In his clearly expressed preference for a world without nuclear weapons, U.S. President Obama means well. Viscerally, at least, his idealized vision of a non-nuclear world certainly seems desirable. But the deeper intellectual and policy issue is not just the enduring and possibly irremediable security problem of strategic uncertainty and verification (why, for example, would any existing nuclear power disarm without being sure of reciprocal nuclear disarmament by all the other nuclear states?), but also that nuclear weapons are not inherently evil or even per se destabilizing. In many critical circumstances, as we should already have learned from basic Soviet-American peace dynamics during the Cold War, nuclear weapons can even be indispensable to the avoidance of catastrophic war.
For the most part, President Obama is correct in his anti-nuclear orientation. Further nuclear proliferation would likely be intolerable, and should be contained at all costs. Nonetheless, there are some nation-states in our decentralized world system (international lawyers call it the “Westphalian” system after the major 1648 peace treaty that first brought it into existence) that could never survive in the global “state of nature” without nuclear deterrence. Israel is assuredly the single most obvious case in point. Should the Jewish state ever have to face its myriad enemies without such deterrence, its already-planned annihilation by these relentless enemies would be hastened and expanded. In fact, this apocalyptic situation would occur even if all these enemy states were themselves non-nuclear.
President Obama, please take note. More than any other state on earth, Israel requires nuclear weapons just to remain alive. Whether ambiguous or disclosed, to ever give up these weapons in exchange for any abstract promises of peace through general nuclear disarmament could represent the start of another Jewish genocide. This is not hyperbole, but rather the inescapable conclusion of altogether sound strategic analysis.By no means are war and genocide mutually exclusive, either strategically or jurisprudentially.
For a variety of reasons, any concrete proposals for a “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone” in the Middle East would ignore the obvious. Should Israel, forced to yield to well-meaning pressures from Washington, begin a process of actual de-nuclearization, nothing of decisive military consequence would remain in the way of coordinated Arab and/or Iranian attacks. Ultimately, in all war, as Clausewitz understood, “mass counts.” Without nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and purposefully recognizable, the existential core of Israel’s capacity to deter major assaults would promptly disappear.
It is imperative that President Obama now proceed to look beyond his wholly idealized visions of a new world order, and begin to look far more precisely and concretely at actual theaters and dynamics of probable conflict. From the standpoint of Israel in particular, which ought never to place its physical survival in the hands of the United States (especially not now), what is needed immediately is a comprehensive and systematic re-examination of Jerusalem/Tel Aviv’s core nuclear doctrine. When, sooner or later, it is forced to defend its essential nuclear posture fromcalls tojoin a regional “nuclear weapons free zone,” Israel should already have available on hand a lucid and compelling explanation of its correct refusal.
Why, then, must Israel remain a nuclear power? Here is the detailed and complete answer that Prime Minister Netanyahu should prepare to transmit to President Obama.
1. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter large conventional attacks by enemy states. The effectiveness of such Israeli nuclear deterrence will depend, among other things, upon: (a) perceived vulnerability of Israeli nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israeli nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israeli leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker’s active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israeli targeting doctrine; (f) perceptions of Israel’s probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of non-nuclear but chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel’s nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or non-creation of a Palestinian state.
2. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks. The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend on (a) to (h) above. In this connection, Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare, and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a capacity for “escalation dominance.”
3. Israel needs nuclear weapons to preempt enemy nuclear attacks. This does not mean that Israeli preemptions of such attacks would necessarily be nuclear (more than likely, they would almost certainly be non-nuclear), but only that they could conceivably be nuclear. Of course, should Israel ever need to use its nuclear forces for such a purpose, it would signify the utter failure of these forces as a deterrent (per number 2, above). Significantly, such failure is increasingly plausible because of the problematic nature of nuclear deterrence in general, and because of the particular circumstances of the Islamic Middle East regarding decisional rationality.
4. Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy nuclear assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. This also relates to the need for “escalation dominance.”
5. Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy non-nuclear (conventional/chemical/biological) assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. Again, this illustrates Israel’s incontestable need to dominate escalatory processes.
(To be continued)