The Duck of Minerva

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A McNamara Syndrome?

July 8, 2009

Robert McNamara was complex giant in the field. Since his passing on Monday, several prominent IR scholars and practitioners have eulogized his life in a variety of ways. Most authors, however, note the disjointed nature of his legacy—great achievement in modernizing the Department of Defense, but also enormous failure in Vietnam. As someone often consumed by the power of numbers, for me McNamara’s most compelling accomplishment was his dogged persistence in applying the quantitative approaches to management that garnered him great success at Ford Motor Company to the Department of Defense. McNamara was also a (unconscious) believer in rational choice theory, at a time when these concepts were still the abstract vision of a small community of academics. If nothing else, McNamara’s evidence-based decision making was well ahead of its time.

In yesterday’s New York Times Errol Morris, director of the definitive McNamara documentary “The Fog of War,” wrote an excellent op-ed pondering how to remember the man. Morris’ closing remark refers directly his rational mentality, and its ultimate fallibility:

If he failed, it is because he tried to bring his idea of rationality to problems that were bigger and more deeply irrational than he or anyone else could rationally understand. For me, the most telling moment in my film about Mr. McNamara, “The Fog of War,” is when he says, “Perhaps rationality isn’t enough.” His career was built on rational solutions, but in the end he realized it all might be for naught.

This is quite provocative, but I reject the assertion that McNamara faced an irrational world. More likely, the ordered rationality he observed in Detroit was muddled In Washington by the layers of bureaucratic malaise and political absurdity. What Morris does not consider, however, is how the failure of McNamara’s methods permeated the defense establishment, and their consequences. That is, after being humiliated in Vietnam, and using McNamara as a prideful scapegoat, did the defense community develop an aversion to the quantification of warfare? A McNamara Syndrome?

The evidence seems to suggest that this may be the case. Of the prominent U.S. military leaders in the proceeding half-century, only Colin Powell approached McNamara in his desire understand the dynamics of conflict through evidence-based analysis (it should be noted that Gen. Powell was ultimately not rewarded for this approach). What, then, is the role for modern political science in a defense policy community plagued by this syndrome? While there is still an ongoing debate within the discipline as to the value of quantitative versus qualitative methods, the fact is most contemporary discourse in political science—especially in IR—is based on rational choice models, and explained through large-scale quantitative analysis. This creates an extremely problematic paradox: IR scholars reject baseless theory and attempt to explain conflict through simple rational theory and quantitative analysis; however, IR practitioners reject the value of these theories and methods, and attempt to manage conflict through institutional knowledge.

Perhaps McNamara’s most significant contribution is the institutional fear of methodology his failures instilled at the DoD; ultimately resulting in the much lamented gap between theory and and practice in international relations. As scholars, we must first ask ourselves if we care to overcome the McNamara Syndrome. If so, how can we reconcile our methods with the practice?

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Drew Conway, CEO and founder of Alluvium, is a leading expert in the application of computational methods to social and behavioral problems at large-scale. Drew has been writing and speaking about the role of data — and the discipline of data science — in industry, government, and academia for several years.