Sunday, May 22, 2016

When Silence is Both Appropriate and Golden - by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror

...As part of Israel's coming of age, it is time to formulate clear rules on these matters. Setting clear "do's" and "don'ts" would make things considerably easier, though any such determination would likely be followed by arguments about its meaning in practice. "Be careful what you say" (Proverbs 13:3) is good advice...

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror..
Israel Hayom..
20 May '16..

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, one of the most valued officers in the U.S. Army, was named commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in 2009. He was doing very well when, in mid-2010, about a year into his command, he and his staff criticized Vice President Joe Biden, national security adviser James Jones, and other officials in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The piece ruffled feathers in Washington, and McChrystal's military career was over.

This was not the first case of its kind in the history of the U.S. Army, which has a very clear code of conduct that outlines strict limitations on military officials taking part in public discourse.

Traditionally, even during the president's inauguration, which the chiefs of staff attend as a sign of their subordination to the civilian executive branch, none of them applauds during the president's speech or afterward. They are barred from expressing any opinion on the president's statements, even wordlessly.

The recent controversial remarks by Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan allow for a wider discussion on the issue. As someone who has experienced this dilemma personally, and as someone who, when in uniform, had to fight more than once to have his opinion heard, one could say I am somewhat of an expert on the subject.

Rules to live by

There are several rules that bind defense officials and government ministers alike:

The first rule requires the political leadership to listen to the professional echelons -- such as the military, the intelligence community, and Foreign Ministry officials, each according to their area of expertise -- and ensure they can speak their minds with impunity, even when their opinions are utterly contradictory to or professionally critical of government decisions.

The second rule requires the professional echelons to be completely forthcoming when briefing the government. If a defense official feels he was denied the opportunity to speak his mind in the appropriate forums, he has the obligation to relay his thoughts to the ministers in writing, regardless of whether they are in line with his superiors' opinions.

Any deviation from these two rules undermines the military's efforts to perform its duty of presenting the government with professional security and defense assessments. This will only result in faulty decision-making, as the government would then lack the necessary professional basis upon which to make its decisions.

The third rule stipulates that even when the government and the military disagree, once the government has made its decision, the military must carry out its orders in full and not try to undermine those orders under any circumstances. Should any officer feel strongly enough about an issue to refuse to carry out his orders, he has the right to resign his commission.

Deviating from this rule undercuts democracy, as it undermines an elected government's ability to exercise the authority vested in it by the people. Maintaining this rule is the only way to prevent a military coup. When instrumental bodies attempt to thwart government decisions they violate the trust placed in them in the most egregious of ways.

The fourth rule stipulates that the place for the professional echelons to express their opinions is within the system, in Diplomatic-Security Cabinet meetings and before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

While defense and intelligence officials are not supposed to share their opinions with the general public, they are obliged to share them with the government, whether asked to or not. Anyone who feels he was denied the opportunity to be heard, that he was not taken seriously, or that he absolutely must make a certain issue public knowledge, may do so -- but only after tendering his resignation and without compromising state secrets.

The fifth rule stipulates that defense officials, like all other individuals in the civil service, should refrain from expressing opinions on matters that exceed their purview. This is doubly true when it comes to political controversy.

IDF officers' involvement in issues outside their realm of responsibility is a phenomenon that, unless nipped in the bud, may politicize the military. Taken further, this could see officers promoted not on merit but over their personal politics, and while this may seem unrealistic right now, we must make sure it does not become realistic in the future. Therefore, there is no room for leeway here, and this rule must be meticulously upheld.

Loose lips sink ships

These five rules are true for all government functionaries, but they are doubly true for defense and intelligence officials, because of the critical nature of the issues to which they are privy on a daily basis, and the consequent power they wield.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already summed up the Golan debacle by saying it was time to "move on." This was the right thing to do, and nothing Golan said should be used against him in the future. I would, however, like to use this as a test case to illustrate the above points.

When a senior officer speaks before cadets at a military academy about the caution required when exercising force in a civilian environment, he is within his purview, as he seeks to influence individuals in uniform. Making such statements when speaking with soldiers or future soldiers is appropriate, and I agree with the sentiment Golan expressed, as they reflect the ethical expectations from Israeli soldiers, difficult as they may be.

However, when a senior officer analyzes the state of Israeli society and weighs in on social, religious, moral or political issues, even if his opinion is a learned one, he is speaking out of turn. Back when I was in uniform and I did this, there was hell to pay, and rightfully so.

Golan's remarks suggesting that Israeli society is experiencing trends reminiscent of 1930s Germany were wrong. He erred by commenting on the issue in general, as it was not his place; and he erred by making a comparison that was baseless and harmful.

I too am concerned about the issues Golan raised and believe we have to fight them, but as long as Golan is on active duty, not only is he not the man to take up that fight, he cannot even comment on it. That is the price you pay for wearing the uniform.

As part of Israel's coming of age, it is time to formulate clear rules on these matters. Setting clear "do's" and "don'ts" would make things considerably easier, though any such determination would likely be followed by arguments about its meaning in practice. "Be careful what you say" (Proverbs 13:3) is good advice, and the deputy chief of staff would be wise to take it to heart.


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