Friday, April 30, 2004

Image Makers

The power of images has long been understood by advertising people, and image making is a widely used tool of politicians.  Stage setting and image making is a bi-partisan activity, but no one has become more adept at it than the Republicans, particularly since Michael Deaver came to town with Ronald Reagan.  So it's not surprising that a great deal of attention has been paid on this day to President Bush's fly-in and staged end-of-hostilities address before that huge Mission Accomplished banner on the deck of a large carrier last May 1.  I can't add to it other than to note something Bob Woodward recently said about owning things you create. 

What I can't get out of my head are two vivid images that appeared on our front pages in the past days.  The first, and clearly the most disturbing, was of American soldiers humiliating war prisoners, and the second was of an of American officer shaking hands with a former Iraqi general to whom he was turning over authority in Falluja.  While being a vociferous opponent of the war in Iraq, I don't for a minute think that those few soldiers represent the brave youngsters who are risking their lives every day, nor do I doubt George Bush's sincerity in expressing disgust.  I also understand the desperate need to quiet down Falluja -- thus General Saleh.  But think about the images.

The prison in which those soldiers disgraced themselves and their country is the same prison in which Saddam tortured Iraqis throughout his brutal regime.  The general with his Saddam-like mustache and Saddam-era uniform has been asked to take command of the place, claims about outside agitators notwithstanding, that is widely regarded as the main stronghold of Baathist resistance.  If images are the name of the game in influencing minds and carrying the message, what must the average Iraqi be thinking?  What are we, who have sent our sons and daughters to war and spent billions to rid the world of Iraq's old way, to think?  Isn't it fair for both of us to wonder why our two countries are going through all of this? 

Ugly things happen in the heat of war, on all sides.  Frustrated  and tired soldiers commit atrocities.  The only people in Iraq with any track record of getting things like security done are the bad guys.  Our problem is that we have entered a world whose language, customs, culture and way of doing things we neither knew nor understood.  We speak platitudes about being on the Almighty's mission to bring the light to the democracy-starved.  We are confidently self-assured but are absolutely clueless.  Now everything is out of control, including the images.  In the end, it is the Iraqi people who, based upon our promises had harbored some hope, will pay the price.  They should have known the day we marched in Ahmed Chalibi as their democratic savior.  Speak of images.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

On Value and Values

Ever so often a book comes along that transcends ordinary narrative to provide a profound insight into what's going on and how things work in our ever changing world.  James Gleick's Faster and Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point were such books along with a handful of others.  Now my good friend Douglas K. Smith gives us On Value and Values, Thinking Differently About We…in the Age of Me.  It's a must read for anyone who really wants to understand how our world has fundamentally changed in more than the obvious ways.  I don't use the word our lightly here because, as with any other change, we in the so-called developed societies are early adopters.  What's so powerful about this book beyond explaining how things really are, is that between the lines you'll find still another insight into why there is such a huge disconnect between cultures, one of the underlying causes of the terrorism that hangs over our heads.

Doug's underlying thesis is that our world has moved from one of place to one of purpose.  While in former times everything we did revolved around our village, town, city etc., we are now driven by markets, networks, organizations, friends and family.  Simply put, what pervades our lives are the multiple relationships forged within each of those groups developing small teams of thick we's with whom we get things done.  Our connection with these discrete points of shared interest are far stronger than with people who just happen to live down the street.  Our world is not a village any more.  Along with our new purpose-focused existence comes a shift from the values-driven life of place to value-driven life of purpose, often for its own sake.  This may provide us with short term returns, but Doug argues that it is a recipe for long-term failure.  Value without values is no value at all.  His purpose in this writing is to point the way toward achieving those values.

Doug Smith is a deep thinking consultant who has assisted more than forty high profile companies and institutions navigate through complicated management issues or position themselves for the future.  He has one of the best minds of anyone I've encountered in my professional life.  Doug has five previous books, but this one really sums up his global thinking with a conviction that is hard to miss.  It is that which is what makes the read so compelling.  There are lots of great books around this year, many of them important but timely.  Doug Smith's book is timeless, one that I plan to revisit often as I try to make better sense out of what's really happening to us in this new century.  Log on to www.amazon.com or www.bn.com both of which carry On Value and Values.  You won't regret it, if only to get away from the ugly stuff that is taking up such a large share-of-mind these days.  It's also a wonderful read.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Talk On

Testimonies don't simply happen they are prepared.  I've been through that process when getting ready to offer expert opinion in legal disputes.  In such instances, and probably in most others, lawyers have two simple instructions: listen carefully to the question and answer only what is asked in the fewest possible words.  A potentially hostile hearing in which questioners are on the clock seems to require something else altogether, the advice Dr. Rice was obviously given.  Talk and then talk on.  Bury them with words and run out their clocks.  That's exactly what we witnessed this morning at the 9/11 Commission hearings.  She was a master at it.

The networks went quickly into headline mode identifying the critical sound byte, "no silver bullet".  Preparing for the worst, the spinsters are out there telling us that this is a politicized process.  Watch how that tone changes if the Commission exonerates W's administration which, of course, would make for a non-partisan verdict.  Without diminishing either the importance of the inquiry by what appear to be ten pretty serious people, nor the need to find a better way of integrating intelligence, the hearings are somewhat of a sideshow given what's going on in our world.

Even Tom Friedman, who long supported the war with or without WMD's, and in all fairness has consistently worried about the after, is getting increasingly frustrated and concerned.  It doesn't matter that many of us opposed Iraq, considered it a distraction from the war on terrorism and perhaps even an inflaming factor, we are here now.  Like it or not, George Bush and company has succeeded in merging the two wars.  How we proceed against divergent but clearly mutually supportive uprisings in the North and South will undoubtedly impact what happens next — there, in the world and to us.  Friedman can argue whether we're fighting the Viet Cong or the Kamer Rouge (NY Times 4/8), but I know a quagmire when I see it.

So Condi Rice talks on much as she has on every conceivable news program that will have her.  She talks on in the hope that we might be distracted, which we dare not let happen.  Personally, I prefer shorter answers to more questions.  Considering how deep a hole we've dug for ourselves since 9/11 they better be good.  Knowing they won't, let's hope we'll survive long enough to have a new, policy.  I don't know about you, but I've had quite enough of robust.