“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War”
Only a selective end to its nuclear ambiguity would allow Israel to exploit the potentially considerable benefits of a Samson Option. Should Israel choose to keep its Bomb in the “basement,” therefore, it could not make any use of the Samson Option.
Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy is correctly oriented toward deterrence, not war-fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon a more-or-less implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. Such a policy could be invoked credibly only in cases where such aggressions would threaten Israel’s very existence, and would involve far more destructive and high-yield nuclear weapons than what might otherwise be thought “usable.” This means that a Samson Option could make sense only in presumably “last-resort,” or “near last-resort,” circumstances.
It also means that where Samson is involved, an end to deliberate ambiguity would help Israel by emphasizing that portion of its nuclear arsenal that is less usable. This ironic fact is not a contradiction of my prior argument that Israel will need to take the Bomb out of the “basement” to enhance its deterrent credibility. Rather, it indicates that the persuasiveness of Israel’s nuclear deterrent will require prospective enemy perceptions of retaliatory destructiveness at both the low and high ends of the nuclear yield spectrum. Ending nuclear ambiguity at the proper time would best permit Israel to foster such perceptions.
The main objective of any Samson Option would not be to communicate the availability of any graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent. Instead, it would intend to signal the more-or-less unstated “promise” of a counter-city (“counter-value” in military parlance) reprisal. Made plausible by an end to absolute nuclear ambiguity, the Samson Option would be unlikely to deter any aggressions short of “high end” nuclear and/or (certain) biological first strikes upon the Jewish state.
Samson would “say” the following to all potential nuclear attackers: “We (Israel) may have to “die,” but (this time) we won’t die alone.” The Samson Option, made possible only after a calculated end to Israeli nuclear ambiguity, could serve Israel as an adjunct to deterrence, and to certain preemption options, but not as a core nuclear strategy.
The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s overriding security objective: to seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of possible military conflict.
In broad outline, “Samson” could support Israel’s nuclear deterrence by demonstrating an Israeli willingness to take strategic risks, including even existential risks. Earlier, Moshe Dayan had understood and embraced this particular form of logic: “Israel must be like a mad dog, said Dayan, too dangerous to bother.”
In our often counter-intuitive strategic world, it can sometimes be rational to pretend irrationality. Always, the nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend in part upon an enemy state’s awareness of Israel’s disclosed counter-value targeting posture. In the final analysis, there are specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of a purposefully selective and incremental end to its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
The time to begin such an “end” has not yet arrived. But at the precise moment that Iran verifiably crosses the nuclear threshold, Israel should begin immediately to remove the Bomb from its “basement.” When this critical moment arrives, Israel should already have configured (1) its planned reallocation of nuclear assets; and (2) the extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed. This would importantly enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrence posture.
To optimize Israel’s selective easing of nuclear ambiguity, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would need to deploy, inter alia, a fully recognizable second-strike nuclear force. Such a robust strategic force – hardened, multiplied and dispersed – would necessarily be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran, it follows, so long as it is led by rational decision-makers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.
The deterrence benefits of any Israeli modifications of deliberate ambiguity would be altogether limited to rational adversaries. If, after all, enemy decision-makers might sometime value certain national or religious preferences more highly than their own country’s physical survival, they would not be deterred by any enhanced forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence, including even a nuanced and purposeful removal of Israel’s bomb from the “basement.”
To comprehensively protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel would now have no viable alternative to implementing a still more-or-less problematic conventional preemption option. Operationally, at this very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of success. Jurisprudentially, however, especially in view of Iran’s expressly genocidal threats to Israel, such a preemption option could represent a distinctly permissible expression of anticipatory self-defense under international law.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) was Chair of Project Daniel. Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, he is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including publications in International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Nativ (Israel); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: The Professional Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Strategic Review; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres’ monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war have been published by The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver). His frequent opinion columns have appeared in The New York Times; Christian Science Monitor; Chicago Tribune; Washington Post; Washington Times; Boston Globe; USA Today; The Jerusalem Post; Ha’aretz (Israel); Neue Zuricher Zeitung (Switzerland); and U.S. News & World Report.
Dr. Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.