Military Intelligence – a Contradiction in Terms?

Maybe there’s some uniquely calm land where military heroes and ex-generals don’t get a head start in politics. But that land is neither Israel or the United States. The only thing consistent about John McCain’s campaign is the claim that he deserves to be president because he was a POW. Closer to where I live, both Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak presume that having been the country’s top military commander not only qualifies them to be prime minister, but makes the job theirs by right. A military man, supposedly, not only understands national security but has proven his ability to make decisions under pressure.

For the past week, though, all three have done their best to disabuse of such notions:

  • John McCain finds himself behind in the polls, trying to design policy on economics, which he doesn’t understand, facing a debate for which he is not ready. What does our war hero do? Why, with heroic cool and elan, he panics. He calls off his campaign, sort of. He says he just won’t debate, because it wouldn’t be patriotic. Do you trust this man to answer the red phone at any time of day or night?
  • Mofaz loses the Kadima primary to Tzipi Livni. The next day he announces he is taking a time-out from politics. In Israeli political terms, this announcement normally means spending a year or two doing something else, so that the public can forget why it voted against you. Within a couple of days, though, Mofaz was already leaking hints to the press that he meant a short vacation. His allies appealed the results of the primary, hoping to prevent Livni from getting the nod to form the next government. Turns out that Mofaz made his original announcement in a fit of exhaustion and pique. Fine. If that’s how the ex-general performs under political pressure, does anyone want him as the person deciding when to go to war? For that matter, if Livni makes him foreign minister, would you trust him not to insult his Syrian counterpart over a misconstrued remark?
  • Barak tells Labor party Knesset members meeting with President Peres to recommend him to form the next government. But to be prime minister, one must be a Knesset member – and Barak isn’t. No matter, the general ordered his troops to make fools of themselves for the sake of his honor. Now, according to this morning’s Ha’aretz, “Defense minister and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak will demand from…that he conduct the negotiations with Syria if she forms a government. Labor sources also say Barak will demand to be fully involved in all aspects of the talks with the Palestinians.” His qualifications for these tasks will apparently be his universally recognized success as prime minister negotiating with the Palestinians and Syria. Barak’s supposedly brilliant analytical abilities do not include an ability at self-evaluation.

Don’t get me wrong. It is possible that an ex-officer might be a good politician. It’s possible that a good doctor may also play a good game of baseball, or be a good administrator. Or not. It’s possible that someone with no military experience might also panic under pressure (see under: Ehud Olmert, Second Lebanon War). At the moment, military experience as such is an irrelevancy in considering a candidate.

3 thoughts on “Military Intelligence – a Contradiction in Terms?”

  1. Career military people are almost always lousy national leaders. A significant exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who was already an accomplished politician while he was still a general…that was a vital component of his being American Supreme Commander in Europe during World War II. In the US, former generals are prohibited by law from being Defense Secretary (a special temporary waiver was passed by Congress to allow General George C Marshall to be Defense Secretary during the Korean War). Part of the reason is this is like having the fox guard the henhouse…it is hard for a general to protect the interests of the taxpayer and the civilian government when it is all his old pals who are under him at the Pentagon. This is no doubt a significant reason for the deterioration in the IDF over the years, because of the fact that, since the 1980’s, almost all Israeli Defense Minister are ex-generals. Ben-Gurion insisted on being Defense Minister himself and his IDF won wars. In fact, today, it is basically unthinkable that the Defense Minister NOT be a general. This means Israel has degenerated to the ranks of the third-world countries regarding its army, where having generals as defense minister is the norm.
    Generals give orders, politicians are people that have to seek consensus. It should be pointed out that McCain spent many years in Congress and has proven to be a effective legislator (Ike jumped straight from the Army to the White House, so he was a more unknown quantity in that regard than McCain is who has proven himself in the political arena).

    This love affair Israelis have with generals is another sign of the weak hold democracy really has over the Israeli population and body-politic.

  2. “Military Intelligence – a contradiction in terms?”

    indeed. an oxymoron waxed-lyrical by michael franti back in ’91 along with ‘fresh frozen’, ‘friendly fire’, ‘collateral damage’ and other gems of the modern English language….

  3. My difficulty with “leaders” centers on their tendency to be egomaniacs and to identify their own views with that of the country. It’s almost impossible for those who are not mad about themselves to get to the top politically. Who else could endure the torture of the campaigning, the humiliation, the abuse?

    What’s most needed is intelligence with restraint to match. Thinking about and being responsible for what one says would be much appreciated. Give me someone who will dare to pause before speaking. We have armies of the glib in office in the U.S.

    To Olmert’s credit, I read today that he is saying the West Bank must be given up along with east Jerusalem. Good sense on display now that he is almost out, becoming a follower instead of a leader.

    A touch of humility would go a very long way. Not just Eisenhower, but Truman exhibited a sense of their own fallibility. The exact opposite is on display as Sarah Palin takes the “right next to Russia” ball and keeps running with it! If this isn’t mindless, what is?

    Is it what we used to call character that is missing? Paul Newman is hailed as having been “a good man”. From what I knew of how he lived that rings true. What’s sad is that it can be said of so few who live in the public eye. Yes, I think that’s it – characters are legion, having character is rare.

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