September 25, 2018

When people don’t trust their leaders to run a war, they turn to comptrollers

Israel’s State Comptroller is about to release his report on the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, and Israel is getting ready for it – or at least pretending to getting ready for it. Most of what the State Comptroller is about to say is already known: the cabinet did not function properly, decision makers were late to understand the threat of the tunnels from Gaza, the goals of the operation were vague. The report is, of course, a political football. The Prime Minister, whose cabinet and function is criticized in the report, is in deflection mode. Some ministers, such as Habait Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennet, see an opportunity. Bennet was the most vocal minister among his peers when it comes to issuing warnings concerning the tunnels.

The report will be released tomorrow, but it is already clear that the release will contribute to a sense among Israelis that Protective Edge was not a resounding success. Hamas is still in Gaza. The tunnels are still a problem. The rockets are still a threat. The bottom line: soldiers – and many Palestinians – died, and the situation was not transformed. Israel may have gotten a few years of calm, but the next round of battle is only a matter of time.

A State Comptroller’s report might put Israelis under the impression that this operation was a missed opportunity because of procedural reasons. They might get the impression that more cabinet meetings, or briefings, or sharing of information, or following of bureaucratic rules – that all these would have made Operation Protective Edge more successful.

And, of course, that’s possible. These procedures could have made Operation Protective Edge more successful. They also could have made it less successful. That is, assuming it was not successful – and even this is a matter of debate. One could argue that, under the circumstances, Protective Edge was successful enough, satisfactory enough.

The belief in a procedural conduct of war that is supposedly more proper than other ways of conducting wars is a sign of the times. When people do not have trust in their leaders – rightly or wrongly – they cling to procedures. When they aren’t sure if their prime minister, their defense minister, their chief of staff, have the necessary qualities for running a war – they turn to governmental bureaucratic structures in the hope that these will compensate for the lack of direction, or lack of quality, their leaders suffer from.

This is, of course, an illusion. Bureaucratic structures are necessary for every government, and could be helpful when a government is running a war. Then again, a war is never run by a committee. It is run by a leader, and a few close advisers. Ideally, it is run by people who do not really concern themselves with the aftermath report of a comptroller.

Try the following thought exercise: an imaginary war erupts between Israel and one of its enemies. The war lasts for six days, and ends with the enemy defeated. Two years later, a comptroller’s report finds serious deficiencies in the way the war was run. Apparently, the cabinet was not updated at proper intervals, the ministers did not understand the graveness of some of the enemy’s tactics, the Prime Minister did not heed calls for more briefings and relied on a small cadre of advisors.

Would we care?

Now try the following thought exercise: the 2014 Operation Protective Edge ended reasonably well. The objectives – a few years of calm – were met. Hamas learned a lesson. And yes, a few procedural rules were not properly followed. The cabinet was not always in the loop. The graveness of the threat from tunnels did not sink in as soon as it should have.

Now – do you care?

Do you care to the point of being outraged?