds into police and fire departments.  

After we clarify our priorities, the United States needs to adopt three new policies to help us get the job done. The first regards our military forces. We should admit that we are not winning the war with our ground troops—that we have never had enough troops in Iraq for a successful occupation—and that it would enhance our national security if we began bringing these troops home. Therefore, we should announce that we are withdrawing our ground troops from urban areas and that, once all parties accept a new Iraqi constitution, we will withdraw most of our ground troops from the country. Thereafter, the United States would adopt the same strategy that we have in Afghanistan: let the reconstituted national army do the day-to-day fighting with insurgents, while we assist Iraq with our air power and Special Forces.  

The second new policy regards our conception of Iraqi democracy. We should accept the Shiite and Kurd position that Iraq must become a federation rather than a republic. The United States should provide financial and political incentives so the Sunnis can live with this arrangement; for example, we should agree upon an amnesty for most former Baath Party members. We should allow Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis to have different versions of democracy; for example, the Shiite region could place more emphasis on Islamic law. The United States must abandon the notion of “model” democracy and settle for something that works. 

The third new policy would be economic. The United States must renounce the draconian financial conditions set by the Coalition Provisional Authority, for example, the terms of the reconstruction loans from the World Bank. We should redirect reconstruction funding away from U.S. contractors to their Iraqi counterparts. Finally, the United States should announce that when there is political stability in each of the three regions of Iraq, we would withdraw from our bases there and turn them over to the Iraqi military. 

By dogmatically insisting that we are right in Iraq, and refusing to acknowledge our mistakes, the Bush administration has backed the United States into a corner. The only way to get out of this corner is to abandon all pretenses of getting it right and, instead, take actions that will truly protect America. 


Bob Burnett is a retired Silicon Valley executive, now a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.