Navigating amid chaos: Nuclear strategy

Israel must forge a nuclear strategy in the face of a world gone mad.

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Prof. Louis René Beres,

Louis René Beres
Louis René Beres
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"Oh ship of state, new waves push you out to sea...."  (Horace, Odes)

Israel, the always-beleaguered ship of state must prepare to face new and uncertain dangers. Now, already confronting region-wide chaos, there will be no more indispensable "navigational" task for Jerusalem than to systematically forge a robust and capable nuclear strategy. More precisely, Israel's defense planners will soon need to fashion this uniquely complex security posture from the standpoint of assorted sub-state adversaries, as well as more traditional state enemies.

Most compelling, in this conspicuously widened obligation, will be those more-or-less plausible threats originating from potentially non-rational terrorist groups, especially Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni ISIS.

Whether Israel likes it or not, increasing complexity will become the irremediable flip side of  expansive Middle Eastern chaos. The resultant pattern of bilateral and multilateral relationships could eventually include, inter alia, unexpected alignments between traditionally enemy states. For example, we have already witnessed strengthening Israeli ties with Saudi Arabia contra ISIS, and also with Egypt, against Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas. Although Egyptian armies were historically an indisputably core threat to Israeli security - at times, arguably the single greatest threat -  these Arab forces are now more apt to be regarded in Jerusalem as needed allies, as utterly welcome partners against a now-common set of Jihadist foes.

Enemy madness

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." With regard to multiplying Jihadist enemies, Israeli planning imperatives will soon become even more complicated. To wit, however counter-intuitive, there does exist a conceivable threat of selective enemy madness, a disorienting hazard that could sometime be exhibited at both national and sub-national (terrorist) levels.

Enemy madness could present as a recognizable threat from certain individual states, perhaps acting together with other states, and/or from such substantial sub-state adversaries as ISIS or Hezbollah. In these circumstances, Israel's first analytic obligation would be to determine the authenticity of enemy madness. This is because a formidable enemy, state or sub-state, could sometime expect useful advantages to adopting a strategy of pretended madness, and would thereby still remain subject to orthodox threats of Israeli reprisal.

It could prove effective for Israel to pretend madness or irrationality itself. After all, being seen by various enemies as too rational and hence too predictable, could at some point become a strategic liability for Jerusalem. More than likely, some such imperiling perceptions may have already worked to Israel's overall strategic disadvantage, especially after the country's grievous and near existential failure to preempt back in October 1973. It was with just such needed dialectical thinking in mind that Moshe Dayan, as Israel's Minister of Defense, had once eccentrically urged: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog. Too dangerous to bother."

Where such aspects of madness would characterize two or more adversaries preparing to act in concert against Israel, planners in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv would then need to think in terms of "synergies," strategic interactions in which the adversarial threat "whole" could emerge as greater than the simple sum of adversarial threat "parts." If this were not daunting enough, Israeli planners could then also have to consider still-more complex "synergies of synergies," and/or "cascades of synergies." In all such excruciatingly difficult analytic considerations, it would quickly become evident to Israel's senior defense planners that fashioning a national nuclear strategy is most fundamentally an intellectual task.


Israel's next generation of heroes will be thinkers, not warriors.
More than likely, Israel's first and most important existential "battlefield" for coming wars will be on paper, and, of course, on the computer. In essence, this core "clash" will effectively represent a struggle of what the ancient Greeks and Macedonians had called "mind over mind," not "mind over matter."

Israel's next generation of heroes will be thinkers, not warriors. Moreover, in this preliminary confrontation, however schematic, digital, and bloodless, Israel will still have absolutely no choice but to "win."

There is more. To fashion an optimal nuclear strategy, that is, to win the critical battle of "mind over mind," Israel must always remain sharply focused on crucial concepts. Here, among other considerations, Jerusalem will need to confront the apparent rationality or irrationality of all pertinent foes, state and sub-state. It must be further borne in mind in Jerusalem that, ultimately, madness will need to be distinguished conceptually from both rationality and irrationality. This is because madness, by definition, and  in contrast to the other two decisional dispositions (rationality and irrationality), would signify the following: A thoroughgoing abandonment of any and all consistent rank-orderings of national security preferences.

Enemy madness could quickly prove to be the single most bewildering adversarial stance for Israel to confront in its developing nuclear strategy. Although it is probably unlikely, such unpredictability would still threaten a very high "disutility," or "negative high consequence" outcome. As for the probability of a mad and already nuclear enemy, such a fusion is simply not meaningfully determinable. All credible judgments of probability, whatever the discipline, must rest firmly upon the ascertainable frequency of pertinent past events.

To be sure, we have never witnessed the portentous coming together of enemy madness and enemy nuclear weapons.

An authentically mad enemy leadership, that is, one with a no-longer determinable ordering of preferences, would be highly unpredictable. For Israel, sometime having to face an expectedly mad nuclear adversary in Tehran or elsewhere could represent the unambiguously worst case scenario. Arguably, at least in the unscientific sense, such a plainly fearful narrative, along with associated terror-group impediments to Israeli nuclear deterrence, is implausible.

But it is still conceivable.

Israel will have no choice in affecting or shaping the madness or sanity of its enemies. This is true whether these many foes are authoritative national leaders in Tehran or elsewhere, or rather sub-national terrorist decision-makers operating in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, etc. 

Back in 2012,  Meir Dagan, speaking to CBS interviewer Leslie Stahl, stated reassuringly: "The regime in Iran is a very rational one." Then, however, the former Mossad chief was suggesting only that the Iranian regime was not mad; that it could be expected to prudently consider all pertinent decisional consequences. This suggests that Dagan's particular notion of  Iranian rationality resembled the above meaning of irrationality. The Tehran regime, meant Dagan, should simply be expected to weigh the anticipated costs and benefits of all policy alternatives, and to array its expressed preferences within a predictably consistent rank-ordering.

There had been no suggestion, by Dagan, that Iranian leaders would necessarily and consistently value national survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. In other words, Dagan's definition of Iranian rationality fell considerably short of the meaning used here.

Going forward, Israel must protect itself against a prospectively nuclear Iran by continuously refining an appropriate strategy of nuclear deterrence. Among other things, this increasingly complex strategy will need to include interlocking plans for active missile defenses, a willingness to become purposefully "less ambiguous" about certain Israeli nuclear forces and doctrine, and a suitably recognizable policy for expanded sea-basing (submarines) of nuclear forces.

But the successful deterrence of an already-nuclear Iranian regime should not be taken for granted. At a minimum, the resultant balance-of-terror might not adequately resemble those once-stable postures of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that had existed between the Soviet Union and the United States.

There are other significant nuances of meaningful difference. Any such balance would now also have to contend with more complex axes of regional conflict, including certain large-scale intersections or interpenetrations of enemy threats. These threats would likely involve both state and sub-state (terrorist) adversaries.

Conventional deterrence

A persuasive conventional deterrent must always remain a sine qua non of Israeli security, whatever the persuasiveness of Israel's nuclear deterrent, and whatever the availability of any still-remaining preemption options.

Israel's conventional and nuclear deterrents are more-or-less interconnected. Looking ahead, any enemy states that would actually choose to launch an exclusively conventional attack upon Israel would almost certainly maintain substantial unconventional weapons capabilities in reserve. This expectation suggests that even if Israel were to rely upon conventional deterrence as its first line of national security, that line must still be continuously augmented by Israeli nuclear deterrence.

Such complementary nuclear deterrence would be needed to prevent any injurious intra-war escalation that might otherwise be initiated by pertinent enemy states. In professional or "official" strategic parlance, this required capacity is properly referred to as "escalation dominance."

In its developing nuclear strategy, therefore, Israel needs to plan very carefully for displaying protracted escalation dominance.

Something else now needs to be noted . Adversarial notions of another Cold War may no longer be purely historic. On the contrary, Russia and the United States may now be entering into "Cold War II," a resurrected but still transforming architecture of mutual antagonism, one that could have increasingly meaningful and partially unseen effects upon regional war and peace in the Middle East. Tangible evidence of just such a resurrection is readily discernible in the accelerating superpower nuclear arms race, and also in corollary disagreements arising over NATO ballistic missile defense deployments in designated parts of eastern Europe.


it is reasonable to expect, somewhere and sometime, a joining together of mass destruction weapons with irrationality, and/or with madness.
But back to area incoherence and disorder. Chaos represents much more than a merely possible regional declension. It is already an evident fact of life throughout the rapidly disintegrating Middle East, and parts of North Africa.

Serious and sudden extensions of this quintessentially corrosive or primordial condition to other sectors of our planet are easily imaginable. Indeed, even with assorted arms control and disarmament visions, including President Obama’s own contrived fantasy of  "a world free of nuclear weapons," it is reasonable to expect, somewhere and sometime, a joining together of mass destruction weapons with irrationality, and/or with madness.

A Palestinian state and ISIS

There is more. Current threats to Israel would likely be enlarged by any further diplomatic movements toward full Palestinian statehood. A truly sovereign Palestinian state would necessarily be carved out from the still living body of Israel. By definition, this rancorous excision would further diminish the Jewish State's minimal strategic depth.

The current juridical status of the Palestinian Authority, it ought to be recalled, has been codified by the U.N. General Assembly as a "nonmember observer state." This codification does not meet the formal statehood requirements of the 1934 Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (the governing "Montevideo Convention.")

Eventually, in partial consequence of future Palestinian statehood, Israel could become still more dependent upon an overriding conflict strategy of nuclear threats and counter-threats. A Palestinian state could quickly fall victim to other far more capable Arab insurgent forces, including ISIS. Any such belligerent takeover could follow expectedly persistent expansions of ISIS power to the south of Gaza, in the Egyptian Sinai, and/or an ISIS conquering force marching west, across Jordan, and all the way to foreseeably "Palestinian" boundaries of the "West Bank" (Judea/Samaria). 

For Israel, any eventual fall of "Palestine" to ISIS could have uniquely injurious outcomes, a starkly significant conclusion suggesting even the very odd possibility of future cooperation between Israel and "Palestine."

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." It is unlikely that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority could reliably fend off a determined attack on Palestine from ISIS. Already, in fact, ISIS has begun to exchange fire with Hamas, in Gaza.

From Israel's standpoint, the pertinent dangers are deeply interwoven and  complex. Confronting not only a growing security threat from existing enemy states, but also from the more or less simultaneous appearance of a new Arab enemy state, and from new sub-state Arab Jihadist fighters, Israel could quickly find itself engulfed in (1) mass-casualty terrorism; and/or (2) unconventional war.

Beleaguered  by both Shiite (Hezbollah) and Sunni (ISIS) terror-armies, Jerusalem would fully understand that fighting one set of Jihadist foes could simultaneously help the other. What should be done about this quandary? Within IDF planning circles, it is altogether likely that Hezbollah is correctly regarded as a greater strategic threat than the various Sunni terror groups.

Hezbollah, an Iranian/Syrian surrogate, is moving strategically along the Golan Heights. First launched in early February 2015, this strategic offensive is intended to push Sunni rebel forces in the Quneitra and Deraa provinces back toward the Jordanian border. Should it succeed, that effort could enable Hezbollah to extend its frontline with Israel from the Mediterranean coast to the Yarmouk River, on the Syria-Jordan border.

All this could take place while ISIS forces had stepped up a carefully constructed assault against Jordan, an aggression, incidentally, potentially much more harmful to Palestinian Arab statehood than any actions ever actually taken or even contemplated by Israel.

How shall Israel deter Hezbollah from launching any "carpet" missile attacks upon Israeli civilians -  attacks that could create literally thousands of Israeli casualties? Looking back, it is critically important that Israel had earlier annexed the Golan Heights, and not yielded to ill-advised international
If Israel had been "soft" on the Golan, even ISIS fighters, now systematically exploiting anarchy in Syria, could already be swimming comfortably in the Sea of Galilee.
pressures to transfer the vital strategic plateau to Syria. Indeed, if Israel had been "soft" on the Golan, even ISIS fighters, now systematically exploiting anarchy in Syria, could already be swimming comfortably in the Sea of Galilee.

Iranian nuclear power

Fortunately, too, Israel's earlier expressions of "anticipatory self-defense" in Iraq and Syria kept nuclear weapons out of the hands of Hezbollah and ISIS. In the absence of Israel's uniquely skilled preemptions against nuclear reactors in Iraq (Operation Opera) and Syria (Operation Orchard),Jerusalem might now need to deal imminently with threats of atomic terrorism. In such difficult strategic circumstances, where the enemy is clearly not a constituted state, ordinary deterrent threats of retaliation would almost certainly fail.

Historically, it is worth pointing out that President Ronald Reagan had ordered the United States to join in the formal United Nations condemnation of Opera on June 8, 1981, and that in the absence of Opera, American troops could have had to face Iraqi nuclear weapons during Operation Desert Storm (that is, during the first Gulf War).

Going forward, considerations of preemption or "anticipatory self-defense" (the first term is operational; the second, jurisprudential) must remain an integral part of Israel's nuclear strategy. This is the case even where the tiny country's selected preemptions would not involve any Israeli nuclear weapons, and/or enemy nuclear weapons. These defensive first strikes, whether permissible or not (a legal matter, not a military one) will become part of Jerusalem's nuclear strategy, wherever their rationale is to diminish an existing or prospective enemy nuclear threat. Such strikes, moreover, could also prove substantially helpful to the United States.

The joint Israeli and American failure to act preemptively against Iranian nuclear infrastructures in a timely fashion now suggests an incrementally degraded capacity to deter Iran from extending any future support of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel. To the extent that Iran would remain pre-nuclear or non-nuclear, Israel could still maintain some more-or-less meaningful ways of preventing such destabilizing support. But once Iran had become operationally nuclear, there would remain little if any pertinent deterrence leverage in Jerusalem.

At that point, by definition, Iranian counter-retaliatory threats could become irresistibly compelling to Israel.

At that point, in other words, and precisely because Iran had effectively  been allowed to "go nuclear," Tehran would be in an optimal position to deter the deterrers.

All of these calculations must be understood together with the refractory issues of Palestinian statehood. For Israel, these stubborn issues are not conceptually separate or discrete from other terror threats, or even from the mega-threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons. Instead, they are closely intersecting, and also forseeably mutually reinforcing.     

Jerusalem's persistent willingness to surrender indispensable Israeli lands to sworn enemies, its long-mistaken reluctance to accept once still-timely preemption imperatives, and its periodic terrorist "exchanges" - asymmetrical surrender deals that inevitably generate new episodes of anti-Israel terrorism - may not bring about any direct or conclusive national defeat. Taken together, however, these inter-penetrating and plausibly synergistic policy errors will have a cumulatively weakening effect on Israel, both as a state, and as a larger society.

Whether the eventual result will be one that “merely” impairs the Jewish State's commitment to endure, or one that also opens up the beleaguered country to devastating missile attack, and/or corollary acts of mega- terror, must remain unclear. Regrettably, this lack of clarity is irremediable, and exists, again, because any true rendering of probabilities here could make no scientific sense. Logically, any definitive probability inferences concerning Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel would have to be extrapolated from past intersections.

And such intersections simply do not exist.

Anywhere in science, meaningful probability estimates must always be based on the discernible frequency of past events. In the strategic matters currently confronting Israel, most contemplated intersections (state-state; state-sub state; or sub state-sub state) would be unique, or sui generis.

After the markedly conspicuous failure of American nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran, Israeli defense planners will need to sort through a broad variety of more-or-less credible scenarios, and, correspondingly, take suitable steps to ensure a promisingly viable deterrence posture against a prospectively nuclear Iran. Before this core task can be completed, Jerusalem will first have to render certain prior estimations of enemy rationality, irrationality, and madness. In the final analysis, especially as any Iran preemption option is likely  off the table, alternative configurations of national defense policy will have to be evaluated and fashioned. These strategic patterns will need to embrace vastly discrepant and interrelated conflict possibilities, and in ways that are both manageable and policy-relevant.

Deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post, must remain Israel's preeminent security goal. To plan otherwise would be to ignore Clausewitz's classic dictum that war must only be fought to enhance a carefully pre-determined political objective. In the worst case scenario, any such disregard could lead Israel to initiate actual nuclear war fighting. In that case, we would all be reminded of the sobering lines from French poet Saint-John Perse:

"Where there were great military actions, there lies whitening now the jawbone of an ass."

This basic objective of Israel's nuclear forces, whether selectively disclosed, or still "deliberately ambiguous," should remain focused on deterrence. At the same time, Israel will have to succeed amid a steadily expanding threat of Islamist  adversaries, both national and sub-national. Included here will be some recalcitrant foes that are presumably rational, some that are expressly irrational, and others that are at least conceivably or prospectively mad.

Any conspicuous or inconspicuous failures to understand these distinctions could lead Israel into a dark period of measureless lamentations. To the extent that American security depends upon a safe and secure Israel, such unprecedented failures could also prove substantially injurious to the United States. More fully recognizing such strategic interdependence, the next American president should make every effort to support and sustain Israel's indispensable nuclear strategy.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on war, terrorism, and nuclear security matters.  Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, and Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003), he is the author of many major books and articles on international relations and international law. Dr. Beres' twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, was published  this year (2016) by Rowman and Littlefield. Some of his most recent publications have appeared in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Hill; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College; The Jerusalem Post; Oxford University Press; The Atlantic; and The National Interest.








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