Can We Win in Iraq?

CAN WE WIN IN IRAQ?….Is it time to announce a withdrawal plan for Iraq? Or is there still a chance that an open-ended commitment there will eventually create a semi-stable, semi-liberal, semi-democratic state?

I don’t think there’s any question that we owed the Iraqi people a sustained and intense effort to rebuild their country. We are, after all, the ones who invaded and occupied it in a war of choice. But several months ago I concluded that we were chasing a lost cause in Iraq, and that’s why I started talking openly about withdrawal back in June.

But where did my conclusion come from? Since I’m using this blog as a way to work out my own thinking in public, I should explain my thought processes. So here’s a story. It’s not a fascinating story ? quite the opposite, in fact ? but it is mine, and it partly explains why I think the way I do. Here it is:

Several years ago, the company I worked for decided to enter a new product area. After several months of investigation, we bought some technology, put a team of engineers to work, and began hammering out our offering. We were feeling optimistic.

A year later, after having learned a lot, I finally decided to have a talk with our CEO. I told him we needed to shut the project down. A month after we had started up, a major new competitor had entered the market with a solid product that had quickly become the dominant player. What’s more, it turned out the market we were entering wasn’t growing as fast as we had thought, and competing technologies were improving faster than we had expected. Given a weak market and entrenched competition, the chances of success were minimal even if our product turned out to be great.

Our CEO decided to continue the project, and six months later we introduced v1.0. As it turned out, the engineering team had done a good job and the product was technically sound. Initial reaction from our distribution channel was decent, and a promotional campaign boosted its second quarter of sales to a healthy level. Maybe this thing was going to work after all!

But that was the end of it. The next quarter sales dropped, and the quarter after that they dropped again. The field was too crowded, our main competitor had a v3.0 product out by then that was substantially better than ours, overall market growth was nearly zero, and our own sales force was unenthusiastic about our prospects. A couple of months later we killed the product.

This scenario happened with other products as well. No company bats a thousand, and there always comes a point when you have to shut down poorly performing projects.

But what I learned over a couple of decades of product management was this: pay attention to big trends, not to the daily ups and downs. If the big trends are in your favor (growing market, solid product), individual setbacks shouldn’t panic you as long as your overall execution is respectable. Sure, it’s a drag to lose a big deal or miss a launch deadline, but those things won’t kill you if you’re working in a broadly healthy business environment.

Conversely, if the big trends are against you, don’t kid yourself into complacency by cherry picking minor pieces of good news. Thursday’s sales were up! We just got a callback on that big IRS bid!

That’s where we are with Iraq. Yes, the constitutional deadlock might end. And we might have individual military successes here and there. But the big trends are inescapably against us. The insurgency is not dying down and shows no signs of doing so. American forces are viewed as occupiers. Ethnic tensions continue to boil barely below the surface. Rebuilding is going so slowly as to be almost invisible. We’re undermanned, and additional troops are not in the cards from either the U.S. or the rest of the world. Militias are running broad swaths of the country and the training of Iraqi security forces is obviously going poorly. The almost certain end state is either civil war, an Islamic state, or both.

One of the biggest differences between good managers and bad managers is that good managers are willing to face up to bad news and act on it. That’s what needs to happen here. There are too many big trends working against us to allow us to pretend that a few schoolhouses and half a dozen squads of Iraqi MPs are going to turn the tide.

So: we can wait until things get even worse and withdrawal becomes even more painful, or we can announce a plan now that makes the best of a bad situation and encourages the best outcome still plausibly open to us. We can put specific goals and specific timetables in place, do our level best to meet them, and then leave. Or we can wait until disaster forces us out. But don’t let minor events fool you. One way or another, we’ll be gone soon. Shouldn’t we do it on our terms?

UPDATE: Too many people were getting hung up on “wrecked” in the second paragraph, so I changed it to “invaded and occupied.” We obviously wrecked Iraq’s political infrastructure, but in any case, my only point was that since we’re the ones who invaded, we’re also the ones responsible for helping to rebuild.