Arthur MacArthur and the Modern Day "Policy Wonks"

Forget the assignment of blame for the Iraq fiasco. That’s not the point of this Post. Instead it is my virulent reaction to a particular part of Vanity Fair‘s (January 2007) well-reported “Neo Culpa.” While the purpose was to pick on the neo-cons who philosophically beat the War Drums in 2002 and 2003, and even 2004 and 2005, that’s not what set me off.

Arthur MacArthur Junior, father to Douglas MacArthur, famously told his son, as Holy Writ on the battlefield, “Never give an order that can’t be obeyed.” (My military bosses—the good ones, anyway—taught me the same.) My 1973-4 White House boss (and today private equity superstar) Fred Malek likewise said “Operations is policy.” (Fred, perhaps not incidentally, was a West Point graduate.) That is, the idea and its execution are inexorably tied—Siamese twins, even.

Richard Perle, a principal intellectual cheerleader of the 2003 incursion into Iraq, echoed many of his fellow travelers when he told Vanity Fair, “I’m getting damned tired of being described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down Saddam. Nobody said ‘Go and design the campaign to do that.’ I had no responsibility for that.”

A thousand times Wrong.

Or, rather: Bullshit!

Consider the likes of Jim Baker today, or George Marshall or Thomas Jefferson in times long past. The “policy advisor” must—first and foremost—consider the odds of successfully implementing the suggested policy and the consequences of not doing so or doing so halfway. I can readily wish for some desired end (and I believe Perle’s end was indeed desirable), but I may not under any circumstances absolve myself from shoddy execution. As platoon commander, Arthur MacArthur’s son or “policy wonk,” predicting the shape and expected efficacy of execution is my responsibility as much as the concoction of a brilliant strategy.


Tom Peters posted this on December 19, 2006, in Execution.
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