While Obama Dithers

As I watch the unfolding of events in the Middle East and see no clear policy developing, I'm reminded of many decisions that were delayed or put off by my superiors during my career, both during my enlistment in the Marines and since in business. 

"We need to wait for more information" was the usual excuse for the indecision, and sometimes, it was even true.  More often, it was because there was more than one course of action available and no one wanted to pick one for fear of choosing a path that would later turn out to be less than ideal.  It was unclear which course was "best," in other words.  Not for fear of an actually bad outcome, simply fear of less than perfect results.

I've always called this "design engineer's thinking."  A common saying among design engineers is "The Perfect is the enemy of the Merely Good."  In an ideal world with unlimited time to ponder, this saying is true.  New innovations are still improving things first invented long ago.  New materials and new uses of old ones make changes possible that were beyond the dreams of our ancestors -- even those of just a year or two ago.

The problem with design engineer thinking is we don't usually have unlimited time to gather infinite information to form those Perfect Plans.  Real decisions have to be made with limited information by people whose crystal balls are cloudy.  And those decisions need to be made when they can still affect the outcome of events.

A Perfect Plan, decided after the action is over, is useless.  A timely decision that is only approximately correct, but that is made in time to impact the outcome favorably, is worth at least 1,000 Perfect Plans that are all made too late to change anything.

As a young Marine Corporal preparing to go to Vietnam, I was privileged to attend a brief course on the West Coast for junior Non-Commissioned Officers.  It was designed to teach us how to lead patrols in the bush.  One of the lessons has stuck with me all these years.

A personal note here:  my "job" was as a radio repairman, but all Marines are riflemen first.  I figured that while the chances of my ever leading a patrol in the bush were minimal, if the need did arise, I'd better have some idea what I was doing because things must be in sad shape or I wouldn't be doing it.  So I did my best to learn everything the old Gunnery Sergeant instructor was trying to teach us.  I read all the handouts and asked a lot of questions during the classes.  I was even allowed to lead several of the practice patrols (still safely at Camp Pendleton in California).

One of the first exercises was how to react to being ambushed.  (Some variation of this training is probably still given and may the reason Marine patrols aren't ambushed as often as those of other forces.)  The scenario was we were scouting a trail -- not on the trail, but close enough to it to see it because trails were expected to be booby trapped -- when our patrol of 10 men is suddenly taken under hostile fire.  As the guy in charge, I had been told if this occurred, I was to immediately attack the source of the ambush.

Sure enough, firing broke out from our front, but I couldn't tell whether it was to the left or right of the trail.  So, I dithered for perhaps 8 or 10 seconds before shouting "Attack Forward!" 

"Halt!" shouted the gunny, standing up from behind a bush.  "You Marines are all dead."

"Huh?" was the best response I could muster.  "What do you mean we're all dead?  I ordered an attack as soon as I figured out where to go."

With a pained look, the gunny said "In the first instant, you'll lose at least one dead and two or three wounded.  Every second after that, expect another one or two dead and another two or three wounded.  All of you were dead before you gave the order."

"What should I have done?" I asked, feeling about two inches tall.

"You should've cleared out of the area.  The quickest way to do that is to order an attack."

"But, I didn't know which way to go," I protested.

"It almost doesn't matter," the gunny said.  He looked at the startled expression on my face and continued.  "Even if you attack in the wrong direction, at least you've gotten most of your Marines out of the kill zone.  And, when you get lucky and attack in the right direction, you might roll up the whole ambush.  But, at least you're still alive to fight again when the odds of success are better."

Few decisions in foreign policy are this immediate, though they can be far more costly (just ask Mr. Chamberlain).  But delay raises the cost.  In a very real sense, dithering is trading lives for information.  So, we can only delay for a while.  After that, it won't matter what we decide.  We'll all be dead.

Ron Pittenger is now retired from the retail industry and was once a Corporal of Marines.
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