Over these many years, beginning at Princeton in the late 1960s, I have examined core bases of Israeli nuclear deterrence. Recently, in consequence of the still-growing threat of Iranian nuclearization, increasing attention has been directed toward pertinent issues of enemy rationality. With such issues in mind, this essay will seek to explain (1) the likely impact of enemy "irrationality" on Israel's deterrence posture; and (2) the vital differences between prospective Iranian irrationality, and genuine enemy "madness."
For states in world politics, at least according to the generally unchallenged conventional wisdom, successful strategies of deterrence must correctly assume enemy rationality. In the absence of such rationality – that is, in those relatively rare or residual circumstances where an enemy country might rank order certain values or preferences more highly than “staying alive” as a nation – deterrence could simply not work. Moreover, in those potentially much more serious situations involving nuclear deterrence, the direct consequences of any such failure could be stark, catastrophic, and even unprecedented.
Significantly, at least in world politics, irrationality is never the same as “madness.” To wit, an irrational enemy leadership could still maintain a distinct and identifiable hierarchy of preferences, but one in which national survival would not necessarily rank at the top. In more technical terms, strategic analysts would say here that these irrational state actors still maintain an order of preferences that is both “consistent” and “transitive.”
A “mad” leadership, on the other hand, would have no discernible order of preferences. Its actions, for the most part, would be random and unpredictable. It goes without saying that facing a “mad” adversary in world politics is “worse” than facing a “merely” irrational adversary. Expressed in somewhat different terms, although it might still be possible and purposeful to try to deter an irrational enemy, there would be little point to seeking deterrence against a plainly “mad” one.
"Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman," asks playwright Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV. "Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather with a logic that flies like a feather."
Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." What is true for individuals is sometimes also true for states.
In the often-unpredictable theatre of modern world politics, a drama that so often bristles with apparent meaninglessness, decisions that rest upon ordinary logic may quickly crumble before madness. Here, dangers can reach even the most utterly portentous level. This is the aptly-dreaded point of convergence, when madness and nuclear weapons capability would coincide, fuse, or otherwise come together.
Enter Israel and Iran. Soon, because not a single responsible member of the “international community” has ever demonstrated a determinable willingness to undertake appropriately preemptive action (“anticipatory self-defense,” in the formal language of law), the Jewish State may have to face an expressly genocidal Iranian nuclear adversary. Although improbable, a potentially “suicidal” enemy state in Iran, one animated by graphically precise visions of a Shiite apocalypse, cannot be wished away, or, capriciously, dismissed out of hand.
Iran’s current leadership, and possibly even a successor “reformist” government in Tehran, could, at some point, choose to value Israel’s physical destruction more highly than even its own physical survival. Should this happen, the “play” would almost certainly end badly for all “actors.” In recognizably theatrical terms, the "director's" command would be both unambiguous and immobilizing.
Nonetheless, despite U.S. President Barack Obama's disingenuous hope for "a world free of nuclear weapons," Israel’s ultimate source of national security must inevitably lie in sustained nuclear deterrence. Although still implicit or ambiguous, and not yet open, or disclosed, this Israeli “bomb in the basement” could readily “crumble before madness.” In certain easily-imaginable instances, circumstances involving enemy “madness,” the results of failed Israeli retaliatory threats could ultimately be existential.
Though the logic of deterrence has always rested upon an assumption of rationality, history reveals the persistent fragility of any such understanding. We already know all too well that nations can sometimes behave in ways that are consciously, or even conspicuously, self-destructive.
Sometimes, mirroring the infrequent but decisively unpredictable behavior of individual human beings, national leaders can choose to assign the very highest value to certain preferences other than collective self-preservation. In operatic metaphor, this could reveal a Gotterdammerung ("Twilight of the Gods") scenario.
For the moment, no single Arab or Iranian adversary of Israel would appear to be authentically irrational or mad. Harsh enemy rhetoric notwithstanding, no current Israeli adversary appears ready to launch a major first-strike against Israel using weapons of mass destruction, with the expectation that it would thereby elicit a devastating reprisal. Of course, miscalculations and errors in information could still lead a perfectly rational enemy state to strike first, but this decision, by definition, would not be the outcome of irrationality or madness.
In strategic thinking, judgments of rationality and irrationality are always based upon prior intent.
Certain enemy states, most likely Iran, could one day decide that excising the “Jewish cancer" or the “enemies of Allah,” from the Middle East would somehow be worth even the most palpably staggering costs. In principle, at least, this particular genocidal prospect could be avoided by Israel's adoption of pertinent "hard target" preemptions. Increasingly, however, any such once-reasonable expressions of anticipatory self-defense are now difficult or impossible to imagine. Operationally, in essence, a successful preemption is now almost certainly infeasible.
Now, most or all critical Iranian nuclear assets have likely been deeply hardened, widely dispersed, and substantially multiplied. For Israel, expectedly, there would also be considerable political costs to any preemption. To be sure, a preemptive attack, even one that could become an operational failure, would elicit overwhelming public and diplomatic condemnation.
It is plausible that undertaking certain alternative forms of preemption, including assassination of nuclear scientists, and/or cyber defense/cyber-warfare, could (still) be purposeful, but it is unlikely that any such alternatives could permanently obviate traditionally more expedient resorts to military force. (to be continued).
LOUIS RENÉ BERES is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he is the author of ten books and several hundred published articles dealing with Israeli security matters, including APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (University of Chicago Press, 1980), and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON:ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Heath/Lexington Books, 1986). Professor Beres served as Chair of Project Daniel, a private effort (2003) to counsel former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on existential nuclear threats to Israel. In March 2013, Dr. Beres presented another major Working Paper to the annual Herzliya Conference on Israeli strategy. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.