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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Changing Top Actors in Iraq: Query and Responses

The Query

Consider today's headline (January 5th. 2007): President Bush to change top officials in Iraq.

Imagine you are a member of the Council of Organization advisors to the President. This doesn't actually exist, but let us act as if it did.

How would you advise the President to act if he wants to achieve the most positive outcomes possible to implement his new policy (details of which are unavailable at present).Should he replace the three top people, the Ambassador, the Commander of CENTCOM (Central Command), and the Commander of Ground Forces in Iraq in one fell swoop?


Should he replace them at 3 month intervals (or longer)?

What are the advantages or disadvantages of each approach. What contingencies would lead to one or the other approach being more successful.

Which approach do you think would be more successful?

Summary of Suggested Solutions (there were only seven suggestions):

It is irrelevant:2
Clean Sweep:3
Phased Replacement:0 (That was my preferred
solution, see below for rationale).
It all depends:1

The Answers:

1. I don't think it matters, but I don't think in either case it makes a difference. He should replace the people who screwed it up in the first place, and that would be the top of the administration including himself. If this were a private-sector company that had made this big a blunder, the CEO and top people would all go.

2. With all due respect, it seems pointless to answer the question, just as Bush's personnel changes appear pointless. Why change people unless it is required to support a change in strategy--the implicit rationale for the Baker commission? Are these changes required to develop and/or implement a new plan or is this simply a rearranging of the deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic that Iraq has become? I suppose the answer depends on specifics of the new strategy. Either way, it doesn't seem logical to make personnel changes--phased or otherwise--unless it supports an overall plan that achieves some clearly defined strategic goal.

3. Not knowing what is actually occurring, it is difficult to make any recommendations on replacement strategies. First, what are the problems; are they failures of leadership, procedural problems or some combination? Is the current leadership unable or unwilling to deal with the perceived problems? Are the solutions to the problems within the control of the leadership team? How would changing the leadership team address the problems identified? Are there candidates available that we believe could do a better job? Change for the sake of appearances results in the same outcome. If the replacements are no better qualified than the incumbents, then it does not really matter whether we fire the incumbents in one mass blood-letting or a phased bleed out.

4. Recap information that I am aware of regarding the question:

The tours of duty for Commander of Centcom and the Commander of Ground Forces in Iraq are up. They were going to be changed. It is strictly a timing issue from a military standpoint. The military are excellent managers of this transition process.

The changing of the Ambassador is a political decision. I am not aware of a rotation policy, but there should be one for hot spots like Iraq. As I understand it, he will be moving to the UN. One could call this a career promotion for service rendered.

You did not mention that the top Director of National Intelligence position is also being changed. The new person has worked with Gates (now head of DoD) before.

New People/Team:

A. Gates - now the head of DoD - position filled, was at the CIA & NSA

B. Retired Navy Adm. John M. McConnell will take the top U.S. intelligence job, U.S. officials say. McConnell directed the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996 under President Bill Clinton.

C. Adm. William J. Fallon to head the Central Command

D. Gen. David H. Petraeus Ground Commander, who gained fame for training Iraqi troops and securing a volatile city in northern Iraq

E. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the current envoy to Pakistan, who began his career in the 1970s in Iraq, is the new ambassador to Baghdad

There appears to previous strong linkages between Gates, McConnell. I suspect linkage from McConnell to Fallon (Navy boys)

The bottom line of your question is: Flash Cut vs Phased Change Over.

I have done both in my career in telecommunications and even couple of flash cuts that could not be rolled back. People changes have usually been phased. If we fired someone on the spot, then the transition would not take place. Some VP have been shown the door, if they were just hired by a competitor.

5. I guess I would have to ask first, why the only option is to replace all three? Having been in an officer in the military I know their job is to offer advice/recommendations/alternatives and then follow orders... so one has to ask if their advice, which we really have no way of knowing, has been faulty, or has the policy that they were ordered to implement faulty? If the former, then they should be replaced! If we assume (which I think is a very large assumption) that all three have been giving faulty advice (perhaps groupthink??) then I would say replace them all immediately... yes, there may be some confusion, but the military is full of fine leaders, they will pick up the slack and this gets the transition period over in a very short period of time instead of dragging it out... dragging out change, unlike in most organizational contexts, in the military may cost people there lives... The pressure on leaders in the military, based on my experience in the military, in a corporation, and now in academia, is significantly greater... however, I will say that I think the assumption all this is based on is probably faulty.

6. This is an intriguing question, allow me to weigh in. I will not bother throwing in the theory / citations, I think you can infer this from what is suggested and I do believe I could make a theoretical case for these suggestions.

Though there are considerations at both the individual leader level and the organizational level, I would recommend option #1, replace all three at once. Here is why I think an all-at-once option is preferable on the individual leader level: changing all three simultaneously would allow a new synergy to develop between the three leaders at points of interaction. Keeping two, then adding a new one on one month would bog the new person down he or she may be less likely to proffer or implement change with the “old guard” still around, plus the remaining two would no doubts feel and act like lame ducks anyway. There would be too much tension with the pressure against needed changes if the old leaders stayed on board. The sooner they are gone the sooner change can begin, and presumably this is the reason for the change of leadership in the first place. A group of three new leaders would not have this tension, at least within the group. This does of course assume that the three new ones are competent to do their jobs and do not need “training.” And I would keep the old guys around as advisors, but not with any official authority. I think for political / appearance reasons changing all three in one fell swoop is good. The public would perceive this as a radical (and hopefully positive) change, as if there is a complete overhaul of leadership. In all honesty, and at the risk of sounding cynical, these are three very big ships to turn around, floating in a sea of horrendous obstacle, and the outside political pressure is so great, that a change in one man at the top is, in my opinion, not likely to make much difference. While I study and believe in the power of leadership, in reality there are many other realities that leadership cannot address, at least in conditions such as we are considering. The public and political perception that positive change is happening is probably the greatest thing this change in leadership can offer.

The major down side to option #1, on the organizational level, would be the disruption to three organizations all at once. But this is really only an outside perception. Eventually each organization is going to have to deal with the disruption and the pain involved, and having their disruption occurring at the same time as another organization’s disruption does not matter. To use as a crude example from philosophy, 100 people dying is in reality no more painful than one person dying, but to the public it is more severe, even though the pain of dying to one person is no greater or less than if 99 other people do it at the same time. The exception to this would be tensions at points of interdependencies between the three, though I do not know what this is like and how independently these organizations work, though I imagine that it is considerable. The key here is to have tight coordination of the new three leaders. I would imagine, due to the nature of these organizational cultures, and the war-time conditions present, that top down change is the norm and has a good likelihood of being accepted.

My View

My thought was that phased replacement was better because one of the problems in Iraq has been building trust with the Iraqis, so removing all three who had built up trust with the senior leadership in Iraq might be very disruptive. See here for further elaboration.

But the other case can be made that the three newcomers would bring in fresh ideas and could work together from the start.

This appears to be what is happening - and more - General Petraeus is bringing in a "brains trust" of Ph.D. level colonels with successful counter-terrorism combat experience in Iraq to craft the on-the-ground tactics (Washington Post, February 5th., 2007. [Thanks to one of the respondents for bringing this to my attention recently.]).

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