Saturday, January 6, 2007

Six Degrees of Separation

You may be familiar with the "Six Degree . . . " concept, popularized by the play of John Guare and later made into a movie of the same name. It supposes that you are separated from anyone else in the world by a chain of no more than six people. In other words, "I know someone who knows someone who . . . " Do this six times and you will find yourself distantly acquainted with an Inuit seal hunter, a Bengali cab driver, or a Mongolian veterinarian. Is it true? I doubt very seriously that I am separated by a chain of only six acquaintances from all 6.5 billion of you. But I guess it hardly matters. It doesn't take long to realize that the plausibility of the hypothesis depends, to a large extent, on what is meant by "knowing" someone. If you work in an office with 20 other people, you probably know them all.

But what about an office of 200 people? At one time or another, you've probably at least bumped into them all in the break room, or nodded while passing in the corridor. You certainly know most of their names. Is it enough to establish that first degree? How about an office of 500 people? If you've been there for a year, you've probably at least seen them all. Is that close enough? If you met someone only once, at a baby shower, for example, would that then count as a degree of separation? Let's say that it would, so that I can get on with this story.

In the summer of 2003, I attended a baby shower. Most of the guests were former Coca-Cola employees, whose conversation - while waiting for the guests of honor to arrive - revolved around enthusiastic denouncements of the company's inept management. The host of the shower, who had obviously done quite well with Coke International (lap pool on the back patio, five car garage, fully restored 60s Morris convertible in the five car garage) then said, "You want to hear a story about bad management. I'll tell you about the worst case of bad management I've ever seen."

After graduating with an MBA from the University of Chicago, our host had joined a pharmaceutical manufacturer. The company was having difficulty meeting its monthly sales targets, and the CEO repeatedly instituted price cuts at the end of each month, in order to try to meet the quotas. Our storyteller said that he and his colleagues, most of them young execs, had tried over and over again to explain to the CEO why this was a self-destructive strategy, because the drugs they sold at the end of each month only ate into the orders from the following month, which wrought havoc with their production and shipping schedules. Orders were negligible during the first three and a half weeks of the month, then skyrocketed in the final few days, particularly as customers realized that prices would be cut at the end of each month. Though the flaws in this strategy would have been readily apparent to any first year management student, the CEO was a stubborn type who didn't take well to dissent or disagreement. The pricing strategy continued, as the company hemorrhaged more and more money.

Fortunately, the company had a potential ace up its sleeve, an artificial sweetener called Aspartame, better known as NutraSweet, whose approval had thus far been denied by the Food and Drug Administration due to several health concerns related to this chemical compound. Though such a product had enormous profit-potential, the failure to win FDA approval was clearly a stumbling block.

Not to be deterred, however, the CEO made use of his political connections in Washington, and the product soon won FDA approval. This, and this alone, according to our host, saved the company from bankruptcy. The company's then CEO was - up until recently - widely regarded in the popular media as an iconoclastic, hard nosed executive who reorganized the firm and restored it to profitability. He was at the time lauded in the press as one of the
"toughest" executives in America. "But you know," our host concluded, "he was really just an idiot with political connections, and I'm surprised none of this has ever come out, because the guy's name is Donald Rumsfeld."*

He went on to say that Rumsfeld had only been made CEO of the family-held company as a result of his friendship with the Searle family, who had also financed his early political career, and that it was understood from the beginning of his tenure as CEO (Rumsfeld had no experience in the pharma industry) that he would use his political connections to push though the approval of NutraSweet. Furthermore, Rumsfeld was without doubt the most inept manager he had ever worked for or been associated with. He concluded by saying that it "terrified" him to think that America's defenses were in such hands, and that this was not a partisan matter, as he himself had voted for Bush.

This was the most interesting baby shower I've ever been to, not that I've been to many.

Is Rumsfeld really a business maverick, or the egomaniacal incompetent masquerading as an executive genius described by his former employee - and my passing acquaintance - back in 2003? How would I know? I'm simply relaying an anecdote that made a memorable summer afternoon out of what otherwise would have been one of those tedious social write-offs your wife drags you to. Was Rumsfeld really the disaster he appeared to be as Secretary of Defense? General Paul Eaton, in charge of training the Iraqi Army from 2003 to 2004, certainly thought so. In this opinion, he was hardly alone.

Another story:

Someone I know, still in the Navy, was once assigned as a junior officer to serve directly under the admiral of US fleet in the Persian Gulf. I don't remember the admiral's name, and I don't know what, specifically, the younger officer did for him. Anyway, a few years after Gulf War I (Desert Storm, you may remember) but well before our current conflict in Iraq, the subject of the first Gulf War came up with my old acquaintance. He maintained that our differences with Saddam emerged not because he invaded Kuwait, but because he invaded Kuwait and then proceeded to raise the price of oil above that agreed to by various parties in the Middle East, including the US, who had approved of or at least accepted the invasion to begin with.

Simple rumor-mongering on my friend's part, and now on my part? Sure. So what? Let me make it clear that neither of these stories "proves" anything in my book. People lie, people exaggerate, people seek to impress in cocktail-party conversation, people simply fail to remember accurately what somebody else said, or accurately remember what somebody else lied about.

But both these stories do at least give us something to consider. And only in part because they seem to fit pretty closely with a good bit of what we do know from the world of mainstream reportage. For example, the words of US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie, when called to a meeting with Saddam in 1990 to discuss the deteriorating relationship between Iraq and Kuwait. (By the way, Saddam's main grievance against Kuwait at the time was that it was selling oil at a price that Saddam felt was starving him of the international currency that he needed to meet his debt payments emerging from the Iran-Iraq war.) The US Ambassador's reply to Saddam's intent to move into Kuwait was as follows:

"We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late ’60s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via [Chadli] Klibi [then Arab League General Secretary] or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly."

Granted, diplomatic language is often neutral and muted, but if Saddam was looking for a signal as to what the US response to a Kuwait invasion might be, the wording certainly could have been a bit more dissuasive than this. Furthermore, the subsequent justification for Operation Desert Shield (which soon mutated into Desert Storm), that Iraq was now poised to invade Saudi Arabia, seems to have been, at the very least, inflated. Apparently, our leaders have little faith in the capacity of the American public to seize upon an unvarnished opportunity for a pleasant little war. Hence, the need for "actionable" intelligence.

One more story:

My wife's uncle, now retired, was once stationed in Baghdad as a Turkish diplomat. One fall afternoon, we visited his Ankara apartment, where, in dim, receding light, we were served cake and a thimbleful of sherry. The former ambassador asked about my family's background in America, and when I answered that it extended back many generations, he smiled approvingly and said, "You are very noble, Mr. John.** "

Our conversation eventually turned to the war in Iraq, and his memories of Baghdad. I suppose it goes without saying that during his posting there he was acquainted with Saddam, and I may now claim my one degree of separation from the "Butcher of Baghdad" himself. Anyway the ambassador's tenure there - as he recalled it - had been for the most part pleasant, but he did add a final, cautionary note. "Remember, Mr. John, you must never, ever trust the Arabs."

I take his point. But who do I trust?


* This is, of course, my recollection of the gist of what he said, not a verbatim transcription.

** "John" is not my actual first name, but will serve here as a substitute.

1 comment:

tvoh said...

From the way things have worked out, it would be hard not to believe the Rumsfeld story.

With all his friends, even he has past his shelf life.