A few years ago, I had a job selling ads for a weekly newspaper. One morning, the newspaper’s publisher walked into our weekly sales meeting and announced that he had good news.
“I’ve just made a deal with our biggest competitor to provide us with a list of his advertisers every morning, including ad sizes, placement in the paper, color or not — it’ll be a fantastic sales tool for you guys!”
For a second, I was amazed. Why would our rival do that? Why give away such valuable information to a competitor, even one as stumbling and disorganized as us?
And then I got it. The “list” was the newspaper itself. All we had to do was pick it up and look.
I’ve thought about the publisher’s list often in recent days, as congress and the president duel over conflicting reports about Iraq.
Are we plunging ever more deeply into an un-winnable quagmire or are we finally making significant progress? If we leave, will things get better or worse? What are the geopolitical consequences of staying or leaving? What about Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia?
These questions might be unanswerable, since no one can predict the future. But all of the players think they know what’s going to happen.
And how do they form their beliefs? Not from firsthand knowledge. As far as I know, neither the president nor the vice president nor any member of congress either speaks Arabic or has spent any length of time in Iraq or the Middle East.
And if you plopped down any of these esteemed gentlemen/ladies in a random Arab country, they couldn’t even read the street signs.
Yet they have the grave responsibility of making decisions that will literally mean life or death for many thousands of Americans and Iraqis.
In such circumstances, they’d better have good information sources.
The men and women who serve as the eyes and ears of our leaders should be informed, dispassionate, smart and thoroughly familiar with both Iraq and the Middle East. They should speak the language fluently, have contacts in every strata of Iraqi society and should understand Middle Eastern history.
They need to know the players, whether we think of them as bad guys or good guys. They should have no motivation other than transmitting the truth, without fear or favor.
The president, like most of his predecessors, gets his information in the form of a daily briefing, condensed from the raw intelligence reports of hundreds of government employees — CIA agents, diplomats, military intelligence officers and country-specific analysts.
These dedicated public servants, so we’re led to believe, have unexcelled sources of information, not to mention the vast resources of the government behind them. The secret, eyes-only document that the president relies upon should give him an edge on almost anyone else in the world. Armed with such facts, the president’s decision-making ought to be superb.
The rest of us, by comparison, are flying blind. All we know is what we read in the newspapers, so how can we possibly disagree with the president’s decisions? After all, he knows things that we mere mortals are not and never will be privy to.
Yet, during the last half century, our presidents have often made spectacularly bad decisions based on secret information compiled by government sources.
Invade Cuba? Piece of cake! Intervene militarily in Vietnam? Absolutely — and if things go badly, we need only add more troops! Invade and occupy Iraq, and transform it into a democratic state? Not a problem!
And in each case, the government information apparatus failed miserably.
Presidents received only the information that they wanted to hear, to justify courses of action that they instinctively and mistakenly believed in. But seduced by the culture of secrecy, by being the ultimate insider, by having access to information that no one else had, they “stayed the course.”
But suppose that, rather than listening to the CIA/Pentagon/State Department apparatchiks every morning, they had spent the time reading the New York Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post? For a couple of dollars a day, they would have gotten a balanced, dispassionate, and accurate account of what was actually happening in Vietnam, in Cuba or in Iraq.
And if policy-making had been based on the facts revealed by reporters from these four superb publications, we might well have avoided some of the disastrous mistakes and miscalculations of the past 50 years.
It may be too much to hope for, but maybe a trusted adviser will approach the president and say:
“Mr. President, I have good news! I’ve contracted with four private companies to do information and analysis for us. I know you support privatization — and these companies have agreed to deploy over 2,000 highly paid, highly qualified information specialists, as well as support staffs of many thousands more, and provide us 100-300 pages of sophisticated analysis every day. Moreover, they’ll update it continually on the Web. Their track records are exemplary — they’ve been right on almost every major issue. And the price is right, about $100 a month! And best of all, the reports are professionally assembled by skilled graphic artists, with lots of clever charts and great photos — they’re as easy to read as a newspaper.”
And who knows? If the president is looking for a new job come January 2009, he’ll be able to impress potential employers with his deep knowledge of current events — a real plus, if selling newspaper ads is in his future.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5204.