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May 4, 2015 / 15 Iyar, 5775
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Rationality, Irrationality, And Madness: Core Enemy Differences For Israeli Nuclear Deterrence (Second of Three Parts)


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A “bolt-from-the-blue” CBN (chemical, biological or even nuclear) attack on Israel launched with the expectation of city-busting reprisals might not necessarily exhibit irrationality or madness. Within such an attacking state’s particular ordering of preferences, any presumed religious obligation to annihilate the “Zionist Entity” could represent the overriding value.

Here, from the standpoint of the prospective attacker’s decisional calculus, the expected benefits of producing such a “blessed” annihilation would exceed the expected costs of any expected Israeli reprisal. Judged from this critical analytic standpoint, a seemingly “mad” attack decision could actually “make sense.”

Any enemy state with such explicitly exterminatory orientations could represent the individual suicide bomber in macrocosm. It is a meaningful and powerful image. Just as individual jihadists are now plainly willing to achieve personal “martyrdom,” so might certain jihadist states become willing to “sacrifice themselves” collectively. From a purely strategic standpoint, the fact that any such suicidal willingness would lack democratic origins would be irrelevant.

Any Iranian or Arab leaders making the decision to strike at Israel would be willing to make martyrs of their own people but probably not of themselves. In this not inconceivable decisional scenario, it would be judged acceptable by these particular leaders to sacrifice more or less huge portions of their respective populations, but only while they, and presumably their families, were themselves able to flee expeditiously to a predetermined, albeit still earth-bound, safe haven.

What is Israel to do? It can’t rely, forever, on even the most creative forms of preemption/anticipatory self-defense. It can’t very well choose to live, indefinitely, with enemies who might not always be reliably deterred by more usual threats of retaliation, and who are themselves already armed with assorted weapons of mass destruction.

Effectively, Israel cannot still decide to preempt against selected Iranian and/or other threatening military targets, because the operational prospects of success would now be very remote, and because the global outcry would be deafening. It cannot place more than partial faith in any anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, because, after all, Israel’s Arrow would require a near-100 percent reliability of intercept to be purposeful in any soft-point protection of cities. Not even the oft-tested and brilliantly engineered Arrow, together with its corollary elements of active defense, can do this. The same “leakage” problems, for example, would apply to the shorter-range protections of Iron Dome.

The strategic options still available to Israel seem very limited; the associated consequences of failure could include national extinction.

If Israel’s enemies were all presumed to be rational, in the ordinary sense of valuing physical survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, Jerusalem could begin, among other things, to exploit the strategic benefits of pretended irrationality. Recognizing that, in certain strategic situations, it can be rational to feign irrationality, Israel could then work to create more cautionary behavior among its relevant adversaries.

In such cases, the threat of an Israeli resort to a “Samson Option” might be enough to dissuade an enemy first-strike. Recalling Sun-Tzu, any more explicit Israeli hints of “Samson” could indicate a very useful grasp of the ancient Chinese strategist’s advice to diminish reliance on defense, and, instead, to “seize the unorthodox.”

If, however, Israel’s relevant adversaries were presumably irrational in this ordinary sense, there would likely be no real benefit to postures of pretended irrationality. This is the case because the more probable threat of any massive Israeli nuclear counterstrike linked in enemy calculations with irrationality would be no more compelling to Iran, or to any other enemy state, than if it were confronted by a presumably rational State of Israel.

In strategic nuance, Israel could benefit from a greater understanding of the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” but only in particular reference to expectedly rational enemy states. In those circumstances where such enemy states were presumed to be irrational, something else would be needed, something other than nuclear deterrence, preemption, and/or ballistic missile defense.

Although many commentators and scholars still believe the answer to this quandary lies in certain far-reaching political settlements, this time-dishonored belief is born largely of frustration, and utterly naïve self-delusion. Recalling regional histories, it is not the documented product of any deliberate or informed strategic calculation. No meaningful political settlements can ever be worked out with enemies who openly seek Israel’s “liquidation,” a word still used commonly in many Arab and Iranian newspapers, web sites, and texts.

Israel must fully understand that irrationality need not mean madness. Even an irrational state leadership may have an identifiable, consistent, and transitive hierarchy of wants. The first task for Israel, therefore, must always be to identify this hierarchy among its several state enemies.

Although these states might not be deterred from aggression by even the plausibly persuasive threat of massive Israeli retaliations, they might still be deterred by certain threats aimed at what they do hold to be most important.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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