BAGHDAD — A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the unconscionable delays in organizing and implementing the expenditure of some of the $18 billion appropriated by Congress to help rebuild Iraq. In what I hope Mr. Tyrrell considers a breathtaking endorsement of the power of his website, the logjam was broken the morning after the dispatch appeared here. And, for the past two weeks real progress has been made in awarding jobs and in carrying out all the bureaucratic requirements involved in spending money on such a massive scale.
As with so much else in life, logjams get broken not necessarily by massed armies of bureaucrats, but by the efforts of one or two individuals who simply refuse to accept the fact that nothing is happening. Through individual effort and will power, they are able to break down barriers to progress and start greasing the skids so that things happen and stuff gets done.
There are any number of U.S. government agencies involved in dispensing the largesse appropriated by Congress. In fact, there are probably too many, and they tend to get in each other’s way. But politics being what it is, the number of organizations will never be culled, so one has to work with what the system, for better or for worse, provides. All the organizations have initials. Not having initials ensures you will never be known, and will never receive any of the billions doled out by Congress. There is USACE, PCO, USAID, and a dozen others; you seek initials that will trip liltingly from the lips of news broadcasters. In my job I have had occasion to work with quite a number of them, but I am most familiar with the PCO — the Iraq Project and Contracting Office. They are the guys who deal with much of the infrastructure stuff that is so desperately in need of repair or replacement here: the electric distribution system, the water system, and so on.
As I have observed a number of times, the men who populate these agencies are good citizens. They are well-intentioned, generally hard-working, intelligent guys who are ready, willing, and able to put their shoulders to the wheel. They do risk their lives by being here; certainly not as much as the soldiers, but being in Iraq isn’t a walk in the park. What has been lacking in the effort to rebuild Iraq is everyday, first rate, on-the-ground leadership. The kind of leadership that doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is not willing to accept the notion that turning this situation around “can’t be done,” or “can’t be done in my lifetime.”
LET ME SINGLE OUT TWO MEN who I know are making a difference. One is a Navy commander who has taken dramatic steps to convert the PCO from a sleepy, banana republic bureaucracy into a pretty streamlined 21st century organization. This guy, whom I will call Ben, is the master of paperwork and time management. Some paper sent his way is acted on quite literally before it comes to rest on his desk. The guys who try to play bureaucratic games of “move the paper” find that emails they send him have been answered, or acted upon, in the time it takes the sender to take another sip of coffee. In the major leagues of game playing, that’s simply not fair. Moving a piece of paper along to someone else’s desk should be good enough to buy you at least two or three days of nap time. The way masters of the art shuffled paper in Iraq the past couple of years, work got delayed, postponed, canceled, or sent back for “further review.” As a result, precious little got done.
Ben has put a stop to that nonsense. Nowadays, stuff gets done, projects get started, and projects are getting completed. It’s unfortunate that by its very nature, the momentum of this kind of work will never threaten any land speed records. An electric substation, for example, will take about six months to build even if you put a thousand people on it and feed it $10 million. It will be a while, probably at least six months, before the media who are hunkered down under their desks for protection will venture outside often enough to start to notice the progress that Ben has generated. And given the media’s general ineptitude in reporting the facts from Iraq, it will be months after it happens that the world will hear that the lights have come back on in Baghdad.
Ben’s leadership and success comes from the fact that he is a superb executive. In real life he’d be a rising star in a big company.
The other PCO guy who is making a huge difference here is built like a linebacker; or perhaps a linebacker who hasn’t been to the gym for a while. His name is Lawrence, a retired Army officer I believe, and he is deeply immersed in actually getting power back to the Iraqi people. Lawrence is a doer. He makes things happen. He is the sort of guy we have all met at least once in our lives. He is the prototype of the man who has never encountered a closed door that he simply doesn’t batter to the ground. The phrase “can do” was coined to define him.
An added bonus about Lawrence for those of us who work with him is his turbo-charged energy and sense of humor . Lawrence can, and does, talk very intelligently and entertainingly about virtually any subject under the sun. He has an uncanny knack for understanding what is going on in Iraq. In a future life he might come back as a State Department analyst but, until he does, we will have to stumble along with the flawed thinking that remains a State Department monopoly.
JUST IN THE PAST FEW weeks, as I indicated, the progress being made in moving the unmovable bureaucracy in Iraq has been remarkable. Dozens of projects are about to start. Whatever it takes to get things done here is suddenly getting done. And, it’s because of guys like Ben and Lawrence who won’t lie down and let the tide of inertia that has paralyzed Iraq wash over them.
What we all have to ensure now is that the people in charge of this place not get up tomorrow morning and decide that Ben and Jim must rotate out because “those are the rules,” or “that is policy.” It is these maddeningly inane reactions of a bureaucracy that make it incapable of dealing with distinguished performance. What Ben’s boss, or Lawrence’s boss, should do tomorrow morning is get up and try to think of an atypical bureaucratic reaction to the good work these men are doing. Maybe they should consider a bonus, or a raise, or a promotion, or a trip to Bermuda with the family, or a season ticket to the opera or to Yankee Stadium. Something that is different.
And, when they have recovered from the shock of that, tell them that a grateful nation requests they serve another tour of duty in Iraq.
If any of these things happen, I will let you know.
John Connly Walsh, a frequent contributor, works for an American company in Iraq.
Copyright 2005 by John Connly Walsh