Analysis: Decisions, decisions

Can Olmert be trusted to make better ones in the future?

olmert punch 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert punch 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The fact that a permanent successor to outgoing National Security Council chief Ilan Mizrahi has not been chosen reflects poorly on the prime minister's contention that much has been learned and fixed since the Winograd Committee issued its interim report in April. In its final report issued on Wednesday, the committee found "serious failings and shortcomings in the decision-making processes and staff-work in the political and the military echelons and their interface," and "serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning, in both the political and the military echelons." The words "decision-making," "staff work" and "strategic thinking" pop up everywhere in the report, invariably along with terms like "failed," "flawed," "absent" or "inadequate." That the National Security Council remains sidelined is one of the central factors behind this. The serious failures in the process of decision-making by Olmert, wartime defense minister Amir Peretz and then IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz were highlighted in the interim report a full nine months ago. Apart from the continuing National Security Council debacle, in the intervening months, the Strategic Affairs Ministry was established, but saw little cooperation from the Defense and Foreign Ministries. With the departure of strategic affairs minister Avigdor Lieberman from the government, greeted with glee within the defense establishment, that ministry is left without a head. Assuming it is carrying out important work, why has Olmert not found an immediate replacement? Prof. Alex Mintz, dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and a world-renowned expert on decision making, says Olmert, Peretz and Halutz made a series of errors and that biases in their decision-making stemmed from their overconfidence in air power [Halutz], reliance on a charismatic and intelligent chief of General Staff [Olmert and Peretz], and underestimating Hizbullah's capabilities. "They believed in a concept that proved to be wrong. They locked in to a concept that said air power could knock over Hizbullah and end the rocket bombardment of the North, and when that concept proved wrong, it took them too long to overturn their decision and 'unlock' from that option," Mintz says, adding that the decision-making processes of the wartime leaders was "primitive." The failure of the air power conception should have been quickly evident. Yet thousands of rockets continued to hit the North as days turned to weeks of warfare, 200 on the final day alone. Ground forces were eventually sent in to do a job in 60 hours that the initial planners assumed would require weeks. The Winograd Committee could not find a proper answer as to who made the final decision to embark on a ground operation that would last 60 hours, with the proviso that the forces could be ordered to stop within six hours, nor could it be certain how that decision was made. What the committee does say unequivocally is that the ground operation, in which 33 soldiers died, did not meet its goals. How could it, in the time it was given? The panel also points out that not only was there a delay in preparing the ground forces for deployment in southern Lebanon, but that the real failure was that the idea of a large ground offensive was not brought up for serious discussion by the army and the political echelon. The committee finds that only toward the end of the first week of August 2006 (the war ended on August 14) was a ground attack plan prepared. "Avoiding serious discussion on a ground deployment made it impossible for the decision-makers of all ranks to clearly understand the price of their hesitation [on whether to deploy ground forces] as compared to its benefits, and thus to take an informed decision," the report says. The committee also finds that the "erroneous conception adopted whereby the government and cabinet could not prepare for a ground offensive without it actually having to be executed" placed serious restrictions on Israel's ability to act. Instead of having ready-made strategies prepared by professional staff-work and tinkering with plans as conditions necessitated, Olmert forced himself into a position where operations were largely shaped by events - including the army's failure to stop the rocket fire, and prolonged cease-fire negotiations at the UN. The committee also notes that it saw "no serious staff-work on Israeli positions on the cease-fire negotiations front." This situation improved in part when the team headed by the prime minister's chief of staff was established. The team worked efficiently and with dedication, professionalism and coordination. "This could not compensate, however, for the absence of preparatory staff work and discussions in the senior political echelon," the report states. Can Olmert, a leader who made decisions based on overconfidence and who did not use the staff-work tools available to him - such as the National Security Council - to make better decisions, be trusted to make better decisions in the future? Mintz believes Olmert has become more systematic in his decision-making process, as evidenced by the attack on a target in Syria on September 6 and the fact that he hasn't yet sent the army into a ground operation in Gaza. What Olmert, and the army brass, need to be careful of now, Mintz says, is over-cautiousness. Fearful of repeating mistakes of the past, and being blamed for them, the country's decision-makers may feel they need to cover themselves on every base. This kind of thinking may be contrary to the creativity and daring Israeli leaders will need to display in the face of the Iranian threat, and the challenge posed by Hamas in Gaza. Retired judge Eliahu Winograd summed up his remarks by saying that his committee's suggestions "for systemic and deep changes in the modalities of thinking and acting of the political and military echelons and their interface should not be obscured by current affairs, local successes or initial repairs." These are "deep and critical processes," the judge said. Indeed, they are the sort of changes that can only be carried out through daily staff-work from agencies such as the National Security Council, the Foreign Ministry Research Department, and other necessary strategic planning bodies.