Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An iSpeech To Change The World

A powerful and mysterious man steps in front of an audience of devoted followers, skeptics, and critics to deliver a speech that could change the world, create jobs, save industries, or all come crashing down around him. Both Steve Jobs and Barack Obama have big tasks today, and my advice for both of them is the same: manage expectations, show your work, be strong, and get a win.
Both speeches will anger some people, primarily for what they leave out. They will have features people won't expect. Some people will love it, no matter what, and others will hate it.
Apple's iPad, iTab, or whatever it ends up being called won't cure cancer (though ironically it might contribute to it). It might revolutionize the printing and journalism industries, though it might not. Jobs needs to tell us what it is and what it can be, but also what it is not. Whatever features it does not include (removable battery, forward facing camera) he should tell us why not. It should be evident what it does better than every device that has tried to do that task first, and he should hammer that point home and get a win.
The President needs to do the same thing. He is already getting based this week, especially from the Left, for a spending freeze very similar to that proposed by John McCain during the presidential debates. He's considered to be on the ropes after our new Republican/tea party overlord Scott Brown became the 41st senator. People are mad because they don't have jobs, the healthcare bill hasn't passed, the healthcare bill might pass, the government is spending too much money and running a deficit, they haven't received enough government money, etc. They will be mad at the things that are included, and mad if things like ending Don't Ask Don't Tell are not included after rumors said it would be. The president needs to lay out what can be accomplished in a way that makes it difficult for Congress not to work with him. He needs to show what he has done, and why he has not done more on other topics. He needs to seriously smack someone down and get a definite win in almost any arena. I almost hope a Republican does jeer him during the speech so that he can pull a "The Rock Obama." Nothing succeeds like success, and if the President wants to bring people back to his side he needs to take strong leadership on more issues.
Foreign policy probably will not be mentioned very much tonight, because jobs and the economy are first on people's minds. George H. W. Bush became a foreign policy focused president after facing domestic problems, and then became a one term president. If President Obama doesn't have wins in some arena he won't have the political capital for any arena, foreign or domestic.
Perhaps this time next year we'll all be watching and live-Tweeting President Obama's State of the Union on our iTab's, not able to imagine life without them. Perhaps Obama will also have approval ratings in the 70s after a wildly successful year continuing to bring us back from the depths of the Bush years. An Obama presidency in the abstract was as wonderful and open to possibility as the iTab has been for the past few months. People could imagine anything was possible. Delivering in the real world is a lot harder. But show what you have done, where it might still be possible to go, and how to get there and a lot more people will agree and help the process.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google and Corporate Soft Power

Underneath today's headlines of horror and destruction in Haiti (when was the last time something good happened to Haiti?) are two stories of courage, and in both cases the courage seems to be self-serving. In the first case Conan O'Brian told NBC to stick its schedule change where the sun don't shine, for which he seems to be universally praised, received great free publicity, and will probably end up with a better deal from Fox. Personally I can't imagine watching anything other than Stephen Colbert at 11:30, but it was a good and courageous move on Conan's part.
Google announced - on its blog - that it would no longer censor Google search results in China, risking having to close and lose the potentially lucrative growing Chinese market. Before the announcement most people loved Google's products, but many people also feared its size, domination, and what it was doing with all the information it collects. Now Google has revamped its image, and may not even suffer financially, as China may back down and stop having their hackers try as intensively to hack Gmail (apparently the real cause of Google's ire). While some reactions range from skeptical to confused, most praise Google's actions, including the same free speech advocates who are scared of Google's expansion.
Google has proved very adept at improving its own image. I wonder how this move will play in China, and how many will notice (the Chinese government, not surprisingly, blocked news of the announcement). The question is important because much of the world sees the United States as much through our corporations as through the actions of our government. What is the United States' most important export? Democracy and capitalism? Or Levi's, McDonalds, Baywatch, and Nike?
Some countries, like China, take a very proactive role in determining their country's image abroad, making an effort to promote it, build cultural exchanges, and spread their aid toward countries where it needs a positive image. Other countries, like the United States and emulated by India, are willing to let their country's image be the image of their corporations. If the usual image of Americans is of fat, violent polluters with no morals, it is nice to think that other messages about some of our companies will get out as well, especially when those companies make moves that are both the right thing to do, and good for business. It's good to know the Obama Administration has hired some Google talent to help them, and supports Google's plan to pull out. The government could use some Google savvy in helping manage its image in the world.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Analyzing Underpants: On Intelligence Sharing Problems and Solutions

A lot of articles, columns, blogs, and other material is out there analyzing what happened and why the intelligence community was not able to do its job and stop the Christmas Day "underpants bomber." Of course anyone looking for information should read the White House's own report (I've heard the classified version is much harsher). The Washington Post's infographic is quite good in showing how the system was supposed to work.
For a good insider account of the difficulties involved, especially with different spellings of non-English names, from former intelligence and friend-of-the-blog Jim Arkaedis read his latest post. (Jim's post on AQAP is also quite good, though I disagree with him regarding terrorist safe-havens).
If you want to follow the finger pointing, Josh Rogin is all over it.
If you want to talk about solutions Jennifer Sims and Bob Gallucci have a very sharp piece in the Post today, which echoes some of Malcolm Gladwell's ideas from Blink.
To win against a networked adversary, the intelligence community must share critical information with decision makers but not always with every element of its own community first. Assembling "puzzles" from many pieces is often necessary for planning and strategy; it takes time and the meticulous management of databases by analytical experts. But for day-to-day operations, decision makers often hold as many or more pieces than intelligence agencies do and certainly know better from moment to moment what knowledge they need to act. In terms of tactical decisions, sharing among intelligence agencies so that an "all source" product can be generated can be a form of hoarding. It can result in finished analyses that are irrelevant, unhelpful or even harmful to national security. [Italics mine]

Tico Thinking

When I was 12 and 13 years old I lived (with my parents) in Costa Rica. The experience helped me deal with other cultures and ways of doing things, and often led to interesting discussions.
Why do we have to stand in line for everything, and why do you need six notarized forms and two passport-sized photos for any interaction with the government? Wouldn't it be easier to do only wait in one line?
Oh, that's gringo thinking.
Why don't they actually fix the potholes instead of just filling them with gravel?
That's gringo thinking.
Why doesn't the United States buy fewer tanks and fighter planes and spend the money on schools?
Silly, that's tico (as Costa Ricans are known) thinking!
Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seems to have discovered the same thing on his recent visit to Costa Rica, and names that choice as a primary reason why ticos are the happiest people.

What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.

I’m not antimilitary. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

People: the Best Homeland Security

I imagine someone might be reading this on a mobile device as they are in an interminable security line at the airport waiting to go on spring break (they wisely got there early). But know this: the most draconian security measures we are proposing - full-body scans and extensive pat downs/strip searches - still would not have caught the Christmas day "Underpants Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
I was going to write that because he flew from Nigeria Abdulmutallab wouldn't have gone through a full-body scanner, but it turns out that Nigeria's international airport already has scanners. It doesn't seem Abdulmutallab was scanned, since as the Truman Project's Melissa Skorka points out, the workers in many developing countries' airports are often concerned with things other than safety. But the real story, as Marc Sageman discussed at a Middle East Policy Council event today, is that Abdulmutallab carried only about three ounces of explosive, the equivalent of three packets of sugar, and it is extremely unlikely that either a body scan or a pat down would have discovered the packets. As another panelist today mentioned, Yemen now has a very creative bomb maker, and though both the butt bomb and the underpants bomb have failed, he will keep trying. Three sugar packets worth of powder makes me think he could hide it in actual sugar packets, or as tooth powder, or really just about anywhere.
We'll know more about what exactly led to the breakdown of intelligence in the case of the underpants bomber when the unclassified version of the report is released later today, but we do know this: our best defense is alert, smart people talking to each other. We need our intelligence community to do its job. The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) is designed to bring representatives from the various agencies to share information with each other and put their heads together. One person should poke their head up over the cubicle and say "hey, this guy in Nigeria says his son is becoming radical" and another says "hey, I know of a Nigerian posting some radical thoughts online" and a third could say "hmm, the British just revoked a Nigerian's visa. Maybe we should do the same thing." But it didn't seem to work. No wonder people are clamoring for NCTC director Michael Leiter's head. Of course the NCTC has bigger problems, but Leiter has had plenty of time to work on them.
We also need as much interaction between governments and people in other countries. As much as an Obama Doctrine currently exists, it is based on the idea of smart power, and that means we need to keep our foot on the gas with diplomacy, exchanges, and training. DHS' Office of International Affairs needs to be fully staffed and step up its mission working on training, cooperation, and increasing security practices around the world. And people need to keep traveling the world and showing the good and productive side of Americans.
Finally, homeland security is everyone's responsibility. Who became suspicious and subdued Abdulmutallab? Not an air marshall (there wasn't one): other passengers. Same thing for Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. The DC Metro system constantly has announcements to report suspicious packages and the like. An alert and educated public can be our best weapon, since even DHS can hire only so many people.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said "the system worked" in the aftermath of the attempted bombing, a quote she clearly regrets. Parts of the system didn't work, the parts we pay billions of dollars a year for, and clearly those parts need to work better. But if you include everyone in the system, than the system did work. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks everyone wanted to help, and many did by donating blood or needed materials. President Bush had an opportunity to tell everyone that they were part of the solution, and that their role was to always be vigilant. Instead he told them to go shopping. Luckily for us many got the message anyway. People are the most important defense against terror.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Federal Contracting: a Plague on Both Your Houses!

President Obama signed the $626 billion defense bill recently, and various columnists and bloggers have decried what is or is not in the final version, including various ships, planes, and helicopters that are of no use or are vastly over budget. To me just as big a problem is the federal government's use of contractors. I'm not the only one who has noticed: the President himself asked for $40 billion in contracting costs to be cut over the next two budgets, and CNAS and others have come out with reports, but more attention needs to be paid.
Contractors come in multiple flavors (for the moment I'm not talking about government contracts to buy goods or materials). Some consider themselves "consultants" and swoop in with their MBAs and PowerPoint flow charts from companies like McKinsey or Deloitte, tell the government what they are doing wrong using proprietary jargon, and swoop on to the next project. A second group are essentially mercenaries, like the infamous Xe (formerly Blackwater) and others who serve in and around combat zones, primarily supporting the troops, but frequently overstepping their bounds. I have plenty of problems with those groups, but for now will focus on the third kind of contractors who are, for the most part, seat fillers hired by various agencies to supplement the federal workforce (whether their physical seats are in government buildings or not doesn't really matter, they are intended to supplement or replace federal employees by their mere presence).
I've worked as a "seat filling" contractor before, and I can tell you it is far from the most efficient way of doing things. Federal employees may be notorious for being inefficient and not hard working, a reputation that is normally false, but I can tell you that contractors are generally no better. Many if not most contractors actually want federal jobs, but have been unable to fight through the bureaucracy. Because contractors, usually make more than federal employees, and because the company makes overhead on top of their salaries, they don't normally end up being any cheaper than federal employees. The Bush administration wanted a smaller government and the flexibility to have a surge of workers, but the contractor complexes that have sprouted up around Northern Virginia demonstrate the long-term nature of federal seat-filling contracting. As the contracting workforce grows and the federal government remains stagnant the size of each portfolio of contracts administered by an individual federal employee increases drastically, leading to a lack of specificity, oversight, standards, and quality of work. Many of my contractor friends are bored out of their skulls in their cubicles in Northern Virginia because the over-worked federal employee only has so much time to look over their work, give them new projects, or do much of his own work, so the contractors sit burning contract hours slowly, wasting everyone's time.
The federal government needs to streamline its hiring process and hire the best of these contractors into permanent government service. As the last wave of federal employees starts to retire they will need replacing, so let the new generation start learning on the job. Hiring people who have served as contractors to administer contracts will lead to better performance from both parties. Federal contractors were intended to serve as short term surges for projects. They should actually serve that way rather than as expensive, non-empowered, de facto federal employees who are contracted out simply because they can't be hired quickly enough or to avoid having a bigger government. End the facade, it hurts everyone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Tale of Two Speeches

President Obama gave two important foreign policy speeches recently, and the opinion pages and blogosphere can't seem to stop talking about them. I didn't want to have my voice be lost in the immediate aftermath, but now that much of the dust has settled I thought I'd add a few thoughts.
The President's long-awaited speech rolling out his new Afghanistan strategy pleased almost no one who chose to examine it closely. It took too long, it wasn't detailed enough, it was too specific, some of the details were wrong, he didn't focus on Pakistan enough, he focused too much on Pakistan... Jon Stewart made fun of it for being too much like a speech President Bush could have given. Some bloggers complained that he had conflated the Afghanistan and Pakistani Taliban, and that anyone who doesn't understand the difference couldn't possibly come up with a good strategy. The West Point cadets watching the speech didn't seem to know how to respond until the speech stopped being specific and started going in to broad, soaring generalities and hopeful themes - Obama's specialty. In the days following the speech it turned out that few of the specifics were actually totally true. The troop "surge" may not take place until Fall 2010, and they will only "start" to be pulled out in Summer 2011. The speech failed to be all things to all people, and thus was not well received.
President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made up for it in a big way. It was masterfully written and beautifully delivered. Critics called it the best of Obama's career, and certainly the best of his Presidency so far. It spoke truth to the power of the Nobel committee, addressed the oddity of winning a peace prize while leading a nation engaged in two wars, acknowledged previous winners, and defended the use of military force while advancing progressive ideals. It was a perfect encapsulation of the Truman Project worldview - which makes sense since it was written by someone affiliated with the Truman Project. Writers from the progressive side to at least the conservative moderation of David Brooks loved the speech. About all critics of the speech could say was that it was rambling and disjointed. I loved the speech, but the critics are right. Everyone was happy with it because they could read what they wanted into the speech. Dan Drezner made an attempt to map out the various international relations theories referred to in the speech. It was another classic piece of Obama magic: choosing the middle path and creating buy-in from all sides by incorporating their arguments. It made for a powerful speech, but it will be hard to predict his future foreign policy moves based on a speech that left almost every door open.