Why professionals are important

Seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurs and by-the-rules professionals run very different businesses. Entrepreneurs can get it spectacularly right. And horribly wrong. It’s the same in government.

In small business the entrepreneur gets rich or goes bust. In large businesses the entrepreneur adds shareholder value or erodes it. In government the entrepreneur can do great good or great harm to large numbers.

Professionals deal in shades and nuances, qualifications and evidence. They accumulate knowledge. They can be deadly dull and get in the way of exciting ideas. “Bureaucrat” conjures “killjoy”.

Most politicians eventually temper their ideology, instinct and inclinations with evidence-based advice from the public service professionals. Politicians’ will prevails and officials carry out orders. But a wise politician first listens.

This is rules-based democracy on which good statecraft depends. Voters want politicians to do their bidding. But they also want professional management.

Politicians who ignore the rules can do spectacular good. Or they can get things horribly wrong.

It is four years since George Bush invaded Iraq, with Tony Blair and John Howard and a hotchpotch of client states in tow. Iraq is now a ghastly, brutal mess, Bush is a neutered President who lost the Congress for his party, Blair is damaged goods and the client states (Australia excluded) have been bailing out.

The world has inherited a new breeding ground for terrorism, a destabilised oil-producing region, a divided West and a demoralised and distrusted United States, which might now retreat into one of its periodic isolations. The risk in that is more tension among lesser powers.

How did it come to this?

There is, first, the substance of Bush’s decisions.

His invasion flowed from a belief those in his inner circle held that the United States should pursue a “muscular” foreign policy, actively prosecuting its interests, and from an equally strong belief that, as the world’s pre-eminent, or at least most powerful, liberal, capitalist democracy, it had a mission to democratise the world — which would also be in its interest.

In addition, there was a score to settle with Saddam Hussein, who had defied Bush the Elder, and Arabs had impertinently assailed the United States with many pinpricks around the world and then an attack on New York and Washington. Especially infuriating to evangelical Christians, as Bush had become in recovering from a drink problem, militant Islam was spreading and generating a “clash of civilisations”.

Invading Iraq would demonstrate an aroused United States’ power and, by removing a tyrant and bestowing “democracy” on Iraq, light a beacon of freedom for oppressed peoples of the region.

No more was needed than a brief, benign American liberation. For good measure the Baathist administrative infrastructure and security forces were disbanded. But that left a vacuum and spawned a fragmented tangle of warring militias, seeking ascendancy or defending themselves against others or both.

What Bush’s “victory” might mean in these circumstances defies imagination.

OK, mistakes were made. That happens.

But what distinguishes these mistakes was the way they were made. The professionals were shut out. A tiny cabal acted on belief, not analysis — to the extent, for example, of grossly misrepresenting “intelligence”. It claimed extraordinary power for the President, who issued “signing statements” altering the effect of Congressional bills.

Its belief was that it could remove Hussein and withdraw, leaving behind an automatically free, peaceable, democratic populace. There was no post-invasion plan, no strategy for stabilisation (which needs large numbers of troops) and then managing the transition to a stable, well-governed state.

Then, once the cabal recognised occupation was unavoidable, both civilian and military reporting from Iraq ran to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had made the original blunder and persisted in believing a stable, secure, democratic Iraq would emerge. The result for Iraqis has been large-scale torture, killings and terror — and impoverishment.

Ultimately, a derided and diminished Bush, whacked by voters in a way that even he could not obtusely misread, has had to bring in the professionals. Slowly they are repairing the rift with once scoffed-at cousins in “old Europe” and elsewhere, including this country.

The lesson is blunt. Politicians’ role is to translate the broad preferences of the electorate into action (not to claim, as Bush has, a divine mission). But they need the professionals to make it all workable.

When an entrepreneur crashes and burns, only a few burn in the crash. When an entrepreneurial politician crashes and burns, multitudes burn. It is vital to have rules — and to rule by them.