Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Robert McNamara (1916-2009) A lifetime of failure – his and ours.

Robert McNamara failed at Ford, failed at Defense and failed at the World Bank. Such a life of consistent, high-profile failure says a lot about the world in which he failed. His credentials and intellect were universally respected in his day, but were inadequate. Why were they – and he – so universally acclaimed in the midst of manifest failure? Who was kidding whom?

In a few paragraphs, one cannot do comprehensive justice to the compelling failings of Robert McNamara. He “rationalized” Ford, leaving it rigid and unprepared for changes in labor, technology, consumer taste and competition. He “rationalized” as Secretary of Defense, using a Wagnerian hellish brew of ignorance and power to kill millions and accomplish nothing. He rationalized the lending program at the World Bank, supporting old political structures and creating destructive economic structures to the extent that the World Bank – 30 years later – still privately regrets what was done and still acts to atone for the misery inflicted on hundreds of millions.

Robert McNamara was a failure as a man mostly because he either ignored or could not see the futility of his ideas and actions. Robert McNamara was also a failure of his time – that his approach was lauded and his failures unseen or ignored for nearly his entire lifetime by the politicians and press. The fruit of his life was extraordinary evil.

My opinion is that McNamara was granted exceptional trust and power precisely because the world was changing rapidly. Neither politicians nor press could get a firm intellectual grasp on what was happening. They gave the whole over to Robert McNamara – “the numbers man” - in blind, primitive hope that he understood what they could not. The political, intellectual and moral failings of everyone involved were immense.

None of the above addresses the irony that the political left now blames McNamara when he was of the left, promoted and supported by the left. The political left now makes mighty noises about McNamara so that no one looks behind the curtain – at the responsibility and guilt that the left desperately hopes to deflect and avoid.

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