History takes no sharp corners.Despite obvious and very consequential current upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa – especially, of course, in Egypt – the core issues and principles of war and peace remain essentially unchanged. For Israel, this means keeping an ever-sharp focus on the still-underlying existential challenges. Although it is certainly correct that there will be constant, unexpected and distinctly palpable shifts in the prevailing hierarchy of particular threats, these shifts should always be understood within a much broader explanatory context of well-established strategic theory.
Here, metaphor can be illuminating. In all matters of human endurance and survival, theory is an indispensable net. Only those who cast will catch.
To genuinely make the most of their work, Israeli strategists will need to begin at the beginning, acknowledging above all that regional anarchy is not merely a distressing and idiosyncratic function of the moment. Rather, they must recognize, it is rooted in the very codified and customary structures of modern world politics.
More than anything else, these legal and geopolitical structures now seemingly point to conditions of chaotic regional disintegration. Yet, even in chaos, which is not the same as anarchy, there may be certain discernible regularities, a sort of fixed geometry, which should then be properly identified and subsequently studied. Out of the mêlée of what is now happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, Israel’s strategic thinkers can still discover a true tableau of their country’s national survival.
World and regional politics remain notably and unalterably complex. There is no good argument for examining threats to Israel’s survival (e.g., Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah strength in Lebanon, Hamas operations in Gaza) as if they were somehow singular and unrelated. On the contrary, there are foreseeable interactions between individual catastrophic harms, so-called synergies, that could make the potentially existential risks of both anarchy and chaos even more pressing.
For Israel, the dangers of regional chaotic disintegration are both particular and unique. Facing not only a growing nuclear threat from Iran but also the more or less simultaneous appearance of “Palestine,” the Jewish state could quickly find itself engulfed in mass-casualty terrorism, and/or in unconventional war.
An enduring and growing threat to Israel remains what I have called the “suicide bomber in macrocosm.” In this connection, the probability of a genuine Middle East chaos could be massively enlarged by altogether conceivable instances of enemy irrationality. If, for example, Israel should begin to face a Jihadist adversary that would value certain presumed religious expectations even more highly than its own physical survival, Israel’s deterrent could then be immobilized. Such paralysis of Israeli power could, at some point, mean a heightened threat of nuclear and/or biological war. It could also place Israel in the recognizable cross hairs of mass-destruction terrorism.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” says the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Now, assembled in almost two hundred armed tribal camps officially called nation-states, all peoples coexist uneasily and insecurely on a plainly fractured planet. The jurisprudential and civilizational origins of this radically decentralized world lie expressly in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a foundational treaty that put a codified end to the Thirty Years War. But, now, anarchy is potentially more portentous than ever before, owing largely to the unprecedented fusion of chaos with authentically apocalyptic weaponry.
In the worst case scenario, even with the United Nations and its associated international community, there will be no safety in arms, no rescues from political authority and no reassuring answers from science. New wars will rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and until all things human are leveled in a more or less primal disorder. “The worst,” once remarked Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.”
In history and world politics, the “worst” is a very old story. So, too, is anarchy. Chaos, however, is not. There is a meaningful difference, especially for Israel in the “New” Middle East.
Let me explain. Chaos and anarchy may actually represent opposite end points of the same global continuum. Perversely, perhaps, mere anarchy, or the absence of central world authority, is “normal.” Chaos, however, is sui generis. It is, therefore, thoroughly “abnormal.”
Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can be described as a system. What happens in any one part of this world, therefore, necessarily affects what happens in some, or all, of the other parts. When a deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation to another, the corrosive effects can utterly undermine regional and/or international stability. When this deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects would be correspondingly immediate and overwhelming. These effects would be chaotic.
Aware that even an incremental collapse of remaining world authority structures will impact its few friends as well as its many enemies, Israel’s leaders will need to heed Durrenmatt’s incontestable observation about the “worst,” and advance certain precise and plausible premonitions of collapse in order to chart durable paths to survival. Such an indispensable awareness is likely not yet in place. Instead, the principal paths under serious diplomatic consideration in Jerusalem still seem to concern the misconceived and badly twisted cartographies of the road map.
Once again, especially if they should pay heed to the viscerally disingenuous suggestions of such clever pundits as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Israel’s leaders will waste precious time on purely ritualistic considerations of doomed American “peace plans.” Instead, they should consider how Israel ought to respond to international life in a global state of nature.In this connection, the specific triggering mechanism of our disassembling world’s incremental descent into chaos could originate from a variety of different mass-casualty attacks against Israel, and/or from similar attacks against other western democracies. Even the traditionally powerful United States, now suffering huge economic and infrastructure dislocations, would not be immune to this starkly remorseless vulnerability.
(To Be Continued)
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and has lectured and published widely on Israeli security issues for forty years. Born in Zürich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945, he is the author of ten books and several hundred journal articles and monographs in the field. Dr. Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.