The worst does sometimes happen. As men, we have to count on that possibility, have to arm ourselves against it, and above all we have to realize that since absurdities necessarily occur, and nowadays manifest themselves with more and more forcefulness, we can prevent ourselves from being destroyed by them and can make ourselves relatively comfortable upon this earth only if we humbly include these absurdities in our thinking, reckon with the inevitable fractures and distortions of human reason when it attempts honestly to deal with reality. – Friedrich Durrenmatt
Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt was certainly not thinking about Israel’s national security when he wrote these words in A Dangerous Game, but his argument still fits perfectly in understanding the Jewish State’s prospects for survival. Indeed, and not without considerable irony, unless Israel soon begins to fashion its essential strategic doctrine with a view to including various absurdities, it will never be able to find real safety in the Middle East. There, in what is arguably one of the world’s very worst “neighborhoods,” unreason often reins triumphant, and chaos is never far away.
How does an imperiled mini-state shape order from chaos? One correct answer is counter-intuitive: Do not continue to base Israel’s security policy entirely upon assumptions of consistent enemy rationality. Although such advice could create new and almost overwhelming strategic planning complications in Tel-Aviv, the alternative could be suicidal. This is because nation-states, like the individual human beings from which they are inevitably constructed, periodically act from passion and unreason, rather than from any cool-headed “objective” calculations or neutral judgments of “cost-effectiveness.”
From the standpoint of national strategy, the core issue is one of enemy preferences and enemy preference hierarchies. Soon, if Israel should begin to face a nation-state Jihadist adversary that values certain presumed religious expectations more highly than physical survival, its indispensable deterrent could fail. This could imply a heightened probability of nuclear and/or biological war. It could also place Israel in the very precise cross hairs of mass destruction terrorism.
Literature can be redemptive. As we can learn from the Swiss playwright Durrenmatt, so, too, can we learn from W.B. Yeats, the great Irish poet. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” says Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Still assembled in assorted armed camps pleasingly called nation-states, all peoples coexist more or less insecurely in an anarchic world. In time, in this often absurdist world, there may be no safety in arms, no rescue from political authority, no answers from science. Animated by unreason, new and larger wars may rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and till all things human are leveled in a vast chaos.
The State of Israel now exists precariously amid developing chaos. Aware that an incremental collapse of world authority structures will impact its friends as well as its enemies, leaders of the Jewish State will need to advance certain plausible premonitions of collapse in order to chart more durable “roads” to survival. (The current Washington-favored “Road Map” directs Israel not to safety, but to literal disappearance). To do this, IDF planners will need to take careful account of growing enemy inclinations to act in ways that are contrary to normal judgments of self-interest. Philosophically, it follows that there is now more to be learned about strategy in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv from Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard than from Plato, Cicero and Kant.
Acknowledging the place of chaos, unreason and absurdity in all human affairs, Israel’s leaders will need to consider exactly how they would respond to life in a global State of Nature. The triggering mechanism of civilizational collapse could originate from escalating enemy irrationality, and could produce a variety of mass-casualty attacks against Israel, or against other western democracies. Even the United States would not be immune.
Chaotic disintegration of the world system will decisively transform the Israeli micro-system. Ultimately, such transformation could involve total or near-total destruction. In anticipation, Israel will soon have to orient portions of its strategic planning to an assortment of worst-case prospects, focusing more deliberately and realistically on a wide range of primarily self-help security options. Certain diplomatic processes that are conveniently but erroneously premised on assumptions of reason and rationality, therefore, will have to be renounced and reconfigured in recognition of greater unreason and absurdity.
This worst does sometimes happen.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on terrorism and nuclear security matters. Born in Switzerland, and Chair of Project Daniel, he is the author of ten books on international relations and international law, including some of the earliest major works on Israel’s nuclear strategy. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.