The Blind Spot in Israel’s War Probe

It is tempting to congratulate Israel, as my friend and colleague Scott MacLeod has done, for holding its own leadership to account for its blunders at war. The Winograd Commission, created by the Israeli government to assess the reasons for its debacle in Lebanon last summer, has certainly offered a withering assessment of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s failings. And if you take its summary of failures outlined below and transpose them to the Bush Administration’s decision making on Iraq, well, you get the point that Scott was making:

The decision to respond [to the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah – TK] with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan, based on careful study of the complex characteristics of the Lebanon arena. A meticulous examination of these characteristics would have revealed the following: the ability to achieve military gains having significant political-international weight was limited; an Israeli military strike would inevitably lead to missiles fired at the Israeli civilian north; there was not another effective military response to such missile attacks than an extensive and prolonged ground operation to capture the areas from which the missiles were fired – which would have a high “cost” and which did not enjoy broad support. These difficulties were not explicitly raised with the political leaders before the decision to strike was taken.

b. Consequently, in making the decision to go to war, the government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment’, or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the ‘escalation level’, or military preparations without immediate military action – so as to maintain for Israel the full range of responses to the abduction. This failure reflects weakness in strategic thinking, which derives the response to the event from a more comprehensive and encompassing picture.

c. The support in the cabinet for this move was gained in part through ambiguity in the presentation of goals and modes of operation, so that ministers with different or even contradictory attitudes could support it. The ministers voted for a vague decision, without understanding and knowing its nature and implications. They authorized the commencement of a military campaign without considering how to exit it.

d. Some of the declared goals of the war were not clear and could not be achieved, and in part were not achievable by the authorized modes of military action.

e. The IDF did not exhibit creativity in proposing alternative action possibilities, did not alert the political decision-makers to the discrepancy between its own scenarios and the authorized modes of action, and did not demand – as was necessary under its own plans – early mobilization of the reserves so they could be equipped and trained in case a ground operation would be required.

f. Even after these facts became known to the political leaders, they failed to adapt the military way of operation and its goals to the reality on the ground. On the contrary, declared goals were too ambitious, and it was publicly stated that fighting would continue until they were achieved. But the authorized military operations did not enable their achievement.

Reading that summary, President Bush would be forgiven for thinking it was all about him. Perhaps, though, Winograd ought to have had more about Bush than it actually did (perhaps, criticizing the U.S. is a kind of third-rail of Israeli politics!): It struck me that the most glaring omission in the all the summaries I saw of the Winograd findings, was any mention at all of the U.S. role in shaping Israel’s decision to go to war, and its approach to the conflict. (Granted, Winograd’s findings released thus far concern only the first five days of the war, but there’s scarcely a mention of any coordination with Washington, whereas the Israeli media at the time made clear that Olmert was in constant contact with the White House.)

I wrote at length at the time about how Israeli and U.S. actions strongly suggested that this was, in part, a proxy war by Israel on behalf of the U.S. against an ally of Iran, and Seymour Hersh reported at great length on the U.S. involvement in planning and strategizing this war.

Given Olmert’s panicky neophyte behavior when faced with a crisis of this magnitude — and given that it is rather obvious that as a grand strategist, he makes a pretty good mayor — Winograd’s findings on the limit of his consultations within Israel’s security and political establishment in his decision making over the war suggest, to my jaundiced eye, at least, that Olmert was talking to someone else. He certainly needed his hand held. And the reports of in the Israeli press at the time of him running out of his own cabinet meetings to discuss the war on the phone with Condi Rice deepens my suspicion that Olmert did not make these blunders entirely alone (and I’m not talking about the rest of the Israeli leadership echelon that is now racing to distance itself from the decision).

This was a blunder that was, well, shall we say, Bush-esque. I’m looking forward to someone reporting this out a little more.

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21 Responses to The Blind Spot in Israel’s War Probe

  1. blowback says:

    Is Hassan Nasrallah holding out an olive branch to the Israelis?

    Referring to the Israeli report, Nasrallah said he was pleased that Israel had agreed with his analysis that Israeli had effectively lost the war by failing to decisively defeat Hezbollah’s fighters.

    “The first important outcome of this commission is that it has finally and officially decided the issue of victory and defeat … This commission spoke about a very big defeat,” he said.

    “Today the climate in the whole of the Zionist entity is that this war was a failure.”

    However he also said that Israel’s ability to learn from its mistakes was worthy of “respect”.

    “Even though they’re our enemies, it is worthy of respect that the political forces and the Israeli public act quickly to save their state, entity, army and their existence in the crisis,” he said.

    Does this mean that we will shortly see the release of the two captured Israeli soldiers?

    BTW, I can well imagine that Hezbollah has gone through a similar review process although I doubt we will ever see the findings.

  2. Ziad says:

    Tony, while I’m also convinced undue pressure was placed on Israel by the White House to wage war and continue it, I think much of the problem came from the rush of power and approval-both national and international- that facilitated the tough talk and boasting into which they buried themselves in the early days. Here was a war started by the other guy. The world was behind them (remember the G-8 meeting in SPB?) In such circumstances its hard for a politician NOT to ride the wave.

    Blowback, I think Nasrallah likes to view himself as a man of chivalry. Its the persona he cultivates in the Arab world and his speech should be viewed in that context. The following tidbit from his statement should also be noted;

    “They study their defeat in order to learn from it,” unlike Arab states that “do not probe, do not ask, do not form inquiry commissions … as if nothing has happened,” (from AFP via yahoo news)

    Along with some backhanded complements to Israel, Nasrallah offers this sincere one, made often by pro Israel partisans. But he does so to criticize the Arab regimes for reasons deeply resented by their own publics. And he does so by comparing them (most unfavorably) to the Israeli system of government.

  3. Alex Morgan says:

    The reaction of the Israeli public to this report is sickening.

    Was Olmert guilty as charged? Sure. But so was the Israeli public. Now all of a sudden, Olmert is the bad guy.

    As so often has been said: “victory has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”.

    Have we forgotten all the 90++++++% of Israeli public polling in rabid support of the war, baying for Arab blood, through all the bombs and all the escalation and all the civilian deaths of bystanders in Lebanon.

    If anything, the public was *more* hawkish in their desires for a “tougher” prosecution of the war than Olmert and his incompetent gang. The public wanted a full scale invasion with ground troops. That, of course would have drastically escalated casualties on both sides, and been an even bigger disaster for the Israeli military.

    There were isolated voices of sanity – like the writer who lost his son in that war, and who wrote movingly and brilliantly. However, the vast majority of Israelis were gung ho about extracting as much blood from Lebanon as possible, with no regard whatsoever for the fact that the victims of the aerial massacres were overwhelmingly innocent civilians. As a matter of fact, I recall the opposite of humanitarian concerns: it seemed to be explicit in the tactics to cause as much death and destruction of *non* Hezbollah parts of Lebanese society – the thinking was that it would somehow turn other Lebanese against the Hezbollah “look what they are causing us to do.” It was sick, not to mention a war crime. And one would think the Israeli public held their country to higher standards than those reserved for terrorists.

    The fact is, that there is a spiritual and moral sickness in Israel. They have turned to increasingly right wing, even racist political directions – and nothing pleasant awaits them as they go further into that murky alley. It’s time for Israelis to confront themselves. Who are they? Who have they become? Who do they want to be?

    What’s needed is a report on the Israeli public, not just on Olmert. He may be a convenient symbol, but what Israel needs desperately is a substantive national conversation and soul-searching. Yeah, I know. Fat chance.

  4. s anvar says:

    Alex is absolutely right. It was not just Olmert, even the 90+…percentage of the Israelis were for it. Earlier succeses against poorly trained and less motivated Arab armies had made them oblivious of the fact that, their “enemy could learn from the mistakes”. Military superiority is never permanent and that alone would not bring safety. The state of Israel and its people have to do a greater introspection than just pass the buck on Olmert and Bush. However let Olmert be the first to pay the pice. Times they are changing.

  5. Tony says:

    You’re both right that the Israelis were howling for revenge, as they always do in these situations — but usually, guided by their own sense of the dangers of escalation and red lines drawn by the U.S., they are careful to avoid escalation — the Israelis often do escalate, of course, to disastrous effect, but usually at moments of their own choosing — they may take some incident as a pretext to launch a comprehensive operation (such as Sharon using the assassination of an Israeli diplomat in London as the excuse for his invasion of Lebanon in 82), but the planning has been done beforehand. Plainly, this time it was a shambles. Of course it’s not only Olmert who is to blame, it’s the entire Israeli political echelon. But I’m particularly interested in what role Washington played, because it clearly wanted the operation to go ahead and to be intensified even beyond where the Israelis were initially taking it — as I wrote at the time, the US defined the end goals by saying a ceasefire shouldn’t happen before Hizballah had surrendered or been militarily dismantled. That required a ground invasion, which any Israeli leader may have thought twice about — and which clearly wasn’t planned, which contributed to its defeat…

  6. Pvt. Keepout says:

    Yes, more reporting on the American role in this horrific fiasco would be welcome. However, I’d be more interested in further analysis, commentary and opinion from Tony Karon evaluating and interpreting such reporting. Thank you for the (minimal) attention Rootless Cosmopolitan has thus far devoted to this importatant subject. It’s always gratifying to see Paul Woodward reads RC and has featured this post. I look forward to much more.

    I third Alex Morgan in placing great responsibility on the American and Israeli publics for their respective disasters. An honest reporting of the popular informational, moral and strategic failures associated with these self-inflicted wounds would be welcome. It should be noted that Winograd asserts its desire to stimulate just such an examination.

    It would not be at all surprising that such a popular national security tune-up would reveal its great responsibility in encouraging and promoting the corrosive effects of forty years of malignant occupation and self-serving American largesse.

  7. Fred says:

    The Peter Principle states that in every organization an employee will rise to his level of incompetence. That is, one keeps on getting promoted until the job is too tough, and the promotions stop. This leaves all positions filled by incompetents.

    I think something of this sort has happened to the Government of Israel. Olmert should have known better than to put somebody with no military knowledge whatever in the position of Minister of Defense. But he didn’t know better.

    Before the 2nd Lebanon War, Hezbollah was known to be the ‘A Team’ of terrorists, and was known to have advanced anti-tank missiles. And no Israeli could forget that Hezbollah was too much to handle in the 1st Lebanon War.

    Interestingly, it was under the ‘Bulldozer’ Ariel Sharon that the Israeli Army lost a lot of its punch. Apparently the bulk of the forces were retrained for low-intensity, small-unit house-to-house operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank where the firepower and casualties on both sides were much reduced from the levels seen in conventional war. But the 2nd Lebanon War was more like a conventional war. I am curious why Ariel Sharon doesn’t get more of the blame for weakening the Israeli military. Tank crews did not know how to generate smoke to hide themselves, a tactic that is at least 60 years old.

    Furthermore, in objective military terms the war was more of a tie than a win or loss for either side. Israel lost none of its sovereignty and relatively few people, and it’s economy was not hurt. Hezbollah and/or Lebanon lost more in all 3 of these areas. Nasrallah was crowing that the Winograd Report was ‘proof’ that Hezbollah won. When you really win a war you don’t need ‘Proof’.

    While Israel did lose the war of expectations, that is mostly spin. And while media people tend to believe that perception is the most important reality, there are many who believe otherwise.

    If Olmert manages to keep his job it will only prove that he is better at political maneuvering than at leadership. That is a problem all over the world.

  8. Ziad says:

    I don’t think Olmert is now in trouble simply because he is perceived to have lost when in fact he won. As for who won and who lost, there is no question that Israel’s 400,000 strong military plus air force and nukes are stronger than Hizbollah’s 3-5000 guerrillas. But that really isn’t the point. For anyone who questions the impact of the war I suggest they imagine what would have happened if in 2003, 5 weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq the U.S. army was still 3km from the Kuwaiti border and had taken heavy casualties to get that far. And was forced to go to the French for a face saving diplomatic bailout.

    In such circumstances it would do no good at all for the U.S. to brag about all the bombs it dropped, Iraqis it killed or bridges it destroyed.

    Granted the analogy isn’t perfect, but its pretty close.

  9. Alex Morgan says:

    Actually, Israel LOST. Period. Look, Israel has a crushing military advantage over the Hezbollah. In every way imaginable – manpower, weapons, training, absolutely in every way.

    So, the natural expectation is that Israel should do quick work of rooting out Hezbollah. The fact that it was a “draw” militarily – was really therefore effectively a defeat for Israel. Defeat of the expectation of obvious victory.

    Much more importantly, Hezbollah proved that Israel with all it’s might is not able to wipe out a nationalist movement. That’s a very, very significant development.

    Perception matters a great deal in projecting power. Israel’s army was perceived to be invincible – and to destroy this perception, is to destroy a great deal of deterrent power. Somewhat what is happening in Iraq. Familiarity breeds contempt – the Arabs are learning that they can defeat or at least bring to a draw and frustrate the glorious military machines of Israel and America. They have seen them up close. They know they can take them on. The “White God” factor is gone. Once upon a time a sense of dread and resignation might have come over some Arabs wrt. planning armed action “they have some powerful magic. It’s hopeless.” Today, they can say: “they are not 10 feet tall. Their magic can be fought. They are human.” This escalates the costs for the U.S./Israel tremendously – now, it’s not enough to ride on your reputation to intimidate the enemy and browbeat them into self-defeat. Now you’ll have to get every victory the old way, the hard way, one soldier at a time. You are no longer feared. And the hopes of Arabs have grown. And that means they’ll now dare dream much bigger when planning armed action – the net result is a tremendous rise in costs and risks to the U.S. and Israeli security apparatus.

    That, is the actual “loss” in that war – and the reason why Israel is unquestionably the loser in that confrontation.

  10. s anvar says:

    Dear Fred,
    i just want to remind you of a very basic saying, do forgive me for, not reproducing the exact words.
    ‘ if wealth is lost, nothing is lost,
    health is lost something is lost
    but if characte(moral) is lost everything is lost”
    True Lebanon lost economically, but the psychologial and moral victory of having stood upto an army believed to be invincible and beaten it back is far more valuable. How many Hizbollah men die in this war? Did Israel achieve its military objective of freeing its captured men?
    The war came to a halt without this being achieved and post war, Nasrallah is being celebrated as a hero by not just the Shites of Lebanon, but by a wider arab world.
    How many days the mighty Israelis had to run to shelters when Hizbollah was firing its rockets, which the Israelis couldn’t neutralise at all. Don’t tell me life was normal in Israel during those days and economic activity was not hurt, even if it was just a pinch. Instead of foolish bravado that it ‘was not a loss but a tie”, It is time Israelis accept that their enemies are catching up with them in terms of tactis and technology. The only way out is not confrontation but conversation and accomodation

  11. KB says:

    Dear Fascist Fred,
    I do not know if you are aware that the age of conventional war is over. No longer had two full fledged armies met each other on a large scale campaign. This is the age of guerilla and hit and run warfare. It is the age where your superior enemy is welcomed into the country under attack and then slowly, surely, and patiently hunt them down one by one until they have no will to stay.
    Ask the Israelis why did they leave South Lebanon back in the early 90s after a decade of occupation. After all, they had all that hardware superiority that you have mentioned. That is what is currently happening in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and happened in South Vietnam. A logical question, if your enemy posses superior hardware would you go face to face in front of him?
    I would not, maybe you will. The Arabs, which the West still thinks that they are bunch of “stupid Female abusing Camel Jockeys” are really not that dumb and they learned and adapted to this type of warfare.
    Israel and the USA lost in Lebanon just as they lost it back in the mid 80’s. You must know that you can not go and occupy a country and subdue it against the will of its people. You can invade it but you will never have one peaceful day and you will always walk looking over your shoulder, and if you do not somehow get killed by some guerilla raid or a road side bomb, you will eventually pack up, tuck your tail between your legs and go back home defeated.
    As for destroying the country, well the Arabs after being colonized, raped and pillaged by their dictators who are supported by the Western Imperialism are used to living that life style. I remember back when we lived for months with no electricity, radio and TV stations, no sugar, no coffee, no rice, and hardly any produce in the market. But, somehow we managed to survive because we learned the survival skill. Just ask any of those poor bastards in Gaza where the Israelis are committing the atrocities, how are they surviving?
    I wonder if NY, LA, Washington, Tel Aviv, Paris, or London went a week with no electricity water services or bakeries, I guaranty there will be riots. The Western economy almost collapsed after the 1973 war just because of the oil embargo. Boy, we were laughing our asses off and did not drop a tear for you.
    Guerillas are here to stay, and if 1 dies there will be 10 taking over. Recruits are everywhere, and the more we humiliate them, insult them and force them against the wall, the more we will alienate the Arabs and the Moslems and the more recruits they will get.
    It is time for dialogue, respect and understanding on both sides. Forceful action will never get anyone anywhere. It is time for Israel to get off its high and mighty horse and start talking peace and offer some dignity to those poor Palestinian bastards because the Israeli army is no longer invincible. Syria has been ready for years but neither Israel or USA want to engage in any dialogues with them. You know that half of the world problem is because the Palestinian problem.
    So it is time to wake up and smell the Baklava.
    I pray to God that peace shall came to the most accursed part of the world (Middle East)
    Respectfully yours.

  12. Jorge says:

    It struck me that the most glaring omission in the all the summaries I saw of the Winograd findings, was any mention at all of the U.S. role in shaping Israel’s decision to go to war…


    I’m glad they didn’t mention Bush.

    If I tell you to jump off a cliff and you do it, is it my fault?

    Countries need to think independently and take responsibility for their actions – even if it is coordinated action. Complaining that the Bush (that’s the “devil,” according to Hugo Chavez) made me do it is as irresponsible as the action itself.

    If we want countries to think independently, we have to let them take the fall when they “follow orders.” Taking that fall will teach them next time. Same goes for individuals who “just follow orders.” Think independently. Let’s not be toads. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a good soldier. But a good soldier doesn’t follow illegal or stupid orders.

  13. lolaone says:

    k.b., I agree with you. I’m not sure why humiliation isn’t listed along with nuclear warheads, cluster bombs, and fighter jets. It is as devastating in its own way. My heart has always been with the Palestinian people.I am sorry for your pain.

  14. Fred says:

    I think I did point out there have been changes in the psychology of the situation. However, given that the balance of material outcomes, the economy, the casualties, and the sovereignty, went the other way. The overall evaluation has to be that it was closer to a tie than a win for either side. Hezbollah simply cannot stand many more victories of that kind.

    The Winograd commission erred, I think, in not analyzing this question, but simply assuming that Israel sustained a big loss. There is a classified appendix to the Winograd report, and the second half of the report is coming out in a few months. Perhaps that issue is dealt with there.

    The methods of Hezbollah in last summers war were more conventional than guerrilla.

    “You must know that you can not go and occupy a country and subdue it against the will of its people.”

    History is full of examples of exactly that sort of conquest. Romans, Huns, the 2 World Wars.

    And Israel hasn’t been “Invincible” since at least 1973. That argument is a straw man.

  15. Alex Morgan says:

    The last word has not been said in these conflicts. Israel has decided that they gain more by taking a maximalist position against the Arab world. The price for now is a lot of hatred, which they keep stoking heedlessly. They are counting on that being the extent of the price (plus the occasional futile bombing attack). I fear it won’t be so rosy. I think that with time, Hezbollah, and the Arab – indeed Muslim – world will find a way to inflict real damage on Israel. The hatred is stoked by Israel relentlessly, and eventually will find an outlet. I keep reminding everyone: the march of technology cannot be stopped. Muslims are not forever condemned to use guns and bombs, just as they were not condemned to use only swords or only stones. They can move on to new weapons – technology is moving downstream – cheaper, better, faster. Biological weapons are a choice – very hard to defend against. Israel is playing with fire. They’ll get burned, unless they start to think long term. The times of the Huns have long gone, they should think of solutions more suited to the 21st century… if they wish to survive.

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