What Americans Can Learn From the Winograd Report

All wars are alike, and so are all investigations of failed wars.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

How familiar it all must seem to an American reading the Winograd Committee report. The committee, charged with shedding light on the failure of Israel’s war in Lebanon last summer, concluded that “[t]he decision to respond 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.”

Simultaneously reading the report and George Tenet’s new book gives one the impression that all wars and all politicians are alike. The already famous quote from At the Center of the Storm, by the former CIA chief—”There was never a serious debate” nor “was there ever a significant discussion” about the possibility of containing Iraq without invasion—fits perfectly with the Israeli commission’s view that “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’ ” in Lebanon.

Indeed, all wars are alike, all politicians are alike—but even more so, all investigation of failed wars are alike.

In his tour de force, Groupthink, social psychologist Irving Janis used President John F. Kennedy’s decision to approve the Bay of Pigs invasion as an example of failed leadership in a time of crisis. Kennedy, explained Janis, was guilty of six vices: the illusion of invulnerability; “mind-guarding,” which happens when group consensus is preserved by suppressing dissidents; suppression of doubts; illusion of unanimity; group passivity encouraged by the leader; and acceptance of the CIA as the unquestioned leader. Look at the report on the Lebanon war, and you’ll easily see them all. “The support in the cabinet for this move was gained in part through ambiguity in the presentation”; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “did not adequately consider political and professional reservations”; the military’s chief of staff “did not present to the political leaders the internal debates”; the government “failed in its political function of taking full responsibility for its decisions.”

From the Bay of Pigs, to Iraq, to Lebanon, it is not just botched processes that are revealed by investigations, inquiries, and analyses. It is human nature—the tendency of all administrations to improvise and cut corners—and the nature of all analysts to look for explanations. If there’s a failure, there must be a procedural reason for it—an “if only” lesson to be learned and implemented. “Beware of the man who won’t be bothered with details,” warned author William Feather. Beware of investigative committees: They will show no mercy for men who won’t bother with details.

Writing for Ha’aretz on the morning the report was issued, I highlighted some of the similarities between Olmert’s situation following the Lebanon war and the problems facing President Bush following the invasion of Iraq: “The Israeli public stands to learn from the Winograd report what the American public has learned following the Iraq War: Successful leaders require good judgment, moderation and farsightedness. In lieu of these, they must produce victories on the battlefield.”

And this is what investigative panels really stand for: They mark the difference between success and failure. Successful wars don’t end in investigations—they conclude with victory parades—even if the leaders managing them suffered from “ambiguity in the presentation of goals” or presented goals that are “too ambitious,” as they often do. Just imagine, wrote an Israeli commentator, what such a committee would have said about David Ben Gurion’s decision to attack the Sinai Peninsula in 1956. “Luckily for him”—and probably for Israel as well—”no such committee was established” to investigate this military adventure, and the greatest leader Israel ever had wasn’t forced out of office.

If the Olmert government is teetering after Lebanon—and if the Bush administration is a lame duck after Iraq (and Katrina)—it’s not because the truth about these wars was revealed by reporters and investigators. (Click here to learn what might happen to the Olmert government in the wake of the Winograd report.) It’s the other way around: The facts come after the public has already made up its mind. The committee’s real task it to verbalize what the public already knows.

And investigative committees—as Winograd proved yet again—usually suffer from a flaw that’s hard to miss. The people in charge of the investigations are more informed, they have a more nuanced view of the issues, and they are more prone to understand the complexities of policy than those making the decisions in the first place. That knowledge is what gives them the power to understand what led to failure—but it also prevents them from fully appreciating the inherent deficiencies of the system.

This is something that the Winograd committee shares with many other commissions in Israel and elsewhere. Consequently, it came up with this rather strange recommendation: to improve “the knowledge base of all members of the government on core issues of Israel’s challenges.” In other words, they want to educate the ineducable—to depoliticize the politicians.

They expect professionalism, and they are disappointed by leaders who lack it. They expect bipartisanship, and they get angry when they see issues being politicized. They expect analytical process, and they are frustrated by decisions made in the heat of the moment. They tend to forget that in a democracy, policy is a politician’s job—even in a time of war. And for better, and usually for worse, the policy’s failures are politicians’ failures.