Over the years, in several of my columns in The Jewish Press, I have examined the critical bases of Israeli nuclear deterrence. Recently, in consequence of the growing threat of Iranian nuclearization, increasing attention has been directed toward pertinent issues of enemy rationality. With this in mind, the following three-part column will seek to explain the impact of “irrationality” on Israel’s deterrence posture, and also the vital differences between prospective Iranian irrationality and “madness.”
For all states in world politics, successful strategies of deterrence require assumptions of enemy rationality. In the absence of rationality – that is, in those relatively rare or residual circumstances where an enemy country would rank certain values or preferences more highly than staying alive as a nation – deterrence could fail. In those potentially more serious situations involving nuclear deterrence, the direct consequences of any such failure could be catastrophic, stark, and even unprecedented.
Significantly, irrationality is not the same as “crazy” or “mad.” An irrational enemy leadership would still have a distinct and identifiable hierarchy of preferences, albeit one in which national survival does not always rank at the top. In more technical terms, analysts would say that these irrational state actors still have an order of preferences that is “consistent” and “transitive.”
A “crazy” or “mad” leadership, however, 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. In 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 mad one.
“Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman?” asks Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV. “Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather with a logic that flies like a feather.”
What is true for individuals is sometimes also true for states. In the sometimes-unpredictable theater of modern world politics, a drama that often bristles with genuine absurdity, decisions that rest upon ordinary logic can quickly crumble before madness. Dangers may reach the most portentous level when madness and a nuclear weapons capability come together.
Enter Israel and Iran. Soon, because not a single responsible member of the international community has 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 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 theatrical terms, exeunt omnes.
Nonetheless, Israel’s ultimate source of national security must lie in sustained nuclear deterrence. Although still implicit or ambiguous, and not yet open or disclosed, this Israeli bomb in the basement could crumble before madness.
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, and 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 – a Gotterdammerung 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 adversary appears ready to launch a major first strike against Israel using weapons of mass destruction, due to 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 be worth the most staggering costs. In principle, at least, this genocidal prospect could still be avoided by Israel using pertinent “hard target” preemptions. Increasingly, however, any such once-reasonable expressions of anticipatory self-defense are now difficult or impossible to imagine. Operationally, a successful preemption is now almost certainly too late.
All pertinent Iranian nuclear assets have likely been deeply hardened, widely dispersed, and substantially multiplied. For Israel, there would also be considerable political costs to any preemption. A preemptive attack, even one that becomes an operational failure, would elicit overwhelming public and diplomatic condemnation.