Latest update: December 12th, 2012
“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 true for states. In the always unpredictable state of nations, constructions which rest upon the foundations of ordinary logic may crumble before madness. Understood in terms of Israel’s increasingly precarious dependence upon nuclear deterrence, however implicit, this suggests that security built primarily upon threats of overwhelming retaliatory destruction could fail altogether.
For the moment, no single Arab/Islamic adversary of Israel would appear to be irrational. That is, no adversary would appear to be ready to launch a major first-strike against Israel using weapons of mass destruction (in the future, possibly even nuclear weapons) with the recognition 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 would not be the product of irrationality.
What is true today, however, may not be true for the indefinite future. Certain enemy states – Iran now comes immediately to mind – could ultimately decide that “excising the Jewish cancer” from the Middle East would be worth the costs, however massive they might be. In principle, this prospect might be avoided by Israel with timely “hard target” preemptions, but such expressions of what is known under international law as “anticipatory self-defense” are now exceedingly problematic. The difficulty lies in both tactical and political issues.
Strictly speaking, an Iranian or other enemy “bolt-from-the-blue” CBN (chemical, biological or even nuclear) attack upon Israel with the expectation of city-busting reprisals would not necessarily exhibit true irrationality or madness. Rather, within this state’s particular ordering of preferences, the presumed religious obligation to annihilate the “Zionist Entity” could be of absolutely overriding value. Here, the expected benefits of such annihilation could exceed the expected costs of ANY Israeli reprisal.
To a certain extent, an enemy state with such orientations would represent the individual suicide bomber writ large. Just as tens of thousands of Arab males are now willing to die to achieve “martyrdom,” so might certain individual states soon become willing to sacrifice themselves to fulfill the presumed will of Allah. In the second case, however, it is conceivable that Iranian or other Arab/Islamic leaders making the decision to strike at Israel would be more willing to make “martyrs” of their own peoples than of themselves. Here, it would be perfectly acceptable to sacrifice huge portions of their respective populations, but only while the leaders themselves were already underway to a predetermined safe haven.
What is Israel to do? It can’t very well choose to live, indefinitely, with enemies which might not be deterred by usual threats of retaliation and who are themselves armed with weapons of mass destruction. It can’t very well choose to preempt against pertinent Iranian or other military targets, because the tactical prospects of success would be very remote and because the global outcry – even after America’s Operation Iraqi Freedom (or especially after this newest war against Iraq) could be deafening. It assuredly cannot rely too heavily upon the United States, which is continuing to exhaust human and material resources in Iraq and which has serious strategic worries about North Korea. And it cannot place too much faith in anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which could require a near-100 percent reliability of intercept to be purposeful in “soft-point” protection of Israeli cities.
The strategic opportunities available to Israel may be very limited; the existential consequences of failure could include national extinction. What shall the Government of Israel do? If Israel’s enemies were all presumably rational in the ordinary sense of valuing physical survival more highly than any other preference of combination of preferences, Jerusalem could begin to exploit the strategic benefits of pretended irrationality. Here, recognizing that in certain situations it can be especially rational to feign irrationality, it could work to create more cautionary behavior among its relevant adversaries. In such a case, the threat of an Israeli resort to a “Samson Option” could be enough to frighten away an enemy first-strike.
If, however, Israel’s pertinent adversaries were presumably irrational in the ordinary sense, there would likely be no real benefit to contrived irrationality. This is the case, because the more probable Israeli threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike associated with irrationality would be no more compelling to Iran or any other Arab/Islamic enemy state than if they were confronted by a fully rational State of Israel.
It follows from all this that Israel could benefit from greater understanding of the “rationality of
pretended irrationality,” but only in particular reference to rational enemy states. In these circumstances where such enemy states are presumed to be irrational in the ordinary sense, something else will be needed – something other than nuclear deterrence, preemption or ballistic missile defense. Although many believe the answer to this quandary lies in far-reaching political settlements, it is an answer born of frustration and self-delusion, not of deliberate and informed calculation. No meaningful political settlements can be worked out with enemies who seek only Israel’s “liquidation” – a word still used commonly in Arab/Islamic newspapers and texts.
So what is Israel to do? “In the end,” we learn from the poet Goethe, “we depend upon creatures of our own making.” What shall Israel “make?”
To begin, Israel must understand that irrationality need not mean craziness or madness. Even an irrational state may have a consistent and transitive hierarchy of wants. The first task for Israel, therefore, is to ascertain this hierarchy among its several state enemies, especially Iran. Although these states might not be deterred from aggression by the persuasive threat of massive Israeli retaliations, they could well be deterred by threats to what they do hold to be most important.
What might be most important to Israel’s prospectively irrational enemies, potentially even more important than physical survival as a state? One answer is the avoidance of shame and humiliation. Another is avoidance of the charge that they had defiled their most sacred religious obligations. Still another is leaders’ avoidance of their own violent deaths at the hand of Israel, deaths that would be attributable to strategies of “targeted killing” and/or “regime-targeting” by Jerusalem.
These answers are only a beginning; indeed, they are little more than the beginning of a beginning. What is needed now is a sustained and conspicuously competent effort to answer in greater depth and breadth.
This effort cannot be confined to Israel or America’s established university centers of strategic
studies. Rather, it must take place wherever informed and intellectually capable friends of Israel can be found. Indeed, as we are dealing with nothing less than the sacred responsibility of preventing another Holocaust, I submit that the effort to identify workable strategic survival policies for Israel should be undertaken even in the traditional centers of Jewish learning, in all places where Jews gather to study the sacred texts, everywhere that Jews come together in day schools, in Yeshivot and in universities.
Our peril, as always, is great, but our Jewish intellectual resources are also considerable. Our study of Torah must quickly be joined by imaginative teachers and rabbis with the study of looming existential threats to Zion.
The wisdom of Torah must never be detached from our most urgent considerations of survival as a people. Each Jew is responsible for his Jewish brothers and sisters, and every capable Jewish mind must willingly give tangible and timely effect to what beats in each Jewish heart. Moreover, war and genocide are assuredly not mutually exclusive, and preventing a second Holocaust is far too important an obligation to be left to the professional strategists.
© The Jewish Press, 2003. All Rights Reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) he is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli security matters, including Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy. Most recently he served as Chair of “Project Daniel,” a small-group effort of senior Israeli generals and academics to counsel the Prime Minister on existential threats to Israel.
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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