Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Time For Debate

The United States needs to be able to debate the war. The Founders of the United States put the power to declare war in the hands of the legislature (not the president). The founders realized that a legislature cannot conduct war. However, I suspect that they wanted a structure that gave the legislature a great deal of control over the shape of the war.

It seems to me that the best way to structure a war effort that allows debate and input by the legislation with unified control of the executive would be to adopt a strategy similar to the interative design methodology used in agile programming and other computer architectural paradigms. The iterative method goes through cycles. The methodology has very distinct steps. You go through a stage of taking requirements, planning, design and implementation, the evaluation which brings the world back to the planning and design phase.

When you are in a planning and design phase, there would be a great deal of debate and input from the legislature. When in the implementation phase, the legislature needs to shut up and the executive put up. One's behavior in such an environment is driven by the stage of the process.

The founders gave the United States something similar to this iterative design methodology. The general election are a period when the government is going through the evaluation process and takes requirements from the people. The legislative session is a period where the legislature works with the executive on design. We then go through a period of implementation. This happens within the regular election cycle.

The start of this legislative session should have been a time for debate about the directions that we would take with the Mideast crisis over the next two years. I think Bush was brilliant for coming into the session with a proposal for a troop increase. However, since he presented it as a done deal that was beyond debate, he stifled the design process. By stifling the design debate, the Congress was left with no option except partisan bickering and posturing.

In software design, you often see projects failing because people behave inapropriately at the wrong times in the design cycle.

The 2006 elections showed that there was a mandate by the people for a re-evulation and new design for our engagement in Iraq. Bush was brilliant to put a troop surge on the table. However, since he presented the troop surge as a done deal and not as a proposal, he effectively destroyed the mandated and much needed cycle of debate.

If we were having a politically healthy go at our engagement in the middle east, we would be engaged in a healthy debate about how to accomplish the goals of peace, freedom and democracy in the middle east. Instead we have a president taking a last ditch gamble on a troop surge, while his opponents (both at home and abroad) grumble at being left out of the process.

Putting it another way. Context is important. A healthy political system will go through incremental design process. Whether or not a argument is helpful or counter productive depends on where you are in the cycle. When in the evaluation period, there should be wild ideas flying from every quarter. In the planning process you trim down to the ideas that you want to work on (the debate narrows). During implementation people should shut up, until you are ready to enter the evaluation state again.

Eventhough I agree with Bush's actions. The start of the legislative session was a time of debate. The debate mandated by the people was stifled. This is sad because we had good quality ideas coming from unsuspected quarters like Hilary Clinton's criticism that the troop surge was diverting needed resources from Afghanistan, where we are receiving cooperation.

When evaluating arguments, you must consider context. A statement that is constructive in the design phase may be destructive in the implementation phase. Conversely, arguments or actions that are apropriate during implementation are not apropriate during design. A nasty way to destroy discourse is simply to put forward good arguments at the wrong time.

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