In his meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to focus on the option of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, even though Gates' position is well-known and can be summarized in a single word ("no"), two words ("still no") or three ("not under me"). But the lesson the Israeli prime minister ought to learn from his interlocutor is on an entirely different plane: appointments that implement policy.
Gates' soft-spoken manner is misleading. He is not SpongeBob SquarePants, but Robert the Ripper. From his belt hang the scalps of several senior Pentagon and army officials - the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CENTCOM commander and the Air Force chief, to name a few - who failed to speedily execute his instructions and were replaced with more attentive colleagues.
Last week, Gates replaced the chief of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, with former special operations commander Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal is expected to implement the kind of turnaround in the country that occurred in Iraq over the past two years under the supervision of David Petraeus, another Gates appointee.
McKiernan's dismissal was portrayed as stemming from his traditional, conservative approach. But it also has a personal dimension: In the 2003 campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, Petraeus served as a division chief under ground forces commander McKiernan. Since then, Petraeus' military career has taken wing, and he soon found himself, in his current post as head of Central Command, giving orders to his former commander.
Gates climbed up the government bureaucracy to reach his current position, from Air Force second lieutenant to head of the CIA. However, he did not accede to George W. Bush's request that he return to public service simply to while away time as the darling of the establishment. Bush charged him with stopping the bloodletting in Iraq? Gates got rid of the faltering commander there, George Casey, through a bogus "promotion" to head of the ground forces - the same treatment granted William Westmoreland in Vietnam - and sent Petraeus to Baghdad. President Barack Obama has turned Afghanistan into the focus of his military strategy? Gates ousted McKiernan and gambled on Petraeus, McChrystal and his designated deputy, David Rodriguez.
In times of crisis, leaders lack the leisure to adhere to rules of seniority or hierarchy. Immediate results are required, within the space of a few months, and a new policy cries out for new faces. Granted, they, too, must emerge from within the ranks and be qualified for the tasks ahead, not novices parachuted in for political reasons. But wisdom lies in quickly finding qualified candidates to implement the new policy.
This may seem obvious, but Israeli leaders rarely dare to operate this way, with the exception of David Ben-Gurion (in appointing Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff and other senior officers), Moshe Dayan (in appointing military governors of the West Bank and Gaza), Moshe Arens (who kept ambitious generals in check) and Ariel Sharon (who tapped Dan Halutz as IDF chief of staff to upgrade the army and evacuate Gaza). In every other case, leaders simply toed the establishment line or followed their own personal whims.
Advancing the Mideast peace process will require the evacuation of West Bank outposts, and then of settlements. The GOC Central Command, West Bank division commander, brigade chiefs and the military coordinator in the territories will have significant influence on the efficacy of the evacuation and perceptions of its success, particularly in light of a likely confrontation with settlers and refusal by some soldiers to carry out eviction orders.
So, too, will senior police officers, like the commander of the Shai (West Bank) District and the head of the Border Police, whose appointments require approval by a minister from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party.
When it comes to sensitive military appointments, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are among the few allowed to question or intervene in decisions made by IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. So what questions, for example, have they posed to candidates to replace GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni? What did they ask of, and about, the next West Bank division commander, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon? Alon's command of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit and of Military Intelligence's operational brigade are not necessarily proof that he would perform well in confronting settlers.
Instead of wasting his energy on futile attempts to convince Gates to allow him to strike Iran and adopt Likud's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu would do better to import the Pentagon's cruel yet efficient methods for picking people who will implement his policies - if, that is, he truly intends to carry them out.
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