Zero-Based Warmaking

11/19/2006 10:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When executives demand "zero-based budgeting" from their managers they're considered hard-nosed realists. We don't care what you've spent in the past, they say, you still have to justify every penny going forward. Why don't we insist on the same kind of rigor and clarity of thought when we're "spending" the lives of our soldiers? Instead we just drift along, letting momentum carry us down a lazy river of indecision as the dying continues.

Zero-based budgeting was designed to counteract bureaucratic inertia, whether in a for-profit company or a government agency. Under ZBB, department heads (or government officials) are told that the fact that you spent X last year doesn't mean you need it this year. Your default budget is zero. Now, tell me why you need anything above that.

War seems to operate under its own momentum, just like bureaucratic budgets do - but with much more horrific results. Look how warped and backward our national dialog has become: Those who want to continue the killing and dying don't have to argue their case. We spend $177 million per day without a clear explanation why. Yet the politicians and pundits insist that those who would stop the killing - and the spending - leap enormous rhetorical hurdles, as if they were the careless and extravagant ones.

Even many Democrats don't get it. They're still flush from a victory that polls indicate was primarily due to voter rejection of the war. Their answer? To begin drawing down troop levels ... in six months.

It's time to demand "zero-based warmaking." Republicans like the contemptible Tony Snow mock withdrawal but can't define victory - a sure recipe for defeat. Some Democrats want to wait half a year before beginning to pull troops out. And they don't want a timetable for completion, which is why I call their approach the "date uncertain" plan.

Neither the Administration nor the go-slow Dems have clearly said what they expect our troops to accomplish in Iraq - this week or this month.

If we operated under the principle of "zero-based warmaking," the question would be: Why six months? What will we accomplish with the resulting loss of more lives, the expenditure of more money, and the death of more Iraqi civilians at US hands? If Democrats like Carl Levin can't answer those questions, they should not be asking for that six-month window.

Those who argue that greater chaos will take place if we pull out too quickly haven't made their case. They haven't demonstrated that the violence that would result from our departure is any greater than the violence being caused by our presence. And they haven't explained what they think we'll accomplish in the next few months that will result in less conflict after a later withdrawal.

The American people owe the Iraqis something for the death and destruction we've inflicted on them as a result of our voters' past gullibility. If there were a plan for continued American involvement in Iraq (for reconstruction, to minimize bloodshed, or as part of a peacekeeping force) it would be worthy of consideration on those grounds alone.

Nobody has articulated such a strategy, however. "Stay until we win" is a platitude, not a plan. A manager who offered something like that as his organizational goal would be fired. The "centrist" Democratic alternative - "start doing the right thing ... in six months" - isn't much better.

(And will someone explain to me why it's "centrist" to drag your feet at doing the expressed will of 60% of the country - the 60% that put you into power?)

John McCain's so-called plan - "throw more resources at it and see what happens" - is shamefully inept from a management standpoint. He doesn't tell us what exactly those additional troops would do that would make such a difference. That's because he doesn't know.

It's yet another example of McCain's willingness to let others pay any imaginable human cost to support his political ambitions.

Although I always opposed this war, I'm not wedded to the idea of immediate withdrawal. I've said that /">we should consider some form of continued involvement in Iraq to make up for the damage we've done, provided that somebody can offer a sensible plan for doing so. Nobody has. Instead, our continued presence seems to cause far more harm than good.

The American people, especially our troops, deserve a comprehensive plan leading to our withdrawal at the soonest possible date. Failing that, we need to withdraw now. Why are so many politicians dragging their feet, neither offering a real plan nor taking steps to withdraw immediately?

What's most striking is the fact that, in a capital city crowded with would-be Presidents, so few of them are offering leadership on the most critical issue of the day. Most of these "leaders" are showing that they lack the basic management skills expected of a mid-level executive in any American corporation. Yet they're angling for the top job in the country.

Here's the scary part: one of them may well get that job. Let's hope not. Maybe somebody else will emerge who can lead this country out of this quagmire. Otherwise, our government will keep wallowing in its own death-generating disfunctionality.

Not one more life, not one more dollar, without a purpose and a plan. The American public should demand better performance from its senior managers.