Monday, July 6, 2009

Metrics: Telling the Story, Not Driving Policy

Policy wonks everywhere are mourning the passing of Robert McNamara. Whatever one's opinion of him, he was certainly one of the most interesting Cabinet officers ever. The Post has an excellent piece on his legacy. There are many take-aways for today's conflicts from this article, but these two paragraphs strike me as extremely relevant:

"On his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962, before most Americans had heard of the place and before the involvement of American combat forces, McNamara said that "every quantitative measurement we have shows we're winning this war."

It was a statement often quoted by his critics in later years, because it seemed to encapsulate the fallacy of his approach. American troops did prevail in many of the big battles, and the United States did win the war by every statistical measurement on the Pentagon charts that McNamara so admired. But the numbers -- even the few that were accurate -- had little to do with the political reality on the ground."

Even by ignoring the myth that the only metric used in Vietnam was "body counts," McNamara's story exemplifies how relying too much on metrics distorts the reality of the conflict in which you are engaged. Further, most metrics will be defined in a manner that permits political exploitation - defined to ensure success or defined so vaguely as to be meaningless. As an example, the Iraq "benchmarks" fit the bill for both of these circumstances.

I am a big fan of metrics. The quantitative measurement of conflict is extraordinarily intriguing and useful in helping paint the picture on the success of operations. They do not, however, provide exact realities - especially with regard to gauging the sympathies of the population. GEN McChrystal's command review will no doubt devise metrics that will demonstrate ISAF's success, not dishonestly but due to the nature of the subject. We should track and measure these metrics to gain a sense on how things are going, but remember: they have little to do with the political reality on the ground.

1 comment:

  1. This isn't exactly metrics-related, but for me it's the most meaningful takeaway from McNamara's legacy. From David Ignatius:

    [O]ver time, and seeing my own errors of judgment, I have found another lesson: Be careful of the certainties that McNamara conveyed; be wary of the notion that smart people can solve any problem if they just try hard enough.

    Nobody gets to do over his mistakes, least of all Robert McNamara. But perhaps the memory of this brilliant and tragic man will keep us from being too certain of our own judgment -- and encourage us to consider, even when we feel most confident, the possibility that we could be wrong.


    Fresh off the apparent successes of Iraq, those of us who think we have solutions for Afghanistan should keep this in mind. I hope I don't sound like I'm bandwagoning if I say that such self-examination seems in short supply in the COIN crowd these days.

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