The views expressed in these six columns are those of Professor Louis René Beres, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any other members of Project Daniel, or of any government.
Over the years, I have written in several prior columns about Project Daniel. At the present time, more than five years after our Project Daniel Group first raised the alarm about a nuclear Iran, the newspapers and magazines are filled with purported “plans” to deal with this menace. Nonetheless, the work of Project Daniel remains the most authoritative, carefully fashioned and intellectually informed statement on what should be done. With this in mind, I now offer – in six weekly parts – a detailed retrospective on what we had originally recommended, and what strategic challenges for Israel still remain at hand.
Israel’s Strategic Future: The Final Report Of Project Daniel was first presented by hand to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003. The underlying rationale of this report was our presumption that Israel urgently needed a plan for dealing with particular existential threats, and that we (“The Group”) were well-positioned intellectually and professionally to design such a plan. We began our work with an overriding concern for the possible enemy fusion of WMD-capacity (especially nuclear) with irrational adversaries. Contrary to this particular policy starting point, however, Project Daniel ultimately concluded that the primary threats to Israel’s survival were actually more likely to arise among certain rational enemies.
Throughout our work, The Group examined a broad variety of complex issues concerning deterrence; defense; preemption and war fighting. Combining legal with strategic analyses, we linked the concept of “anticipatory self-defense” to various preemption scenarios and to The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 20, 2002). We also examined closely the prospects for expanded strategic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem, with particular reference to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative edge” and to associated issues of necessary funding.
Project Daniel looked very closely at a recommended “paradigm shift” to deal with various “low intensity” and long-range WMD threats to Israel, and also considered the specific circumstances under which Israel should purposefully end its current posture of “nuclear ambiguity.” Overall, The Group urged continuing constructive support to the United States-led War Against Terror (WAT) and stipulated that Israel combine a strengthening of multilayered active defenses with a credible, secure and decisive nuclear deterrent. This recognizable retaliatory (second-strike) force was recommended to be fashioned with the capacity to destroy some 10 to 20 high-value targets scattered widely over pertinent enemy states in the Middle East − an objective entirely consistent with our explicit assumption that the main goal of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.
Although The Group’s collaborative analyses drew explicitly upon very contemporary strategic thinking, we were also mindful of certain much-earlier investigations of war, power and survival. One such still-relevant investigation can be found in Sun-Tzu’s The Art Of War.
Sun-Tzu’s The Art Of War, written sometime in the fifth century BCE, synthesized a coherent set of principles designed to produce military victory and minimize the chances of military defeat. Examined together with Israel’s Strategic Future: the Final Report of Project Daniel, the full corpus of this work should now be studied closely by all who wish to strengthen Israel’s military posture and its associated order of battle. At a time when the leaders of particular Arab/Islamic states might soon combine irrationality with weapons of mass destruction, the members of Project Daniel were markedly determined to augment current facts and figures with dialectical reasoning, imagination and creativity.
Israel, we reported, must continue its “imperative to seek peace through negotiation and diplomatic processes wherever possible.” Indeed, we continued: “This imperative, codified at the United Nations Charter and in multiple authoritative sources of international law, shall always remain the guiding orientation of Israel’s foreign policy.” What are Sun-Tzu’s favored principles concerning negotiation and diplomacy? Political initiatives and agreements may be useful, he instructs, but purposeful military preparations should never be neglected. The primary objective of every state should be to weaken enemies without actually engaging in armed combat. This objective links the ideal of “complete victory” to a “strategy for planning offensives.” In Chapter Four, “Military Disposition,” Sun-Tzu tells his readers: “One who cannot be victorious assumes a defensive posture; one who can be victorious attacks…. Those who excel at defense bury themselves away below the lowest depths of Earth. Those who excel at offense move from above the greatest heights of Heaven.”
Project Daniel took note. Today, with steadily more menacing Iranian nuclearization, the whole world should take note. Recognizing the dangers of relying too heavily upon active defenses such as anti-ballistic missile systems, a reliance whereby Israel would likely bury itself away “below the lowest depths of Earth,” Project Daniel advised that Israel take certain prompt initiatives in removing existential threats. These initiatives included striking first (preemption) against enemy WMD development, manufacturing, storage, control and deployment centers − a recommendation fully consistent with longstanding international law regarding “anticipatory self-defense” and also with the declared defense policy of the United States.
If, for any reason, the doctrine of preemption should fail to prevent an enemy Arab state or Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Daniel group advised that Israel cease immediately its established policy of nuclear ambiguity, and proceed at once to a position of open nuclear deterrence. Additional to this change in policy, we recommended that Israel make it perfectly clear to the enemy nuclear state, that it would suffer prompt and maximum-yield nuclear “counter-value” reprisals for any level of nuclear aggression undertaken against Israel.
Under certain circumstances, our team continued, similar forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence should be directed against enemy states that threaten existential harms with biological weapons.
What exactly are “existential harms?” Taken literally, an existential threat implies harms that portend a complete annihilation or disappearance of the state. We felt, however, that certain more limited forms of both conventional and unconventional attack against large Israeli civilian concentrations could also constitute an existential threat. In part, our calculation here was based upon Israel’s small size, its very high population density and its particular concentrations of national infrastructure. In essence, if the present Government of Israel were to follow the expressed advice of Project Daniel, prospective aggressors would understand fully and in advance that launching certain kinds of attack against Israel would turn their own cities to vapor and ash.
Following Sun-Tzu, the clear purpose of our recommendation was to achieve a complete Israeli “victory” without engaging in actual hostilities. In the exact words of our Report, Israel’s Strategic Future: “The overriding priority of Israel’s nuclear deterrent force must always be that it preserves the country’s security without ever having to be fired against any target.”
To preserve itself against any existential threats, some of which may stem from terrorist organizations as well as from states, Israel – we reasoned − should learn from Sun-Tzu’s repeated emphasis on the “unorthodox.” Drawn from the conflation of thought that crystallized as Taoism, the ancient strategist observes: “…in battle, one engages with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox.” In a complex passage, Sun-Tzu discusses how the orthodox may be used in unorthodox ways, while an orthodox attack may be unorthodox when it is unexpected. Taken together with the recommendations of Project Daniel, this passage could still represent a subtle tool for Israeli operational planning, one that might usefully exploit an enemy state’s or terrorist group’s particular matrix of military expectations.
For Israel, said The Group, the “unorthodox” should be fashioned not only on the battlefield, but also before the battle. To prevent the most dangerous forms of battle, which would be expressions of all-out unconventional warfare called “counterforce” engagements, Israel should examine a number of promising strategic postures. These postures could even focus upon a reasoned shift from an image of “orthodox” rationality to one of somewhat “unorthodox” irrationality, although Project Daniel did confine itself to prescriptions for certain defensive first-strikes using conventional weapons and for certain massive counter-value (counter-city) nuclear reprisals.
Before Project Daniel there was the so-called “Samson Option.” Everyone who seriously studies Israeli nuclear strategy had long heard about this biblical image and idea. The Samson Option is generally thought to be a last resort strategy wherein Israel’s nuclear weapons would be used not for prevention of war or even for war waging, but rather as a last spasm of vengeance against a despised enemy state that had launched massive (probably unconventional) counter-city and/or counterforce attacks against Israel. In this view, Israel’s leaders, faced with national extinction, would decide that although the Jewish State could not survive, it would “die” [but] only together with its destroyers.
How does the “Samson Option” appear to the Arab/Iranian side? Israel, it would seem, may resort to nuclear weapons, but only in reprisal, and only in response to overwhelmingly destructive first-strike attacks. Correspondingly, anything less than an overwhelmingly destructive first-strike, would elicit a measured and proportionate Israeli military response. Moreover, by striking first, the Arab/Iranian enemy knows that it could have an advantage in “escalation dominance.” These calculations would follow from the more or less informed enemy view that Israel will never embrace the “unorthodox” on the strategic level, that its actions will likely always be reactions, and that these reactions will always be limited.
But what if Israel were to fine-tune its “Samson Option”? What if it did this in conjunction with certain doctrinal changes in its longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity? By taking the bomb out of the “basement” and by indicating, simultaneously, that its now declared nuclear weapons were not limited to existential scenarios, Israel might still go a long way to enhancing its national security. It would do this by displaying an apparent departure from perfect rationality; that is, by expressing the rationality of threatened irrationality.
(To be continued)
LOUIS RENÉ BERES, Chair of Project Daniel, is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.