Talking the Talk – Communication is the real failure in Iraq

I have had a long professional relationship with Barron’s, the well-respected American financial publication owned by Dow Jones Inc. I submitted this as an article for consideration and was delighted when it was accepted. Much to my surprise, it was chosen to be that issue’s editorial (June 28, 2004). To be a guest editor at Barron’s is a great honor in itself, but perhaps even more so when the subject was one as important and controversial as Iraq reconstruction was at that time.

Talking the Talk
Communication is the real failure in Iraq

American business failed the Iraqis. A lesson.

WHO’S BEING BLAMED for failure in Iraq? The list is long. George Bush. Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld. Colin Powell. Paul Bremer. An assortment of generals and diplomats. Europeans. Iraqis. Other Arab leaders. And let’s not forget Saddam Hussein, without whose lunatic regime none of this would have been possible.

There is one other important group which rarely gets blame, but deserves it just as much. Like the administration, the military and the diplomatic service, the American business community had no effective plan to implement post-war reconstruction in Iraq. As we approach the “transition” on Wednesday, June 30, there is no better time to reflect on that failure.

Recent weeks have brought us stories of contractors kidnapped, killed, and in one particularly ugly scene, beheaded. In an interview with the Associated Press, Andrew Natsios, Administrator of the U.S. foreign-aid program, said 30% of his agency’s contractors had withdrawn from Iraq.

The failure was fundamental and apparent from the earliest days of the occupation. The fact that there was no government, no functioning ministries, nothing of any substance at all in the way of administration in Iraq was known by everyone right from the beginning.

There was power and influence in Iraq, but it was diffuse at first and it wasn’t found in the empty hallways of Saddam’s palaces or in a looted former Ministry office. It was broken up among thousands of individuals and groups when Saddam’s fascist government suddenly was removed and tyranny was replaced with freedom bordering on anarchy.

Communication was going to be critical. Contractors absolutely had to have the cooperation of the Iraqi people and that required accurate, sensitive communication. They didn’t get that kind of communication, and the result was a clash of cultures and a clash of expectations on the part of Iraqis and American contractors.

If there was ever a need for “translation,” there it was, and it was all too predictable. It should have been foremost in the minds of every would-be contractor.

Hindmost in Imagination

Early in the fourth quarter of 2002, New Global Initiatives Inc. began putting together a team to support Iraqi reconstruction, should the need arise. The likelihood of war was in all the media. You would have had to be blind and deaf not to have noticed. We noticed. The rest of the business community was another story.

Every firm we approached for a possible relationship did all or nearly all of its business in developing nations. Every one of them depended on the U.S. government as a major source of revenue and could be expected to compete for reconstruction contracts. But when we raised the question as to what they were planning for Iraq, the answer at each one was the same: “We haven’t given it any thought.”

We had given it plenty of thought. Although we were a new firm and could not be a prime contractor, we quickly received a sub-contract to provide assistance to humanitarian projects in Iraq — the construction or reconstruction of schools, clinics, community centers and so forth.

Our people have managed completion of more than 700 community projects in every part of Iraq, including the “Sunni Triangle.” These projects have been successful in almost every case. Even as the fighting raged on in Fallujah, our school reconstruction projects in that city continued.

Hidden Assets

As a sub-contractor, we certainly can’t take all the credit. The excellent support we have received from our prime and from the U.S. Agency for International Development must be emphasized. However, the bulk of the work was done by Iraqis hired and managed by New Global Initiatives. Every one of our people has direct contact daily with Iraqis. We aren’t the only ones with that responsibility in Iraq, but we have been more successful.

From the very first day of our planning — long before the war had even started — we turned to the people of the Iraqi-American community. There are at least a quarter of a million Iraqi-Americans, although there are no precise figures and the 2000 Census is of little help. Many Iraqis we’ve spoken to chose to list themselves as “Arab” or “Kurdish” or even “Middle Eastern” rather than take the chance that being an Iraqi would be held against them. When you live under a tyranny like Saddam Hussein’s, you learn to be very careful in declaring who and what you are.

Although the most frequently used estimate is 250,000 Iraqi-born people in America, that’s probably an understatement. Taking its own survey, the University of Michigan at Dearborn estimated there were some 90,000 Iraqi-Americans in the Detroit metropolitan region alone. Whatever the real number is nationally, it’s substantially higher than a quarter-million.

It seemed obvious to us that we should turn to this community. Nearly all Iraqis living in America were refugees from Saddam’s dictatorship and were overjoyed with his removal. They had lived in the U.S. for years, some for two or three decades. Tens of thousands had American college degrees, practical business experience, and an appreciation of the “American system” and the culture behind it that is rare to find in the Middle East. They spoke the language of the Iraqi people because it was their own. They knew the culture because it was their own.

Our Iraqi-American employees played a critical role in the hiring and management of local Iraqi staff and Iraqi contractors and they continue to act as a bridge between Iraqis and non-Iraqis who have been involved with our project, vastly increasing our efficiency and effectiveness.

There is no group, ethnic or otherwise, in the U.S. that felt a deeper sense of commitment to successful Iraqi reconstruction. We pay them as well as we can under U.S. government regulations, but they’re not there for the money.

They’re there because it’s Iraq. It’s their country, their communities, their families, their loved ones whose future is at stake. The family members they had to leave in the U.S. understand why they’re there and support them. They don’t pack up their bags and go home because life is dangerous in Iraq. It’s always been a dangerous place for them, but now at least there is hope.

We understood that “translation” meant more than just having a language skill. It meant having qualified, experienced professionals in management positions who could literally talk the talk and walk the walk. Our people were both competent and Iraqi.

We were criticized for our approach: Why spend a lot of money to send out Iraqi-Americans and pay them American salaries when you could hire ten times as many local Iraqis for less money?

The answer seemed obvious enough to us, but it had to be repeated again and again, and our practice of hiring Iraqi-Americans is still a rarity among American contractors in Iraq. That’s shameful, and very poor business practice.

Powerful Resource

America is a nation of immigrants. We represent an amazing collection of races, ethnic groups, language groups and religions living in peace with each other. America is a model for what could be true of the global community. Our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” (“From many, one”) is literally true.

American diversity and tolerance provide us with fantastic resources for doing business globally. There is no nation on earth that has not sent us some of its bravest and most able citizens. This is especially true of societies in upheaval and oppressed societies. Their refugees flock to our shores.

The Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq are not likely to be the end of the story of U.S. involvement in troubled places. The next time, the next place, the American business community will again be called upon to take its share of the responsibility, but American businesses, like the government and the military, must do better than they have in Iraq. One part of the responsibility must be to take advantage of a uniquely American human resource. We can’t afford to fail again.


1 Response to Talking the Talk – Communication is the real failure in Iraq

  1. Good Afternoon Mr. Adams,
    I have taken the liberty and genuine interest to subscribe. I enjoyed your recent article “The Third Iraq War is Coming”. I found your writing style quite thought provoking. As my GGGGG Grandfather Moses Wright of the 1st Continental Congress whom fought in the American Revolution serving at West Point, founder of the first Baptist Church of Carver, Massachusetts, a Mayflower 1620 descendant, neighbor of Samuel Adams and son John Adams, my sister whom we derive from many pre 16th century European forts and fortresses served in the American Navy during the Cold War of the 1980’s and married an ADAMS, the Iraq War/s are dated to be a conflict of WWII and pre era divulging in the info systems of king Husein of Jordan, as you know Mr. Bush is a WWII veteran and the remainder is history. In modern times of need, we should ask, “How may we address such modern aggression with diplomacy?
    I look forward to your writing and responses.

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