Analysis: Shattering illusions

The Winograd report should be required reading for all future leaders.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Perhaps the most important thing to do now is to pay heed to the last paragraph of Eliahu Winograd's public address and, for just a moment, to set aside the personal implications of his committee's report for the prime minister and the rest of the political and military leadership, and try to understand the wider meaning of the document. Winograd and his colleagues not only dissected the events leading up to the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War and during its first five days, they presented us with the most comprehensive critique of the decision-making process employed by Israeli governments for as far back as we can remember. The report makes for difficult reading, and not only for its damning verdicts regarding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the cabinet and then-chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. It is also full of didactic descriptions of how a government should conduct itself.
Some of the conclusions seem self-evident: A government should review different courses of action before making fateful decisions. The nation's leaders must have a large team of professional aides to advise them. A prime minister cannot act on impulse when sending men into the firing-line. The defense minister has to ensure civilian control of the armed forces. The army's commander must present the cabinet with all the relevant information. Contingency plans have to be drawn up for potential threats and periodically reviewed. These are basics, Government 101, but as the committee pointed out, none of these rules were obeyed during the war and in the years leading up to it. That's why the committee felt it had no choice but to set out a blueprint for governing Israel. "A bad result is not always an indication of a failing," says the report, "just as a good result doesn't always prove that the conduct was correct." The committee is coming close to saying here that by losing 163 lives in the war, we paid the price for failings that could have cost us much more. The malaise at the highest levels of leadership existed long before the war, in successive governments. The political-military relationship was critically misbalanced and prime ministers made decisions without any set process of consultation and accountability. Interestingly, the committee did not criticize Olmert for appointing a politician with virtually no military experience as defense minister. The report stresses repeatedly that Olmert and Peretz should have acknowledged their inexperience and acted accordingly, but it does not say at any point that they shouldn't have been in their jobs. The committee members were essentially saying, "This is a democracy and any citizen can be elected, but for God's sake, take democracy seriously. The public entrusted you with a sacred responsibility. Don't decide in two hours to go to war." As the panel writes, national decision-making takes "leadership, responsibility, care, knowledge of the facts, determination, clarity, deliberation and an ability to observe long-range complexities." Simple, yet apparently totally lacking in our leadership. The committee blasted Israel's culture of inconsistency and improvisation. It criticized the IDF for incessantly playing around with its strategic doctrine instead of settling first on a basic set of principles. "There is an opportunity here" the panel writes. "If the results had been different, the army's conduct wouldn't have been examined and we would still be under the illusion that everything is fine with our army." A battalion commander in 1967 who went on to fill senior national security positions said this week, "The Six Day War was too successful. We were in such euphoria from the results that we never checked what went wrong and we've been paying the price ever since." Winograd's message is that a serious accounting is long overdue. The elected government must never trust the military to do the accounting itself. Winograd blames not only Olmert and Peretz for neglecting their responsibility but the entire cabinet. "The cabinet might have taken the decision [to go to war] but it did so as a political body giving backing to the prime minister, defense minister and the IDF." All the ministers share the blame for a hasty decision taken without information on the scale or risks of the campaign. It is no exaggeration to say that the committee performed a historic task in setting out the basics for any government dealing with what it calls "our existential dilemmas as a Jewish and democratic state." Long after this government is gone, the report should be compulsory reading for Israel's leaders upon assuming their responsibilities. Any future government should be judged accordingly. The reports on Arab news channels were of jubilation in Beirut, Damascus and Teheran at the humiliation of Israel's leadership at the hands of the committee, but if anything, Monday's performance by Winograd and his colleagues was a triumph for Israeli democracy. Few countries are capable of judging their leaders in such a serious and timely fashion. We should almost be thanking Hizbullah for forcing us to take a long hard look in the mirror. As the report says, "If this examination lead to an improvement in our preparation for fateful decision making in the future - out of the tragedy might come a blessing for us."