Problem definition is among the most critical — essential — elements of effective problem solving. Taking the time, putting in the effort and gathering as many views as possible about the nature of the problem at hand dramatically increases the odds that effective solutions will be found. As a quick illustration, consider the family who, month after month, see themselves falling deeper in debt. Does this family have a credit problem to solve or a spending problem to solve? The airwaves are filled with commercials offering to help such families solve their credit problem — an indirect, anecdotal piece of evidence that a whole lot of families in this situation are choosing to define their problem as access to credit instead of finding different approaches to spending. Until the families change the way they define their problem, the odds are against them finding solutions that work.
That’s plain common sense.
So, what are we to make of these sentiments from Senator Chuck Hagel on the problem we call Iraq:
“The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation — regardless of our noble purpose.
We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam. Honorable intentions are not policies and plans. Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. They will decide their fate and form of government.”
Problem definition: We’ve got to move beyond noble purpose and honorable intentions if we are to find a solution to this problem.
That, of course, is dishonest. Senator Hagel knows very well that the government of George W. Bush did not enter Iraq with a noble purpose or honorable intentions. The record shows that less than two weeks after taking office, the Bush Administration began plans for “taking out Sadaam”. It used 9/11 to push those plans forward. They lied about WMD. They lied about Sadaam’s connections to 9/11. They lied about Sadaam’s connection to al-qaeda. They lied about the cost of the war. They lied about their preparedness for the post-war occupation. They lied about how things were going. They lied about their questionable methods, such as those used at Abu Ghraib. They continued to change the definition of the problem they were seeking to solve (e.g. what constitutes ‘victory’) and misrepresented and lied about how they described the situation in order to fit the message of the day. Throughout the affair (and as recently as a month ago in the run up to the mid-term elections), they demonized as traitors anyone who did not agree with their lies.
There were no honorable intentions. There never was a noble purpose. Quite the opposite. Yes, there was ideology. But, ideology and noble purpose are not synonyms. Did Hitler have a noble purpose? Did Stalin? Would you call the events triggered by the madness of Rev. Jim Jones linked to a noble purpose? How about Osama bin Laden? Noble purpose? Honorable intentions?
The Bush Administration defined the problem to be solved in at least three ways: First, to win and retain political power in the United States. Second, to “take out Sadaam” as part of Rumsfeld’s 21st century military vision. And, third, to strike anywhere and everywhere that, famously, there was even a 1 percent chance that anti-Americanism and/or terrorism could be found.
There is nothing either noble or honorable about any of this.
And until folks like Senator Hagel rid their problem definitions of perpetuating these lies, the big lie of honorable intentions and noble purpose will continue to cloud our capacity for clear problem definitions and clear problem solutions.
We will make much faster progress when people like Senator Hagel find the stomach to acknowledge the full picture. The Senator correctly describes the actions of the US government when he writes: “misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged.”
Now, the Senator — and others — must also speak as clearly about the fact that the Government of The United States acted dishonorably and did so with purposes linked to power, greed and arrogance. If our government is now to move forward, it must do so with a renewed fidelity to the rule of law and our historic aspirations toward decency, fairness, tolerance and liberty and justice for all. And the first and truest step toward doing this is: stop lying.
Our government has acted wrongly. And like a family who continues to seek easy credit instead of taking responsibility for spending, we will not find workable solutions to the mess we’ve created if we perpertuate the dishonarable lies that produced this mess in the first place.
When one reads Senator Hagel — especially when he concludes on the note of supporting the Baker-led Iraq Study Group – one sees that the real problem being defined is still the first plank of the problem as defined by George W. Bush’s crowd from the beginning: how to win elections and retain political power in the United States? How to spin the messages through our media and political markets about Iraq in a way that will let political leaders who compete in those markets — as well as the media companies and their celebrities who have replaced news with promotion — get the troops home without acknowledging that those same troops were sent off to fight, get injured and die for a lie.
Senator Hagel — and James Baker — are seeking access to more credit. And they most definitely are not prepared to take full responsibility for our spending problem — i.e. what’s been and will continue to be spent in blood, treasure, values, the rule of law and our national honor and decency.