Column: Iraq — The Legacy of a Failed CEO By BOB BURNETT

Friday October 07, 2005

As the summer ended, the “tipping point” was reached on Iraq. Most Americans now believe that the war is unwinnable, that our troops should be brought home and the funds reallocated to pay for the recent hurricane damage and to bolster homeland security. The problem is that George W. Bush doesn’t agree; despite the change in public sentiment, and the fact that his approval ratings have plummeted, the president continues to insist we’re making progress and, therefore, the occupation should endure. It’s unlikely that Bush will change his mind. George’s carefully crafted image as America’s “CEO President” ignores the reality that he was a failure as an executive. He made dreadful mistakes, but never learned from them; now they have come back to haunt America, as the Iraq situation deteriorates. 

As an oilman, baseball executive, and governor, George Bush was typically a figurehead executive, the public face of an enterprise where the real power lay somewhere else. His oil businesses were notable disasters, although he never suffered financially, as friends of the Bush family bailed him out. Because George W was buffered from reality throughout his adult life, he never had to come to grips with his failures. The lessons he didn’t learn are painfully evident in the occupation of Iraq, where Bush has committed each of the classic CEO mistakes and, not surprisingly, hasn’t recognized any of them. 

George’s first failure was invading Iraq without a plan for the occupation. Many critics have noted this error; nonetheless, Bush has never developed a detailed Iraqi scenario. He continues to insist, “America will stay the course” when it is apparent to everyone, outside the administration, that there is no “course.”  

It’s impossible to prepare a plan for Iraq without being clear about the objectives of the occupation. George Bush has continually shifted our goals and, in the process, obfuscated the intent of the occupation. Originally, the objective of the invasion was to get Iraq’s WMDs. We never found these, but we did capture Saddam Hussein. Many would argue that having fulfilled our initial objectives, we should have withdrawn immediately. However, the administration changed our goals, which became a mishmash of building a stable Iraqi democracy, providing internal security, and defeating the insurgency. Whereas the original objectives were achievable, the substitutes are not: Whether or not a new constitution is adopted, Iraq will not become a stable democracy in the near future. Many experts believe that internal security is not achievable so long as the U.S. occupies Iraq. And, the Bush administration, itself, concedes that it will not be possible to defeat the insurgency before our troops withdraw. 

Since the occupation began to fail, George Bush has argued that America must fight terrorists in Iraq, so that we don’t have to fight them in the United States. This assertion has become his signature rationale—we’re in Iraq in order to fortify homeland security. Yet, many critics feel that this objective is disastrously wrong-headed; that the Bush policy has fueled the insurgency and made America less safe. UC professor, Mark Danner, provides a chilling critique of this strategy, “Taking stock of the forever war,” in the Sept. 11, 2005, New York Times Magazine. Danner concludes, “In launching a war on Iraq that we have been unable to win, [President Bush] has done the one thing a leader is supposed never to do: issue a command that is not followed.” 

Management 101 teaches that it is impossible for a CEO to have a realistic plan without taking into account time and budget constraints. Failed CEO Bush never absorbed this lesson and the Iraqi occupation has no limits. The current costs of the war exceed $200 billion and estimates of the final cost top $700 billion. President Bush has resisted providing an exit strategy, “We will set no timetable for withdrawal. A timetable will help the terrorists.” 

When corporate projects go disastrously off-course, CEOs are ultimately held accountable. Usually it’s difficult for them to admit that a program is failing and to pull the plug; they typically plead for more time, and insist that they see the light at the end of the tunnel. President Bush follows this pattern with his Iraq “project;” he claims, “The progress in the past year has been significant—and we have a clear path forward.” Beleaguered CEOs often argue that to even talk of shutting down an off-track project demoralizes those working on it. President Bush similarly maintains, “It would send the wrong message to our troops—who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve.” George W adds an emotional element to this claim, arguing that to leave Iraq without finishing the job would be an insult to those who have died in Iraq, “the best way to honor the lives that have been given in this struggle is to complete the mission.” Apparently, only the president understands what this mission is. 

Before he became president, George W. Bush made many mistakes as a CEO; unfortunately, he never recognized them. As a result, in his handling of his pet project—the Iraqi occupation—he is repeating the classic executive blunders that students are warned about in business school.  

President Bush isn’t going to change his mind about Iraq; he’s a failed CEO incapable of learning from his mistakes. The only way for the American people to alter the course of the Iraqi occupation is to bypass Bush and convince Congress to represent the will of the electorate. 


Before becoming a writer, Bob Burnett was a Silicon Valley executive. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net. This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.