Via Redwood Dragon, we find Body and Soul‘s The Doctrine of American Infallibility (1,900 words, plus over 3,000 words in comments). Is (Dave’s phrase) “modern American nationalism” imbued with an inability to admit systemic error? And if it is, what should we do about it?
I’ve written about risk management many times over on Arcturus; in the most relevant such post, I mentioned the fundamental error of “failing to acknowledge that there are any risk management strategies other than avoidance and acceptance.” (MEDACT’s predictions, unsurprisingly, were not realized.)
Before going further, I should quote the PMBOK (pp 142-3) on the available risk response strategies:
- Risk avoidance is changing the project plan to eliminate the risk or condition or to protect the project objectives from its impact. Although the project team can never eliminate all risk events, some specific risks may be avoided.
- Risk transfer is seeking to shift the consequence of a risk to a third party together with ownership of the response. Transferring the risk simply gives another party responsibility for its management; it does not eliminate it.
- [Risk] mitigation seeks to reduce the probability and/or consequences of an adverse risk event to an acceptable threshold.
- [Risk acceptance] indicates that the project team has decided not to change the project plan to deal with a risk or is unable to identify any other suitable response strategy. Active acceptance may include developing a contingency plan to execute, should a risk occur. Passive acceptance requires no action, leaving the project team to deal with the risks as they occur.
Stereotypical anti- and pro-war stances fall into the first and last of these: “don’t invade, we might kill some noncombatants” vs “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” Step one in achieving greater understanding is to recognize that while there are people on both sides of the issue who really do fit the pattern, there are far more who do not.
Good risk management practice would erode any doctrine of American infallibility; to quote again from the PMBOK (p 129): “To be successful, the organization must be committed to addressing risk management throughout the project. One measure of the organizational commitment is its dedication to gathering high-quality data on project risks and their characteristics.” Such data gathering is the antithesis of an insistence on historical perfection.
But if self-congratulation is no strategy, neither is hand-wringing. In describing our involvement in Southwest Asia in risk-management terms, I inherently imply that success is not only possible but can become more likely with time — the opposite of a quagmire.
The two cases presented in Jeanne’s post are combat in Afghanistan and reconstruction in Iraq. The identified risks are the death of noncombatants, especially children; and schedule/cost/quality problems in rebuilding. These are nontrivial concerns, and as (I hope) moral people and as taxpayers, we need to be vigilant about them.
For the combat environment, risk mitigation should take note of the following:
- The use of extremely reliable precision-guided munitions presents an exceptionally lethal risk to persons in target areas, who are now hundreds of times more likely to be injured or killed, by comparison with the unguided bombs and missiles of past wars. It must therefore be balanced by equally improved target assessment. For a relevant development, see the optimistically titled Micro-drone aerial spies preparing for takeoff.
- Conversely, relatively indiscriminate munitions should be phased out or at least upgraded to facilitate safe disposal of unexploded units.
These are significant scope/quality improvements, and will take time and (substantial) money to implement. For Iraqi reconstruction, corrective action requires a more strategic decision: should the work be delegated (risk transfer), and if so, to whom? Many Americans do not trust the UN to oversee such a task. This is complicated by the additional need to nurture civil society in Iraq to a relatively healthy condition; an organization which can’t keep dictatorships out and even puts them in charge of things is an unlikely candidate for this role (a while back, I jokingly suggested a new cabinet department).
It’s hard to foresee any significant policy changes in this area — there just aren’t that many organizations, public or private, who seem capable of performing the work. But American resentment over paying for it is inevitable. And if other nations are added to the list of defeated former enemies in the next few years, such resentment will become a high-profile campaign issue. Keeping from blowing up kids in Afghanistan may seem easy by comparison.