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The MBA Myth

The Buzz

Columnist Vivek Wadhwa has stepped off the high dive and belly flopped in the Washington Post with his latest “Would the Facebook IPO have Bombed if Mark Zuckerberg had an MBA?”

Proposing that the degree would have given Zuckerberg a better understanding of “corporate finance and capital markets,” Wadhwa starts out just fine. After all, even those who hold degrees could probably benefit from a refresher course or two. But then he begins to brandish the degree like a potent panacea that would fix even Zuckerberg’s “awkward behavior such as hiding out in the bathroom” or his “taking the stage wearing a hoodie.” Last this writer checked, advanced degrees lack any magical ability to ward off business failures, social awkwardness or fashion faux pas.

If the possession of an MBA alone is so critical to success, why do companies spend time training new hires out of business school? While an MBA is undoubtedly useful, professional experience is paramount. Wadhwa claims “you can learn and grow outside the classroom, but it takes more time and is often painful because you learn by trial and error.” But an IPO launch is not carried out by one person; Wadhwa acts as if Zuckerberg worked on it at home like some long-term research project. Undoubtedly a few bearers of the sacred MBA were involved. How difficult for them to learn by trial and error, like the rest of us mortals.

Money is not the only means by which to measure success, but many people rack up business achievements without a professional degree. Zuckerberg’s IPO bombed, one failure in an otherwise impressive run. This howler can’t see over its own glasses.

TopicsInnovation

The Perils of Nation Rebuilding: Sesame Street and the Corruption of Pakistan

Jacob Heilbrunn

Characters from Sim Sim Hamara, the Pakistani version of Sesame Street.To grasp just how toxic and corrupt and venal America's relationship with Pakistan has become it is not necessary to focus on drone strikes or military or farm aid. Instead, the revelation that the U.S. Agency for Aid and Development has now shut down a $20 million program to bring the children's television show Sesame Street to Pakistan serves as perhaps the most telling sign of the moral rot that suffuses our alleged ally in the war on terror. The show was called Sim Sim Hamara. It was supposed to do all the good things that Washington wants to inculcate abroad—preach tolerance and diversity and educate youngsters, who would learn along the way that America is not the Great Satan.

But it appears this is another exercise in what might be called nation rebuilding that has gone awry. An outfit in Lahore called the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop has allegedly been acting like a Miss Piggy rather than an upstanding Elmo. It should be enough to make even proponents of foreign aid feel as grouchy as Oscar. The group apparently has been misusing State Department funds—about $7 million so far—that have been sent to it. USAID's Mark Toner explained that

We did receive via that hotline what we believe were credible allegations of fraud and abuse by the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop. So we did launch an investigation into the allegations. We've also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement.

What has the workshop, which denies the accusation, doing? Shortchanging the costumes of the characters to skim off some of the money? Stiffing the set designers?

More seriously, the question for Congress, which is scrutinizing futher aid to Pakistan, has to be what kind of oversight is being exercised over the hundreds of millions that are disbursed each year to Pakistan. The answer is probably not very much. The relationship with Pakistan is more that of an extortionist than a grateful recipient, which is why Islamabad is currently attempting to blackmail Washington into paying top dollar for port and highway access into Afghanistan to resupply soldiers. Fortunately, the Obama administration does not seem to be acceding to Pakistan's cupidity, at least when it comes to these latest demands.

But the Romney campaign surely has an opening with which to question the entire American relationship with Pakistan, and its questioning should start with the matter of Sesame Street. USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah has been extremely active in Pakistan—even a cursory look at his organization's website suggests the breadth of its activities, which run into the billions of dollars in the past two years alone. But as Shah himself noted, Pakistan is a financial cesspool. In a speech this past April, Shah said, "By most accounts, fewer than 2 percent of the population pays taxes-and the wealthiest often pay the least. So long as this remains true, Pakistan simply won't have the resources it needs to prosper."

Yet the Christian Science Monitor is complaining that "If Sim Sim Hamara goes off the air, but US bombs keep dropping, another generation of Pakistanis will have only one thing to associate the US government with: war." Please. Such handwringing amounts to blaming the victim. There's no cogent reason for America to fund corruption. And if even an innocent children's show ends up being pilfered for dollars, how can Washington have any confidence that its more substantial aid programs are being implemented effectively?

Image: U.S. Embassy Pakistan

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Selective Approach to Deterring Iran

Paul Pillar

Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have just published a monograph that addresses Iranian reactions to a possible Israeli military attack (or “preventive strike” as the subtitle misleadingly puts it) on Iran. They also comment on Iranian reactions to a U.S. strike. The piece contains some sharp analysis. It considers a wide range of possible Iranian responses. It notes many of the calculations that would probably enter into Iranian thinking about responding and that some of those calculations involve conflicting Iranian incentives and interests.

One impression one takes away from this paper—despite WINEP's soft-pedaling the message as showing that an Israeli military attack “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is that the consequences would be very bad indeed. There is plenty of room for nasty stuff short of apocalypse, including ballistic-missile barrages, worldwide terrorist campaigns, naval disruptions in the Persian Gulf and other highly damaging things. This raises the question, which the paper does not address, of what could possibly be accomplished by precipitating such a mess. What is the horrible alternative whose avoidance would ever justify such actions (and would such action ever avoid it)?

That leads to a second overall impression, which is that Eisenstadt and Knights are very selective in what they do address. Start with what they say about the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. military strike. The authors focus on consequences that would be the direct result of actions by the Iranian regime. That certainly is a major part of the picture, and that alone would be bad enough. But it is only a part, and the authors blithely and quickly skate over all the other parts. There is, for example, the effect on the political equation inside Iran and the standing of the regime. Eisenstadt and Knights admit only the possibility of a “short-term nationalist backlash” and immediately suggest optimistically that Iranians “could” blame the regime for mishandling the nuclear issue. This dismissal flies in the face of much historical experience of both Iran and other nations that have been the targets of armed attack. Their suggestion is somewhat like saying that Americans could have blamed the Roosevelt administration for mishandling the Japanese oil-embargo issue in 1941. The dismissal also flies in the face of observations from Iranian oppositionists that an armed attack would be a political gift to regime hard-liners.

Then there are all the broader political consequences. Eisenstadt and Knights dismiss these by brushing aside a straw-man prediction that “Arabs would rise up in protest and shake the established order.” The principal concern for U.S. interests is not that but rather how hatred for the United States throughout much of the Muslim world would be stoked by another instance in which the United States or its close confederate Israel was seen as using military might to kill more Muslims. The authors say nothing about either that or the prospect of an attack helping to poison U.S. relations with generations of Iranians. Then there are the economic effects, which Eisenstadt and Knights only hint at with a reference to Iranian actions in the Persian Gulf aimed at keeping “insurance rates and oil prices up.” They do not explore the vast economic damage that underlies those few words.

Another omission is any reference to the fact that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and—according to the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community—has not so far decided to make one. All the damaging consequences, far from being “preventive,” would instead be very likely to stimulate the very step—Iran constructing a nuclear weapon—that supposedly we want to prevent. Eisenstadt and Knights implicitly admit this by discussing a “clandestine crash weapons program” as a possible Iranian response. In one of their more inventive argumentative twists, they try to turn this into a reason that Iran might moderate its other responses. Their idea is that Iran would calculate that it would have a harder time obtaining the “special materials and equipment” for its nuclear program if it retaliated in ways that “further alienated its few remaining friends.” Even if it were plausible that an Iran that had just suffered an armed attack would be fine-tuning friendships in that particular way, the obvious question is: What about all those international sanctions already aimed at crippling Iran's nuclear program? And why would an armed attack be needed, or even helpful, in getting those sanctions to work?

A fundamental topic that Eisenstadt and Knights do not address, beyond a curt dismissal in a footnote, is what difference an Iranian nuclear weapon would make—to Iranian behavior, to peace and stability in the Middle East, or to anything else. As I and some others have observed, what has passed for an argument that an Iranian nuke would be a horrible eventuality (something that most often is just taken for granted) consists chiefly of litanies of things that a nuclear-armed Iran “could” do—in other words, worst-case speculation. This contrasts with the tendency of some of the same purveyors of such speculation to present best-case pictures of the consequences of going to war against Iran. Eisenstadt and Knights try to turn the tables on such observations by titling their paper “Beyond Worst-Case Analysis” and asserting at the outset that “many independent analysts offer what can only be described as worst-case assessments” of the consequences of an attack and that “these analysts almost invariably offer best-case assessments for a policy of deterrence and containment,” with a footnote citation to works by Bruce Riedel and myself. Readers can judge for themselves, but in the article of mine they reference I explicitly distinguished between the worst possible consequences of going to war and the most likely consequences. I wrote that “no one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be,” paralleling Eisenstadt and Knights's apt comment that “prudence dictates modesty when attempting to predict the behavior of states embroiled in armed conflict, where uncertainty and the law of unintended consequences rule.” What I had to say about likely Iranian responses was quite consistent with much of what Eisenstadt and Knight present, although I discussed further the broader political and economic repercussions that they gloss over.

What I wrote in the same cited article about the consequences, or nonconsequences, of an Iranian nuke eschewed the “could” mode of discourse that worst-casers and best-casers are so fond of using and instead examined the strategic realities and calculations that Tehran would actually face. The analysis in this respect was similar to the better and more careful aspects of Eisenstadt and Knights's presentation about the choices that Tehran would face in a post-attack environment. The authors would need to engage that analysis before being justified in dismissing it, but they never do.

A major aspect of why an Iranian nuke would not be a destabilizing game-changer—or to borrow WINEP's phrase, “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is deterrence. In this regard, it is interesting to note how much reliance Eisenstadt and Knights place on deterrence in their arguments about why Tehran's responses to an armed attack would be moderated. Indeed, they list “deterring Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests” after an attack on Iran as their number-one policy priority. In doing so, they contribute to the glaringly inconsistent treatment of deterrence in discourse about Iran. Deterrence of Iran with a nuclear weapon frequently gets described as far too thin a reed to lean on when facing ideologically crazed mullahs, but after the Iranians become targets of armed attack, they somehow become such calm and cautious decision makers that deterrence can be relied on greatly. Vast historical experience indicates that to the extent that decision making behavior may be this inconsistent, the inconsistency would be in the opposite direction; being on the receiving end of an armed attack is the very circumstance most likely to lead calmness and restraint to evaporate.

Scholars and commentators are entitled to select their topics and define the scope of those topics as they wish. I have had the frustration, in writing on other subjects, of facing criticism along the lines of “but you didn't talk about such-and-such,” when the only appropriate response was, “that's not the topic I was addressing.” I try to select and define topics, however, in a way that fills gaps and helps to correct imbalances and distortions in existing discourse. Eisenstadt and Knights have some useful things to say about the Iranians' options and likely thinking if they ever get attacked by Israel or the United States. More attention to the consequences of such an attack is certainly needed. But in their selection of what to emphasize and what to dismiss or ignore, they have exacerbated rather than lessened the distortions in current discourse about Iran.

Image: marsmet544

TopicsIdeologySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

A Stiff Apology is a Second Insult

The Buzz

At some point, you might have written an embarrassing letter to someone who wronged you, demanding an apology. Since most reasonable, remorseful persons apologize of their own volition, these demanded apologies are often directed at the worst offenders: A slovenly boyfriend who wrecked your car and then punched your younger brother. The best friend who sold you out and then took your promotion. The spouse who drained your 401k and then vanished.

In all these instances, trying to extract an apology, like a stubborn tooth that just won’t come loose, is futile. The prospective apologizer simply doesn’t realize the damage they have caused. Moreover, the extent of their transgressions makes it unlikely that they perceive their error or feel remorse—two crucial components to any apology worth its salt. Instead, some demands for an apology simply illustrate how deeply you care for a relationship another does not hold in equal esteem.

Last week, a wholly unfortunate letter of similar embarrassment happened to be published on the Chicago Tribune op-ed page. Malik Siraj Akbar’s “10 Reasons Why Pakistan Should Apologize to the U.S.” reads like a whiny, embittered email to an ex-girlfriend, explaining why Pakistan, the unfaithful lover, “owes the U.S. its deepest apology.” Any apology won’t do. You have to mean it, Pakistan.

Starting with its initial complaint of Pakistan’s likely complicity in hiding Osama bin Laden, Akbar’s list of grievances accomplishes nothing. Even a hollow apology, the value or purpose of which is unclear, seems highly unlikely. Towards the end, it resorts to flat out name-calling that brands Pakistan a “jihad factory,” a moniker that virtually guarantees this opinion piece will end up posted in some Pakistani break room for laughs.

If Pakistan wanted to apologize to the United States, they would. Since they haven’t, perhaps our time is better spent analyzing what parts of the relationship can change to avoid future disappointments. One hopes that Akbar, who the Washington Post dubbed a “soft-spoken but steely man,” has more compelling things to write about than this howler.

TopicsGrand Strategy

Will Hillary Run In 2016—Or Will Obama?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The Hillary camp is getting active again. The secretary of state will step down in January 2013, whether or not President Obama wins reelection. But as a listing economy renders Obama's chances increasingly iffy for 2012, leading Democrats are starting to look in a different direction as they plan for the future. Indeed, a mini-Hillary boomlet is developing for 2016.

As the Washington Post notes, Hillary's backers are getting rather frisky about her prospects. Her champions include House minority leader Nanci Pelosi—"she's our shot"—former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell—"the challenges facing the country will be too great for her to resist and she will change her mind"—and Bill Clinton himself—"I just think she needs to rest up, do some things she cares about, and whatever she decides to do, I'll support." There can be no doubting that Clinton's position would be a lot stronger in 2016. She's proven herself to be a tough secretary of state. And she has service as a New York senator under her belt. With her sunglasses and tough moxie, Clinton has begun to command new respect at home as well as abroad.

But what about vice president Joseph Biden? He, too, is sometimes rumored to view himself as presidential timber. But if Hillary ran, he would probably not be the presumptive favorite. She's managed to lock down two big Democratic constituencies, the white working-class vote and women. Biden, who has a penchant for planting his foot in his mouth, might find campaigning against Hillary rough going. They could conduct a running war about who had it right during the Obama administration. The person who would really be seeking vindication is Bill Clinton.

Recall that his reputation took a beating during the 2008 election when he cast slurs against Obama and was mystified by his popular appeal. Bill's true redemption can only occur if he fulfills the compact that he apparently made with Hillary: turning her into a president. Whether Hillary still wants the job is an open question, but maybe on second thought it's not that questionable. The Clintons don't desire the presidency; they lust for it. This would be their last chance. It would allow Slick Willy to test his slickness one last time, to see if he can come out like an aging baseball pitcher and command the mound in a final effort to push his team over the top.

But there could be a third veteran from the Obama administration running in 2016: Barack Obama. If Obama loses to Mitt Romney in 2012, he could seek a rematch in 2016. He would have had ample time to reflect upon his deficiencies—chief among them his aloofness—and try to correct them. If Obama were to defeat Romney in 2016, this would truly be a sign of a perfectly polarized electorate. All along, voters have been turning elections into the equivalent of an almost perfectly balanced political see-saw.

Would Obama seek to test his popularity in 2016, to make a comeback after being repudiated by the nation in 2012? Would Mitt Romney be a popular president, or would he have made such a hash of things that a new phenomenon called Obama nostalgia emerged in 2016? Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Obama might be to lose this election and plan for a comeback. He and Hillary could once more battle it out, just as they did during the primaries in 2008, with each claiming greater experience. To give it even more of a back-to-the-future feel, perhaps the disgraced John Edwards, who sought the nod in 2008 before his campaign imploded, might rejoin the fray as well to seek his own very personal redemption. If Obama succeeded in winning the nomination and general election, he could comfort himself on earning a big distinction. He could become the Grover Cleveland of our era.

Image: Obama-Biden Transition Project

TopicsThe Presidency

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