Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Perception of Incompetence

Following the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the establishment of a beachhead, and the push into northern France, Allied troops believed that before too long Paris would be liberated, Berlin would be occupied, and that by Christmas 1944 the War in Europe would be over.

History had other plans, and on December 24 and 25, 1944, the Allies were still slugging it out with the SS and Wehrmacht in and around the Ardennes region during what is popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge; the Allies were doing their best to finally turn back what had been a surpising, resurgent Nazi offensive. Allied troops were no longer so loftily proclaiming that the war would be over soon.

Reality had set in.

If I had tried to predict, in December 1999, when I would graduate from the University of Arizona, the prospects didn't look good. I would've been proven a fool, especially after my disastrous first semester which had just ended. I would've been an optimistic fool, but a fool nonetheless. Then, in May 2000, things looked better. They went sour again later in the year, and then slightly rose...before falling in spring 2001.

When I ran away to New York on a Greyhound bus that summer, any bold pronouncements that I'd graduate by a certain date would've been laughed off. That fall, before and after 9/11, I'd been considering switching schools and going up to Northern Arizona University. Then, the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity came calling. Spring 2002 came along, and then Fall 2002. Then, I took a semester off. I had an idea, though, that the goal I had in mind was within reach.

In fact, it was only as I grappled with the decision whether to move to New York or Israel in late 2003 after returning to classes that I could remind my Dad of the promise he made to send me to Europe after college graduation, and say that in May 2004 I would graduate.

If in October 2003 I had said "I want to move to Israel by July 2004," and then in November 2003 said "I want to move to Israel by August 2004," and then in December said "I want to move to Israel by September 2004," well...in all likelihood I never would have left Tucson!

The point of all that?

One of the most aggravating things for me about this latest Middle East war is what we're hearing from the Israeli government. Jerusalem consistently says that Israel needs 10-14 days to finish the campaign. What's the problem with this? The problem is, 10-14 days ago I seem to remember hearing that Israel needed 10-14 days to finish the campaign. Now, 10-14 days later, we hear again from the Defense Minister that the IDF needs 10-14 days to finish the operations.

Such was told to Washington at the start of the war 21 days ago, then again 14 days ago; again, such was told to the world 10 days ago, and we were treated again to this prediction today. This evening, one general even said that the IDF needs two to six weeks for ground forces to "clean" southern Lebanon of the Hizballah threat...or what the Canadian government today rightly called the Hizballah "cancer". Of course, opinions differ on how to do it. That's democracy, and military planning, for you.

I'm pretty sure, though, that if the war hasn't ended by 10-14 days from now, 10-14 days from now we'll hear once again that Israel needs 10-14 days to finish the job. The Jewish state has come a long way from being able to destroy the armies and air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in six days as it did in 1967, though Hizballah is a better funded, better trained, and more dedicated fighting force than any Arab country's regular army has ever been, except for maybe Saddam Hussein's army in the Iran-Iraq war. Then again, the Gulf War in 1991 showed what a paper tiger that was...insurgent terrorists have fought better...anyway...

Despite my overall misgivings about the international political scene that will emerge at the end of the war - whenever it ends - I admit that see the progress being made by Israel. There are fewer rockets hitting northern Israel. Up until now, the bold pronouncements by chief Hizballah terrorist Hassan Nasrallah that missiles would hit central Israel have been shown to be so much bluffedy-bluster (and may it remain so, though it may not). Trucks carrying armaments for Hizballah from Syria into Lebanon are being destroyed by the Israeli Air Force en route. Israeli troops are pushing further into southern Lebanon...and taking casualties.

Yes, the war continues, despite the bombing in Qana and with the revelation that Hizballah might very well have orchestrated the PR campaign that followed (such as a "rescue" worker taking multiple pictures throughout the day with the same body, and information that several corpses displayed showed rigor mortis too early to have died when the Israeli bombs hit or the building collapsed).

The war continues, with Lebanese, US and UK bloggers accusing Hizballah of having placed those who died in the building themselves - I speak of handicapped Lebanese and children - and as we hear the various announcements of the body count at Qana. That more people have died , more often, in single-day terror attacks in Iraq recently, apparently is of little concern to the world community. We certainly don't hear Human Rights Watch, or the UN, condemning the insurgents for deliberately targeting innocent civilians in Iraq as loudly as Human Rights Watch and the UN condemn Israel for accidentally killing civilians in war against the terrorists who started this in the first place and who deliberately place civilians in harm's way.

Even so, while all that happens and while we can see some progress, some hope, I wonder...is the IDF full of psychics? The government certainly isn't. These predictions just sound so silly. You can start a fighting a war when you want to, or rather when you need to or you should, but you can't really put time limits on it. Not in a war like this. You'll be disappointed. Every time the government sets goals in this war, it goes back on them. Or changes them. Or extends the deadline to meet them. That's because predicting how a war will play out on paper is often much different than how it plays out on the battlefield. I thought the Israeli government knew that from experience.

Is it any wonder, then, that when trying to measure the progress that we can see, we are often frustrated? We know it's there, but come on...it just seems like an excuse for not meeting the original goal. How do we know goals are truly met, if we don't know what they are (I'm talking strategic, not just political)? We've heard two or three times that 40-50% of Hizballah's capabilities had been destroyed.

Let the results speak for themselves. There are fewer rockets, now. Then, it was different.

I say give us the straight goods. Admit that military goals might not be met right away, but that they are being worked toward. Hype up the accomplishments-that-are, not the accomplishments-to-be. And be clear on what, exactly, the goals are.

Prime Minister Olmert said tonight "we never promised that at the end of this war there would be no rocket threats against Israel. Neither the defense minister, nor the leadership, nor I promised there would be no rockets within range." He went on to say, "We will agree to a ceasefire when we know for certain that the conditions on the ground will be different from those which led to this war."

And when exactly will that be? Can we be enlightened on what this means, in real terms? We know that implementing UN Security Council resolution 1559 is an ultimate, international goal...this constitutes the disarmament of Hizballah, and the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese Government extending Beirut's sovereignty into the south, and so on. But if, as one general (different from the one I mentioned earlier) stated this evening, Hizballah will not be disarmed with these battles and "that we will achieve this objective in the next series of battles," when does it end?

How does one make the ultimate decision, "Israel is safe, for the moment"? When can it be made? When the rocket fire stops? When the kidnapped soldiers, from the unprovoked Hizballah attack that started this war, are returned to Israel? When Hizballah goes from saying "Death to Israel! Death to America!" to "Am Yisrael Chai!" and "Allah Bless America!"? When Syria can no longer support Hizballah? When Iran can no longer finance Hizbullah, or send Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon?

When? What? How?

Let us hope that Vice Premier Shimon Peres was right today, when he said in Washington, "Syria won't go to war. They know their strengths and weaknesses. Their equipment is not modern and they won't go to war alone. The current conflict won't escalate to an all-out regional war." Let us hope that those are not included in the next edition of that informative book, "Famous Last Words", and that we don't get to find out if and when Iran - which has a defense treaty with Damascus - will come to the aid of a Syria with outdated Soviet weapons that we were told "won't go to war".

The lesson Jerusalem needs to learn is that you shouldn't set - or at least announce - deadlines you can't keep due to the fluidity of the battlefied situation, and then change them and believe that no one will notice. That just gives off the appearance of incompetence at the top levels.

When the stakes are this high, with irrational yet calculating enemies who perceive incompetence to be weakness, and when these enemies seeking to pounce on that weakness could set in motion a whole lot of regional - even worldwide - trouble...triggering what might unmistakeably, unarguably be a world war (given the various alliances and treaties)...well...

At the moment, incompetence - or the perception of incompetence - could be deadly. For millions.

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