I am going to give a talk re infrastructure in Iraq. I include the advert in the interests of shameless-self-promotion. Please come if you can.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Section Meeting. Sponsored by the Younger Members’ Forum, John Matel, leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) for Iraq’s Western Al Anbar Province, will give a presentation on the successes and continuing challenges of rebuilding Iraq’s government and infrastructure. The U.S. Embassy in Iraq began establishing PRTs in 2005, and they are now a key element in the strategy for stability in Iraq by strengthening the Iraqi government’s ability to provide basic services and to construct roads, water and sanitation projects, electric power infrastructure, and other public works. See more information in the November E-Update newsletter. Where: Sheraton Crystal City (Metro: Blue/Yellow lines, Crystal City) is located at 1800 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, VA (one block from the Metro). Registration and networking begins at 6:00 pm with the dinner at 6:45 pm, and the program from approximately 7:30 to 8:30 pm. Reservations can be made by e-mailing Please RSVP by close of business on November 12, 2008. The cost is $30 for members and non-members and $5 for students, which includes a buffet dinner. No free parking is available at the hotel for the meeting. However, free parking is generally available on the street.

Disastrous Predictions Exceeding Disastrous Predictions

Now that I am back from Iraq, where we succeeded despite the dire prediction, I see that we are now having the same sort of scare re the economy.  People think it is wise to be pessimistic.  They are just silly. 

The good thing about the terrible predictions we constantly see and hear in the media is the most of them don’t come true.   The bad thing is that we usually don’t hear that part.  Somebody makes the big-bad prediction and then when it doesn’t happen, just moves on. 

We are now hearing the warnings of economic Armageddon.   This is not the first time we have heard it.  Remember the big industry in decline and doom books during the 1980s?  How about the S&L disaster that was supposed to pull us all to hell around 1990?  Do you know the government actually MADE money on the S&L bailout?  That contributed to the prosperity of the 1990s.

We have to go through adjustments.  Systems tend to get out of whack.  It is nobody’s and everybody’s fault, but we always have to look for the guilty parties.  Politicans make their careers out of leading the virtual equivalent of a mob of torch and pitchfork bearing peasants against the “monster castle”.  Remember the old Frankenstein movies?  Now we do it online and through the media.  There is always plenty of greed and stupidity to go around, but that is rarely the cause of the trouble.   We will get through this if we don’t overreact and try to solve the wrong problem.  Some of the early programs in the New Deal actually deepened the Depression.  Strong action in the wrong direction is worse than none at all.

It is useful to remember that the property boom started in the 1990s and it didn’t start in America.  Places like the UK, Australia and Spain saw property values rise before we did, and they have fallen even more in some other places.  That property values could rise and fall in so many disparate places with such different  regulatory regimes indicates that it was not a particularly American problem.  That the boom started in the middle of the 1990s indicates that it is not merely a problem of the most current administration.   

We should also remember that Freddie and Fanny were doing what their masters in Congress asked them to do – push loans to low income people.  There is something about low income people that makes it harder for them to get loans.  What could that be?  Oh yeah – they don’t have much money.  They tend to default more often.  That is why Congress has to push lenders to put their money there.  Why does this surprise anybody?   Much of the problem is not in SPITE of the best efforts of government, but BECAUSE of it.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and the real response that are required, prudent people were not much hurt by the swings.   If you bought your home before 2005, it is likely still worth more than you paid for it.  Maybe you felt richer last year, but you had paper profit.  If you sold you house, it would have cost you more to buy a new one.  Now both your house and the one you might want to buy are cheaper.  It is a wash.  If you didn’t take money out of your home with a refinance or equity loan, your payment is lower in real dollars than it was when you bought the place.   Over the long run, home prices rise not much faster than inflation.   In the short run they fluctuate.  That is why smart people don’t speculate. 

Many people have been living beyond their means.  It is not a bad thing to bring them back to reality.  This is not only natural, it is useful and good.   I understand that the government needs to stabilize the markets, but they should avoid the moral hazard of rewarding greed & stupidity.  That goes for the big guys who lend money to bad credit risks AND to the bad credit risks who are currently defaulting.   The only victims in this whole thing are the good people who lived within their means, didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford and now have to bail out the deadbeats. 

Remember the tale of the grasshopper and the ants.  Unfortunately, in modern times the grasshopper gets a bailout, but let’s not feel sorry for him.  He is still a deadbeat, not a victim.

BTW – for all the gloom re the U.S. consider this:  The United States accounts for 40 percent of total world R&D spending and 38 percent of patented new technology inventions by the industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), employs 37 percent (1.3 million) of OECD researchers [full-time employees], produces 35 percent, 49 percent, and 63 percent, respectively, of total world publications, citations, and highly cited publications, employs 70 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize  winners and 66 percent of its most-cited individuals, and is the home to 75 percent of both the world’s top 20 and top 40 universities and 58 percent of the top 100.

I won’t say, “don’t worry; be happy”  but the world will not end next year and we will still be #1 for a long time to come.

P.S.  Take a look at this article.   It seems the better things get, the more people complain.

Come Safely Home

My year is finished.  I have accomplished all that I will and I have come safely home.   So … how did we do?

It is always hard to judge one’s own success and I am not sure I can tell.  I am also not sure ANYONE can tell.  So many factors were at work and my role was so small.  If I crow about the successes achieved in Anbar, it will be a lot like the rooster claiming credit for the sunrise.   But if I just pass over the whole thing as though my efforts meant nothing, I am denying reality and denying the whole concept of free choice.  It is almost my metaphysical duty to brag on our achievements.  I did only what others could have done, but most others did not do them.   What a person could do, what he can do and what he actually did are often not strongly related.

I made a difference to the extent of my capabilities for Western Anbar and the security of the United States.  The environment is now more hostile to insurgents and terrorists because of the efforts of my team.  (The Colonel told me that it is easier for his Marines to eliminate “f-ckos” because my team has made it harder for them to survive among the people.  I consider that great praise indeed.)  Conditions are better for the people of the province. I cannot separate my personal achievements from those of the team, so what I am most proud of is that I created the conditions for team members to thrive and that I motivated and empowered them to do a great job, but as a result of this THEY did of the heavy lifting.   That is as it should be.

The better the team, the more the leader can & should act as a catalyst rather than a directive manager.   Being a catalyst for positive change is a good thing, but a catalyst by its very nature is never actually part of the transaction.   To the question, “What did you personally do?” I would have to answer, “Almost nothing.”  But if they asked, “What did you enhance or make happen?” I could answer, “Almost everything the team did.”

I learned that from forestry, which I have been sort of practicing since I planted my first trees back in 1966.  A little leverage and patience creates great things, but you never can point to a precise moment of accomplishment and you have to understand that everything depends on the synergy of forces, many of which you do not control.  

If I look at my early post re going to Iraq, I think you can judge if I met my own vaguely stated goals.  I like vagueness.  It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.   There are things you just cannot predict or measure precisely.   Most big things are like that.

I consider it achievements that I have come safely home, that my team will continue to do its good work w/o me, that our activities made things better in Iraq, created confusion among our enemies and enhanced the security of the United States.   When we all do our small part, big things get done.  I am proud that I won the respect of the Marines and my team member colleagues.   Nothing else matters too much if you have those things.

Back safely home in Virginia, watching the gentle rain fall on green leaves.

John Matel

PS – I wrote some posts during the journey home and will post them here.  I will then archive this blog and continue on with more prosaic postings.  I will call the blog Matel-in-America.  If some of you want to come along on that trip, you are welcome.  If not thanks for coming along so far.

Ghost Busters

This is the first of the out of sequence posts from Frankfurt.  I will dump them in, but please look back a few posts when you come on these.

My sister believes in ghosts and she has what she purports to be a picture of one, so when I noticed the interesting – almost three dimensional – play of the light, I had to take a picture.  Maybe I can sell it to “National Enquirer.”

The picture above is from Goethe’s house in Frankfurt.  A believer in ghosts might well say that this was Goethe’s wife or maybe a serving girl.  It seems a little small, but I suppose people were smaller in those days, or maybe you shrink when you turn into a ghost.  You can easily imagine it as a woman in 18th century costume in profile.  What do you think? 

Who ya gonna call?

Once & Future Frankfurt

Frankfurt was the first city I visited outside the U.S.  That was almost thirty years ago.  Time flies.  Things have changed in Frankfurt, but not that much.  I use Euro instead of Deutsch Marks and the city seems more international than German.  There are a lot of immigrants and Irish pubs.

I met three Irishmen in the youth hostel when I was here in 1979.  They had checked into a hotel and went out to get drunk.  That night, none of them could remember where their hotel was located and they still couldn’t – three days later.  It didn’t bother them too much.  They seemed to have money.  During the day, they walked around the city trying to recognize their erstwhile lodging.  At night, they went out and got drunk.   Maybe they got stranded permanently and founded one of those Irish pubs.

The Irish wandered Europe and the world in those days looking for work.  Germany was booming and they could find unskilled work.  Today the Irish economy is one of the most vibrant in the world and the Germans envy their low unemployment rate. Ireland used to have high taxes and a government unfriendly too business.  No more.  It is now easy to set up shop in Ireland and the country has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world; it around 12% compared to the Germans’ (and ours) of around 35%.   Some things change. 

BTW – I heard that number on the debates today AFTER I wrote this.  I guess I am topical.

But a picture is worth a thousand words.  Below are some pictures with captions of less than a thousand words to explain them. 

I was hungry most of the time when I visited Germany in 1979.  I didn’t bring enough money, so I lost weight.  One of my favorite dishes was goulash soup at Weinerwald.   IT was cheap.  I loved it.  Hunger is the best cook and it doesn’t taste as good now as then, but I still eat it when I can, for old time’s sake.   Below is what I like to eat now.   This is breakfast at Courtyard. Much healthier food, but still enough fat to make it good. BTW – Courtyard Marriotts in Europe are great.  They are usually in nice, wooded locations and they are not too expensive.

Even with my meager funds in 1979, I still could afford beer – liquid bread, cornflakes in a bottle.  My favorite beer was Heniger, a local Frankfurt product.  It still is good.  The picture is from the old town square.  It is great to sit in the sun on a cool day and drink a cool beer. 

Es gibt kein schoneres leben

You can tell a good beer by the “cling”.  Cling is the foam that adheres to the sides off the glass as you drink it down.  It should look foamy, with small bubbles.  If there is not much cling, the beer is too light.  If the bubbles are too big, it probably means that the cup is a little dirty.  Don’t order anything containing mayonnaise at that establishment.  Below is good cling.  The beer is Bitberger, with the slogan “bitte ein bit” – please a bit(berger).  It doesn’t translate so well.

Germany has a good street culture, with lots of sidewalk cafes an food shops.  This is typical of the bread and pastry shops.   I couldn’t stay in Germany too long.  The beer and chocolate would be too tempting.

This post is getting a little long.  Let me continue in the next post.

P.S. It may seem like I drink a lot of beer.  I don’t …usually.  The Marines (and me) drink not a drop of it during deployment.  I do like beer and during my time in dry and beer free Al Asad I developed an aching hunger for the liquid bread.  As luck would have it, I spent a day in Germany on my way home.  I saw my chances and I took ’em.

Im Himmel gibt’s kein Bier,
Drum trinken wir es hier.
Denn sind wir nicht mehr hier,
Dann trinken die andern unser Bier.

Electricity in Iraq: Explaining Shortages

CNN ran a report highlighting the failures in Iraq.  It is not hard to find troubles and even easier to imagine various things that COULD go wrong.  I suppose that is the job of journalists, but that is one reason why people are always anxious.  Most of the bad things predicted don’t happen, but by then the journalists are on to the next big potential disaster.    

Below is an Iraq village from the air.  Same scene as Hamurabi could have seen (if he could fly).  Notice the electrical lines are not down.  There never were any.  Some things take time.

I am getting sick of hearing about electrical shortages in Iraq.  Let me give you the ground truth that evidently escapes our intrepid CNN colleagues.  

Iraq will NEVER be able to supply electricity 24/7 until it does something fundamental – charge money for it.   Journalists never mention – maybe they don’t know or care – that electricity from the government grid is usually essentially free.   Even when it is not free, there is rarely a variable price.  No surprise then that electrical demand has skyrocketed.  Saddam didn’t worry about demand.  It was nearly impossible for people to buy new appliances or luxuries.  Since the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi people have installed thousands of air conditioners.  You see big screen TVs in the markets.  People have computers with internet.  All these things drain electricity.   

The grid supplies a little more electricity than it did before the war and it will supply more soon when we and the Iraqis finish fixing all the maintenance problems Saddam left.  It is like buying an old car that is ready to fall apart and then getting blamed for the breakdowns.   But in addition to the grid, there has also been an proliferation of small generation.  Our ePRT helped pay for some of them. With all these things, Iraq generates more electrical power than ever before.  But demand bumps up 12% a year – one of the highest growth rates in the world.   Much of that electricity is free and people feel free to waste it.  

What do you think would happen in the U.S. if you paid $2 a month and there was no additional charge no matter how much you used?  Would anybody turn down their air conditioning or flick off the lights when they left a room?    Do you limit yourself to the least expensive items at the all-you-can-eat buffet? 

When Iraqis and our intrepid CNN journalists (who I did not see during the entire year I spent in Western Anbar) talk about electricity, they usually mean the free stuff.   If you drive through villages at night, you notice that Iraqis have electricity.  Some if free or comes at a low flat-rate from the grid, but some of it they pay for – just like you and I do.   This is what happens: a town might get six hours of grid electricity.  Everybody plugs in everything he owns in anticipation of this happy time.  Why not?  It is free.  When the free electricity is finished and they pay for it people are more careful with the electricity.  

It is really the worst possible system.  What do you expect when something is provided free for a limited time?  Everybody uses as much as they possible can.  

You cannot blame the Iraqis.  We all would behave like this.  If you don’t waste it somebody else will.  If any individual saves power, he just gets less.   

Only one place I know of – Anah – meters and charges for electricity the way we do in the U.S. and  most of the world.  Anah has no significant shortages.  The leaders of nearby towns dislike Anah.  It makes them look bad.  It also proves the point.   

So next time you hear about electricity shortages in Iraq, keep in mind that this is nearly completely an artificial problem caused by what started off as well-meaning and generous government policy.  Well, maybe not that well meaning.  Saddam used free electricity to bribe the people, knowing that the lack of electrical appliances would limit demand.  No reasonable amount of investment will solve this problem because in its current form the problem is not solvable.   It is easy to demand more of something you get free. 

The electricity problem is a classic “hot potato”.  We made the mistake of defining it as OUR problems and took the blame for a stupid system we inherited from the bad old days.  We cannot solve the problem.  Nobody can in its current form.  We have to toss that hot potato back to those who can address the problem in the ways that will work.  And somebody should explain this to CNN.  I suspect somebody has tried.  Not everybody is teachable.  They prefer to look earnestly at the camera and list the failures rather than explain the solution is simple, although not easy.

Why the Surge Worked

I read a great article today about why the surge worked.   Many of the opinions I read are from those who don’t know.  This is different.  Please follow the link to the original.  It is based on an interview with General Jack Keane.  Below is my block quote summary.  It is mostly from the article.  I put my own comments in italics.

BTW – Also read this article in Foreign Affairs.

Talking about the first phase of the war, just after the invasion.  

Gen. Keane. “It didn’t work. And why didn’t it work? Because the enemy voted and they took advantage. The fact that we did not adjust to what the enemy was doing to us and the Iraqis were not capable of standing by themselves — that was our major failure. . . . It took us all a while to understand the war and [that] we had the wrong strategy to fight it. Where I parted from those leaders [at the Pentagon] is when we knew the facts — and the facts were pretty evident in 2005 and compelling in 2006 — and those facts were simply that we could not protect the population and the levels of violence were just out of control.”

President Bush chooses victory over popular politics. 

In late 2006, after the midterm election debacle for Republicans, pressure rose for a quick if dishonorable exit from Iraq. Gen. Keane met Frederick Kagan, who was putting together a report on an alternative strategy for Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute. On Dec. 11, both men found themselves at the White House to push the plan. Congress, the Joint Chiefs, Iraq commander Gen. George Casey and the Iraq Study Group all wanted a fast drawdown. President Bush ignored their advice. Gen. Petraeus was sent out in February to oversee the new, risky and politically unpopular surge.

We did what they said couldn’t be done.

“It’s a stunning turnaround, and I think people will study it for years because it’s unparalleled in counterinsurgency practice,” he says. “All the gains we’ve achieved against al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency, the Iranians in the south are sustainable” — a slight pause here — “if we’re smart about it and not let them regroup and get back into it.”

This is the part I really think is true:“I have a theory” about the unexpectedly fast turnaround, Gen Keane says. “Whether they be Sunni, Shia or Kurd, anyone who was being touched by that war after four years was fed up with it. And I think once a solution was being provided, once they saw the Americans were truly willing to take risks and die to protect their women and children and their way of life, they decided one, to protect the Americans, and two, to turn in the enemies that were around them who were intimidating and terrorizing them; that gave them the courage to do it.”

This is what I saw in Anbar. This is what I think was important for us. This is why w/o the surge, our friends would be dead and the terrorists would be getting ready to take the war to us someplace else.  The U.S. came “within weeks or months” of defeat in Iraq in 2006, he says. The consequences of that were “unacceptable” for the region, “not to speak of an institution that I loved.” And what about the military chiefs who thought the extra battalions and extended service tours would be too much of a strain on American forces? “When people talk about stress and strain on a force, the stress and strain that would come from having to live with a humiliating defeat would be quite staggering.”

Right!  Do read the whole article.

Almost Out

I am in Baghdad completing my check-out and getting ready to fly back to America.   I don’t expect ever to be in Iraq again.   I actually do have some fond memories of the place and I expect that they will improve over time, as the hardships fade and the good times are enhanced.  The mind works that way.   I made lots of friends in Iraq and I will miss them.  Already I am thinking how fast the year went.  I remember not thinking that at the time, but that is also the way the mind works.

It is quieter in Baghdad now, or maybe that is just my impression.  It may be because whenever I have been here before it has been part of some kind of conference, so there were always other transients around.  I have the luxury of a “wet” trailer (i.e. one with a bathroom) but I sort of miss Al Asad. With its Marines and its austerity, Al Asad is like Sparta.  Baghdad is more like Babylon.   

Frem og tilbake er like langt, but it really does make a difference which way you are going.  Last year when I was going into Iraq, I was a little fearful and apprehensive but excited.  Now that I am going out, I feel satisfied that my part of the job is done but still vaguely apprehensive.  

For almost a year, my life has been ordered by the mission and the interesting conditions of being in Iraq.  We worked every day.  I often forgot the day of the week.  I lived and worked with the same people.  We shared a purpose and a duty.  All that is finished.   

I return to home to an America that has largely forgotten about Iraq.  The economy is issue # 1 in the election.  I don’t think it should be.  The economy is a big deal, but the decisions of the president have limited impact on the economy.  

If you look at a long term graph of economic factors, you see the waves are long and the incumbent president makes not much difference.   (This chart is ADJUSTED for inflation, BTW, and it is the MEDIAN, so it doesn’t show that just the rich got richer.)  An economic upturn began in 1982 and more or less continued until today.  The terrible conditions of the 1970s are forgotten and we have not suffered anything like the turbulence of the decade following 1973.  The economy went down a little in 1991 and recovered in 1992.  GHW was president for both.  It grew a lot in the 1990s and turned down in 2000.   Bill Clinton was president for both.   It recovered in 2002, grew a lot 2003-7 and then turned down last year.  GW Bush was president for both.   What did the presidents do to cause these things?  Not much.  They reflected worldwide trends.  Presidents don’t manage the economy.  They just get credit or blame.  And the candidates mislead the American people about what they are going to do; like roosters promising to make the sun rise, if they crow long enough eventually they are right. 

What happens in Iraq, on the other hand, depends on presidential decisions to a much greater extent. Foreign & security policy is where presidents have a dominant role.   That is how our system works. Maybe it is better that people don’t think so much about Iraq.  They usually get it wrong.  They either think it is a terrible meat grinder or a place we can just leave at our choosing w/o consequences.  Not many appreciate the work and sacrifice that brought us this far and the danger that all could be lost.   They even think this result could have just happened by itself.  People have their own affairs and I cannot really expect anything else.   I will answer the questions of anybody who asks, but try not to impose on the others.  It will be a challenge.   You can see how hard it will be.  I started to talk re being in Baghdad and drifted to this.

Anyway, I have not taken part in any of the luxuries (i.e. beer) available in Baghdad.  I figure I will wait a few more days until I clear Iraq.  I have a layover day in Frankfurt.  I bet I can find some good beer there so I don’t need it here.  And back home I can engage in the world’s ultimate luxury – being an American in America.

Victory in Iraq

Below is my last Marine Air helo.  It is in that cloud of dust.

I am not sure what to do with this blog.   I enjoy writing and will probably keep on posting, but it will not be as interesting most of the time.   I cannot continue to use the title “Matel in Iraq.”  I was thinking of putting a period to the sentence and calling it “Victory in Iraq,” since that is what I believe America has achieved here.  It would be a stand alone, historical webpage.  One of my colleagues thought that would be a bad idea because it was too strident.  He may be right.  We have achieved success here, but victory has that WWII feel of having it settled and the war on terror is not settled.  Your suggestions are welcomed.

FYI – I will have left Al Asad by the time you read this and will leave Iraq entirely in a few days.  I have some free time.  I look forward to seeing my family again and just being in Virginia. I want to get up to Milwaukee for a while and Mariza and I will attend the national tree farmer convention in Portland, Oregon.   I also need to look at my own trees.  We are applying biosolids to 132 acres.  That should make my little trees shoot up next year and improve the soil stability. 

I start my new job as director of policy issues at International Information Programs in November, after taking the senior executive training course at FSI.  I think that will be fun.  I have to get my bike fixed so I can do that commute on the bike trail.   

has been fun talking to you all for the past year.  This is not my last post, or even my last post from Iraq, but it is the end of the era.  The posts will just be more prosaic with more about forestry and living in the USA.  Of course, I still have to do my big looking back pontification.

Last year I thought I would jump for joy when I got out of Iraq.  While I am still very happy to look forward to the good things I mention above,  I have come to enjoy my work here and I will miss my colleagues and friends I have made here.   I have enjoyed the experience.  Whodathunkit?

Drunken John Matel

I think that I prefer “drunken” (from the original song) to “fighting”, although I have done neither in Iraq.   The Marines sang the song below at my going away.  It is based on an old Johnny Cash song.  I am flattered that they took the time.   The Marines don’t make fun of people they don’t like.

The Ballad of John Matel
John Matel…
John Matel…

Call him fighting John Matel
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

Gather round me people there’s a story I would tell
About a brave old civil servant you should remember well
From the land of beer and bratwurst
In old Wisconsin land

Who joined the Department of State to serve his Uncle Sam
Now John served in all the world’s hemispheres

The North, South, East, and West
It was his hardship tour in Rio
That he enjoyed the best

Call him fighting John Matel
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

John Matel volunteered to serve in harm’s way,
In the country of Iraq
While his peers looked at him with a sense of awe,
As they chose to remain back
He served with the Marines of worldwide acclaim
In the Western Al Anbar Hinterland
Rubbing shoulders with Mayors and Sheikhs
In the dust, the dirt, and sand

Call him fighting John Matel
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

He traversed the battlefield in the air and on the road
Airborne in the Osprey, on road by MRAP
He was fine with the air-land insert,
It was the road movements he thought were crap

Call him fighting John Matel
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

Call him jumping John Matel
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

Yeah, call him fighting John Matel
And his legacy will go far
With the Sheikhs, the Mayors, and common man
In the whole of Western Anbar

John Matel…
John Matel…