For leaders in democracies, perhaps the most difficult decision is to change course. Decision-making is hard enough. Revisiting decisions and acknowledging mistakes is simply beyond the capabilities of most leaders. Once they have chosen a strategy, they stick with it for better or for worse.
For a leader to change strategic course, he must first be convinced that his own fortunes are inextricably linked with maintaining failure or moving on towards success. He must believe, in other words, that he has no choice other than to change course.
The current issue of the Weekly Standard contains two articles which lay bare this basic truth. In one, "How Bush decided on the surge," Fred Barnes describes how US President George W. Bush decided to adopt a new strategy for winning the campaign in Iraq. In the other, "Ehud Olmert's Israel," Peter Berkowitz describes how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to revisit his own strategies for contending with the burgeoning threats to Israel's national security.
Barnes's article depicts a president who at the end of 2006 found himself isolated from the military, Congress and his own Secretary of State as the campaign in Iraq appeared increasingly unwinnable. The going consensus asserted that the reason the war was unwinnable was because US forces themselves were the cause of the fighting. If the US left, or simply hid in big bases outside the population centers and sufficed with training Iraqi forces, then the war would end.
Bush didn't believe them. And he couldn't accept the view that victory was unattainable. As he put it to Barnes, "Failure was no option…. I never thought I had to give up the goal of winning."
So he didn't. Instead, working with his National Security Council and relying on the work of people outside the administration and the Pentagon, he embraced the view that the war was the fault of the terrorists – not the US. Bush recognized that far from wishing for the US forces to withdraw from the country, the Iraqis wished for the Americans to stay and protect them. The surge strategy – which involved an increase in forces, and an intimate engagement of the forces in securing the lives and property of Iraqi civilians – has done just that. And the results have been dramatic.
As Max Boot reported in the Weekly Standard, "Iraqi and American deaths fell by approximately 80 percent between December 2006 and December 2007, and life is returning to a semblance of normality in much of Baghdad." Wherever the Americans are operating, al-Qaida is being defeated, the Shi'ite militias are fading away and life is changing for the better as more and more Iraqis come to trust and support the Americans and the Iraqi security forces working with them.
WITH THE presidential race moving into full swing, the sustainability of Bush's new strategy into the next administration is a key concern. The media's coverage of the campaign in Iraq has been so negative for so long that in spite of the transformation of the security situation in the country over the past year, the public still considers the war to have been a failed endeavor. More Americans trust the Democrats, who have pledged to withdraw from Iraq, to handle the war than Republicans, who have pledged to see it through to victory.
On the other hand, in spite of the media's condemnation of the war, Americans today believe they are winning the war in Iraq. According to an NBC News – Wall Street Journal poll, 39 percent of Americans believe that the situation in Iraq has improved over the last six months and only 16 percent believe it has gotten worse. Even if the Democrats win the White House in November, it is hard to see the next president convincing the American people to turn their backs on victory.
Barnes is impressed by Bush's courage to move forward, almost alone and change the war-fighting strategy in order to enable victory in Iraq. If Bush hadn't acted as he did when he did, there can be little doubt that the US would have lost in Iraq. The public was willing to accept defeat. Congress was positively demanding defeat. The New York Times might have even granted Bush 15 minutes of sympathetic coverage if he had behaved "pragmatically" and embraced defeat in Iraq.
THE FACT that a failed leader can expect to find public support for his weakness was manifested in Berkowitz's portrait of Olmert. Just as the media has manufactured false realities to convince some 60 percent of the American public that the Iraq campaign is not only unwinnable but that the US doesn't deserve to win, so too, the media has labored for years to convince the majority of Israelis that we cannot win and indeed have no right to victory.
Berkowitz's opening paragraph attests to the success of their labors. He began his profile of Olmert by noting that some 70 percent of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state. He asserted, as the media does, that the only people in Israel who don't support the establishment of such a state are right-wing extremists who no one would want to be associated with.
Having established that the only socially and morally acceptable view of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is that Israel must feel bad for controlling Judea, Samaria and united Jerusalem, and that Israelis must feel happy that Israel no longer controls Gaza, Berkowitz goes on to uphold Olmert as a competent and socially acceptable leader.
This is the same Ehud Olmert who led Israel to defeat in the 2006 war in Lebanon. Thhis is the same Olmert who has exhibited unconscionable incompetence in contending with the Hamas caliphate in Gaza, its rocket and mortar war against southern Israel and its takeover of Gaza's international border with Egypt. And this is the same Olmert who now fervently advocates surrendering Judea, Samaria and parts of Jerusalem to Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. Such a land handover would place all of Israel within Palestinian and Lebanese rocket, mortar and missile range.
Moreover, Olmert has done nothing to stem the Bush administration's abandonment of Israel as a strategic ally and has been so feckless in his handling of Iran's nuclear weapons program that Israel finds itself completely alone to face Iran as the mullahs surge toward nuclear capabilities.
TO DEFEND Olmert as a competent leader, Berkowitz turned to political consultant Eyal Arad who served as former prime minister Ariel Sharon's and Olmert's public relations guru and strategic counselor. This was a reasonable move. Arad oversaw the infantalization of Israeli politics and the trivialization of the national discourse. It was Arad who together with his fellow public relations consultants convinced Sharon that his political survival was contingent on adopting the radical Left's strategy of surrender and appeasement. Arad, and his partner Reuven Adler, convinced Sharon to withdraw from Gaza and northern Samaria. They then convinced him to destroy Likud and form the Kadima party. After Sharon was felled by a stroke two years ago, they managed Olmert's campaign as the head of Kadima in the 2006 elections.
As Yediot Aharonot reported after the elections, Arad and Adler viewed Kadima not as a political party, but as an ad campaign. They viewed its candidates not as leaders of a threatened country, but as products they had to sell like chocolate bars to Israeli consumers at the ballot box. And indeed, like actors in candy commercials, Kadima's candidates were taught to parrot the Arad and Adler line that if they formed the next government, they would make Israel a country that's "fun to live in."
SPEAKING to Berkowitz, Arad kept to his script portraying Israel as an amusement park. He downplayed the significance of the fact that thanks to Sharon
and Olmert Israel is threatened as never before. What is really important, he said, is that Israelis – particularly in Tel Aviv – are enjoying the economic benefits of the free market and buying all sorts of fancy gadgets as the Tel Aviv skyline grows taller and shinier. And Berkowitz believed him.
Berkowitz extolled Olmert's assertion at the Herzliya conference last week that the fact that Hizbullah hasn't been fighting Israel in 18 months means that Israel restored its deterrent capabilities in 2006 war. The fact that Hizbullah is currently otherwise engaged in taking over Lebanon is apparently of little concern or relevance to either Olmert or Berkowitz.
What the contrasting tales of Bush and Barnes and Olmert and Berkowitz show clearly is that strategic shifts, even when necessary, can never be foregone conclusions. Bush would have had no trouble finding a reporter to extol his prudence in accepting defeat in Iraq if he had decided not to buck the media and indeed his own administration in order to win in Iraq and secure his place in history. There would have been a multitude of reporters like Berkowitz willing to tell the 60 percent of Americans who want to leave Iraq within a year that they are right to believe that you can win a war by losing it.
The articles though also show something else. They show the difference between leaders who believe in using their power to advance ideas and leaders who use their power to advance themselves. While Bush recognizes that historians will judge him not by whether he was liked, but by whether he left America safer than he received it, Olmert couldn't care less how history judges him. He just wants to be prime minister, and to maintain power he finds it more convenient to tell Israelis to have a good time than to ask us to join him in defending the country from those who seek our destruction. It is easier to tell us that defending our country is socially unacceptable and that good Israelis choose to empower terrorists instead — in the name of peace.
Or maybe Olmert has it right and Bush is a fool. After all, if he could convince Berkowitz to trust him, perhaps future historians will truly believe that the best way to secure one's country is to accept defeat with a grin.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.