Interesting Times: Sore winners

There are limits to the merits of self-flagellation.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Winston Churchill prefaced his six-volume history of World War I, The World Crisis, with this incredible claim that he "made or implied no criticism of any decision or action taken or neglected by others, unless I can prove that I had expressed the same opinion in writing before the event" (emphasis in the original). I wish I could hold myself to Churchill's sky-high standard. The least I can do when looking back, however, is not to ignore what I wrote at the time. While it may be fair to demand of our leaders wisdom that we pundits don't possess, we should at least have the humility to admit that that is what we are doing. So let's go back for a moment to July 21, 2006, nine days into the war. In a column titled "Old and new courage," I compared Israel's campaign to the Six Day War, the Entebbe hostage rescue, the attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor, and the 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jewry. "These events demonstrated Israel's ability to act with almost unbelievable audacity and skill. They were met globally with admiration or consternation, but each captured the world's imagination and, perhaps most importantly, unified the Jewish people in pride," I wrote. "When the cabinet decided, in the wake of Hizbullah attacks that killed eight soldiers and captured two more, to attempt to destroy Hizbullah and hold the Lebanese government accountable, it knew that that fearsome array of missiles would be let loose. Yet it decided to go ahead, hoping that the people of Israel... would understand the necessity for drastic and definitive action. "They were right. Polls show that the vast majority of Israelis support the government's decision. In fact, they indicate slightly higher support for the operation, and for not ending it prematurely, in precisely the areas that are being bombarded." When I wrote this it was no contrarian point of view, but an echoing of the national consensus. Yet the interim Winograd Report, which ends with the fifth day of the war, concludes that the war's three main architects - Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz - exhibited "serious failures" in their decision-making process. HOW CAN the wall-to-wall support for the war at the time be squared with the perhaps even wider verdict - polls indicate Olmert's approval rating is less than 5% - of disgust with our leadership's handling of it? Reading the Winograd Report, it seems that the explanation is this: Even when the government looked like it was courageously moving on the right track, it had no idea what it was doing, and its dysfunctional decision-making process quickly led to disaster. The report found, to take one example of many, that: "The astounding and grave conclusion is that the single significant decision taken by the [full cabinet]... was the decision to take [initial] military action, when it was reasonable to expect rocket attacks against the home front, without any clear notion how this would end, without knowing the scope of the planned action or its objectives and practical alternatives, and this after two-and-a-half hours of debate, without real discussion, and without giving sufficient responses to the substantive questions posed by ministers with extensive security-diplomatic experience. We view this fact as a grave failure." The truth is, this description could probably apply to many decisions taken by many Israeli governments, and to other democracies as well. But combine the context of war with the perfect storm of inexperience or arrogance of the top three decision makers, and we see the result. It is, indeed, a serious problem when multiple forms of dysfunction become so normal that they become difficult to recognize, let alone address. This can be said not only about patterns of decision-making, but about a political system that has lost the public's confidence, an educational system that doesn't inculcate the history and values needed to survive, and about a religious-secular divide that has poisoned Judaism for much of the secular majority in the Jewish state. The Winograd Committee alluded to this in the somewhat cryptic, unnumbered, coda to the summary read by its chairman: "We hope that our findings... will not only impel the correction of the serious governmental failures that we exposed, but will also lead toward a renewed process in which Israeli society, and its political and spiritual leaders, will explore Israel's long-term aspirations and the ways to advance them." THIS WE should do. But there is a difference between productive soul-searching and wallowing in self-criticism. The 119 soldiers who died in the recent Lebanon War did not give their lives in vain. Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognize this. Renowned Iran expert Amir Taheri, in his May 3 Jerusalem Post interview, said the war "destroyed" Hizbullah. "That Hizbullah tried to camouflage its defeat by provoking a political crisis in Lebanon indicates its understanding that the situation has changed... Usually in war, you talk of "decimation" - an army's losing one-tenth of its manpower. In this case, Hizbullah lost about a quarter of its fighters. It also lost literally all of its missile launching pads in the south... In other words, it lost manpower, territory and weaponry. What else do you want?" If winning is defined as favorably altering the status quo, Israel won. Yet we lost in terms of how we mistakenly defined victory - Hizbullah's total destruction - and this diminished our actual success. Our current leadership will ultimately pay for this mistake and others, and we will have new leadership. But what will we do with it? We will not have the strength to build without retaining some belief in ourselves. The Winograd Committee aptly dedicated its report to the soldiers who died. Their sacrifice demands that we not become daunted by what needs fixing. It requires that we not forget the powers, including both the ability of self-criticism and the vibrancy of self-confidence, that we bring to the task.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11