Comment / Watchdog Goes AWOL

In the dim reaches of history, namely a month ago, a fierce debate raged in the land. It was over the defense budget.

In the dim reaches of history, namely a month ago, a fierce debate raged in the land. It was over the defense budget. The fiercest battle was over the Merkava Mark 4: was the ambitious tank development project actually needed? Or should the army acknowledge that the time of eye-for-an-eye combat was over?

Academics claimed that the army was a slave to outdated concepts, and didn't understand that modern warfare involved missiles and air forces - nothing more. On their side were the "treasury boys," who thought that spending billions on developing the latest tank was a vast waste of national assets.

An aeon (i.e. month) later, the argument looks very different. One has to wonder what would have happened if the war with Lebanon had spread to Syria. Would the pundits have continued to argue that the tank is passe?

Nobody can answer that with complete confidence, which arouses great disquiet about the nature of the debate over defense budget cuts. The disquiet lies in the fact that the fate of the gargantuan defense budget is being determined by a debate between just the army and treasury, and in the fact that the army alone determines its priorities and where to cut back. Could the outcome be misguided decisions that imperil us all?

That fear is grounded in reality. The war in Lebanon exposed that at least some of the army's cutbacks in recent years were misguided. They slashed into the living flesh - training for reserves, equipment, development of new armaments - but left the flab intact.

The freedom given to the army to choose where to cut, with nobody overseeing its decisions or critiquing them, led the army to make the wrong choices. Possibly because of bad management, or possibly because of utterly twisted priorities (standard of living versus number of tanks) among the top echelon.

One of the conclusions after the war is that the army's budget has to be managed differently. It has been proved that the army cannot wisely manage the cuts by itself. Nor has supervision by the treasury worked: it is manned by experts on economics, not military strategy. They cannot judge whether the army is making the optimal choices of where to cut.

What is needed is an external body that will supervise management of the army and mainly its gigantic budget. It must be a body that understands economics and military affairs, too, and it must judge the army's prioritization of spending - watching to see if the budgetary priorities best serve military strategy

The thing is, we have a body like that. It's been around since 1948, and it was wisely instituted as a civilian overseer over the military men. It's called the Defense Ministry, and that's exactly what it's supposed to do: manage and also supervise the defense establishment.

That double role comes complete with a built-in conflict of interest. It is difficult for the manager of the army to be its regulator, too. In the case of the Defense Ministry, that dual role has been disastrous. Over the years, the Defense Ministry simply stopped functioning as supervisor over the defense establishment, and settled for being its manager. The interests of the army and the Defense Ministry became identical, and therefore, the ministry became the chief lobbyist of the army in discussions with government. Mainly, it became the shield sheltering the army from cutbacks.

Do you still doubt that their interests have become entwined to the point of being identical? The financial adviser to the defense minister (the chief of the Defense Ministry budgets department), and the financial adviser to the chief of staff are the same person. Shaul Mofaz moved without missing a beat from being the chief of staff to being defense minister.

The Defense Ministry director general has always been a general in reserves, and finally the position became reserved for the darlings of the chief of staff. Most of the ministry workers are former career soldiers who get paid the same perks that officers do, including incredible pension terms.

With the boys in khaki scratching each other's backs and playing ministry-military musical chairs, the Defense Ministry has become an empty shell. It has become no more than the long arm of the army.

Poor management of the army, which screamed to the skies in the Lebanon II conflict, is first and foremost the shame of the Defense Ministry. In turning into a rubber stamp for the army, it failed in its duty to protect the army for the sake of us all, and to make sure that the army doesn't make mistakes. We are all paying the price for its dereliction of duty.