By Louis René Beres
In every traditional military lexicon, strategies of international deterrence automatically assume enemy rationality. In the absence of rationality – that is, in those more-or-less residual circumstances where an enemy state might rank order certain preferences more highly than “staying alive” as a nation – deterrence is necessarily expected to fail. Regarding those inherently more serious and complex circumstances involving nuclear deterrence, the plausible consequences of failure could be catastrophic.
They could even prove to be unprecedented.
Dealing with sub-state or terrorist adversaries presents a somewhat different and potentially even more hazardous set of nuclear deterrence risks. By definition, these increasingly hard-line adversaries (e.g., ISIS, Hezbollah) generally do not have sovereign national territories to protect (Palestinian Hamas has a sort of quasi-sovereign status in Gaza). Their core objectives are also apt to include “martyrdom,” a faith-driven preference that is plainly inauspicious for maintaining orthodox Israeli deterrence strategies.
The basic problem is easy to recognize. Certain beleaguered states in the Middle East already have to deal with ISIS, Hezbollah, and related adversaries that may never habitually conform to the ordinary definitions of decisional rationality in world politics. This quality is far more portentous than a merely inconvenient truth. It represents a potentially existential peril.
For the most part, at least for now, nuclear deterrence should continue to be examined and assessed in Israel vis-à-vis national or state adversaries, not sub-state enemies. Moreover, irrationality, it must be understood, is not the same as “crazy,” or “mad,” and must always be systematically differentiated from these imprecise and common-sense terms. Israeli strategic planners must expressly understand that even an irrational enemy leadership could still maintain a distinct and identifiable hierarchy of preferences, albeit one in which national survival does not predictably rank at the top.
Using correct strategic terminology, professional military analysts would likely report that such irrational state actors still exhibit an ordering of preferences that is “consistent,” “instrumental,” and “transitive.” In principle, therefore, even certain “irrational” states could be rendered subject to alternative forms of deterrence. For any state that must rely more-or-less on threats of retaliatory destruction, correctly recognizing such “forms” could prove indispensable to its core national security.
By definition, a genuinely “crazy” or “mad” leadership would have no discernible order of preferences. Its strategic actions and interactions would expectedly be random and unpredictable. It follows that facing a crazy or mad adversary in world politics is substantially “worse” than confronting “just” an irrational adversary. Although it might still be possible and even reasonable to attempt deterrence of an irrational enemy, there would be little or no point to seeking such protections against a seemingly “mad” one.
“Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman,” inquires playwright 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 bewildering theater of modern world politics, a drama that routinely bristles with absurdities, strategic decisions that rest upon logic can quickly crumble before madness. Corresponding dangers may reach the most singularly threatening or existential level. This is the case whenever madness and a nuclear weapons capability would overlap.
Pertinent strategic questions of rationality and irrationality are not narrowly theoretical. On the contrary, they are profoundly real and current, especially in the still- adversarial dyad of Israel and Iran. Because the “international community” could never agree to undertake an appropriately preemptive action (“anticipatory self-defense,” in the formal language of law), and had committed itself, instead, to the futile diplomacy of the July 2015 Vienna Pact, Jerusalem could still have to face an effectively genocidal Iranian nuclear adversary.
All along, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has understood that Iran’s senior leadership could, at least at some point, value Israel’s physical destruction more highly than its own national survival. Should this calculation actually happen, the “play” would end very badly for all the “actors,” including the “victorious” Iranians.
For the foreseeable future, Israel’s ultimate source of national security will assuredly have to lie in some pattern or other of sustained nuclear deterrence. Whether still deliberately ambiguous or newly disclosed, this Israeli “bomb in the basement” could expectedly “crumble before madness.” This suggests that in certain easily-imaginable instances involving aberrant enemy behavior, the outcome of failed Israeli retaliatory threats could sometimes include irremediable harms.
All things considered, while the logic of deterrence has traditionally required an assumption of rationality, history also reveals the persistent fragility of any such theoretical expectation. We already know all too well that nations can behave in ways that are consciously and conspicuously self-destructive.
Mirroring the generally unpredictable behavior of individual human beings, national leaders could sometimes assign the very highest value to preferences other than collective self-preservation, thereby producing a sort of Gotterdammerung or “Twilight of the Gods” scenario. Until now, of course, we have not ever witnessed such a scenario, involving nuclear weapons or corollary nuclear doctrine. Nonetheless, our tormenting species’ specifically nuclear history is very new and conspicuously untested.
Shall we be reassured? For the moment, at least, no single Iranian or other Islamic national adversary of Israel would appear to be genuinely irrational or mad. Harsh enemy rhetoric notwithstanding, no such adversary actually appears ready to launch a first-strike against Israel using weapons of mass destruction. For now, moreover, the plausible expectation that any such aggression would elicit a devastating reprisal is seemingly sufficient to prevent an attack.
Still, by their very nature, strategic calculations are enormously complicated. In this connection, faulty calculations or errors in information could lead a perfectly rational enemy state to strike first; this particular attack decision would not be the outcome of irrationality or madness. Technically, all strategic judgments of rationality and irrationality must be rooted in ascertainably prior intent.
In world politics, there can be no greater power than power over death. Within this conflictual realm, things move perpetually in the midst of death, and amid closely related hopes for immortality. Accordingly, certain enemy states, perhaps most likely Iran, could one day decide that excising the “Jewish cancer” or, more generally, the “enemies of Allah,” would be worth incurring even the most staggering costs.
From a purely military standpoint, this genocidal prospect might be reduced or avoided if Israel should be willing to undertake certain eleventh-hour “hard target” preemptions. All things considered, however, any such once-reasonable expressions of anticipatory self-defense would now be very difficult to imagine or find cost-effective.
A meaningfully successful preemption is now plausibly beyond Israel’s cumulative military capabilities. This does not mean that Israel would be operationally incapable of destroying a required number of Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures, but only that the net costs of any such self-defense venture would very likely exceed the net gains.
The JCPOA 14 July 2015 Vienna Pact notwithstanding, virtually all critical Iranian nuclear assets have already been deeply hardened, widely dispersed, and substantially multiplied. For Israel, there would also be considerable political costs attached to any residual preemption. Unquestionably, a preemptive attack, even one that could become an operational failure, would elicit overwhelming shouts of both public and diplomatic condemnation. Such expectedly deafening howls of execration could surely factor into Israel’s overall decisional process.
For Israel, it is plausible that certain alternative forms of preemption, including targeted assassination of nuclear scientists, and/or cyber defense/cyber-warfare, could still be useful, or even necessary, but it is also unlikely that any such options could permanently obviate more traditionally expedient resorts to massive military force.
A “bolt-from-the-blue” CBN (chemical, biological or even nuclear) attack upon Israel that is launched with an expectation of city-busting reprisals might not exhibit irrationality or madness. Within such an attacking state’s particular ordering of preferences, any presumed religious obligation to annihilate the “Zionist Entity” could itself represent the overriding value. From the standpoint of the prospective attacker’s decisional calculus, the expected benefits of producing any such “blessedly” apocalyptic annihilation would exceed the expected costs of any expected Israeli reprisal.
Judged from this critical analytic standpoint – the perspective of the would-be attacker – a seemingly “mad” attack decision could still “make sense.”
An enemy state that exhibits such explicitly-exterminatory orientations could effectively represent the individual suicide bomber in macrocosm. Whether we like it or not, it is a realistic and heuristic image. Just as individual Jihadists (both Shiite and Sunni) are now expressly willing to achieve personal “martyrdom,” so might certain Jihadist states become willing to collectively “sacrifice themselves.”
More nuanced scenarios need to be explored. Any Iranian or Arab leaders making the fateful decision to strike massively at Israel could prove willing to make “martyrs” of their own people, but not of themselves. In this very ethically “asymmetrical” narrative, it would be judged “acceptable” by these leaders to sacrifice more-or-less huge portions of their respective populations, but only while they and presumably their own families were allowed to flee to some predetermined, albeit still earthly, safe haven. These leaders, we should expect, could find moral justification and personal comfort in the “knowledge” that all identifiably Islamic victims were destined for a still better place.
What is Israel to do? It can no longer rely on even the most creative forms of preemption/anticipatory self-defense. It also can’t very well choose to live, indefinitely, with dedicated theological enemies who might not always be subject to the more usual threats of retaliation, and who would themselves be armed with weapons of mass destruction. Living indefinitely under a nuclear sword of Damocles could prove more than most Israelis would be willing to accept.
Moshe Dayan once declared: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” If Israel’s enemies could all still be presumed rational, that is, in the ordinary sense of valuing their physical survival more highly than any other preference, or a combination of preferences, Jerusalem could soon begin, among other things, to exploit certain latent strategic benefits of pretended irrationality. Recognizing that in certain strategic situations, it can be rational to feign irrationality, Israel could then work systematically to create more appropriately cautionary behavior among its relevant adversaries. In such cases, the threat of an Israeli resort to a “Samson Option” might be adequate to dissuade an enemy first-strike.
Recalling Sun-Tzu, more explicit Israeli hints of “Samson” could indicate an impressively useful grasp of the ancient Chinese strategist’s advice to diminish reliance on defense, and, instead, to “seize the unorthodox.” In this connection, it should not be forgotten that even Israel’s highly-refined and interpenetrating systems of active defense could never achieve a 100% reliability of ballistic missile interception. Although not generally understood, the Arrow and related BMD systems are needed primarily to enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence (hard-point defense) and not for substantially large-scale soft-point defense of civilian populations.
At the same time, Israel is making extraordinary progress in relevant laser technologies. One overriding challenge here will be the certain expansion of asymmetrical conflicts that involve conflicts with terrorist organizations as well as enemy states, sometimes simultaneously. For Israel, a pertinent sub-set of this challenge will be developing suitable laser-based defenses against various “hybrid” adversaries, and also calculating whether nuclear weapons use elsewhere in the world could correspondingly erode still-inhibiting nuclear taboos in the Middle East. At present, for example, it looks very much like the first actual military use of nuclear weapons in the world would involve North Korea, and/or Pakistan and India.
All this should bring Israeli planners back to certain core questions of enemy rationality. What about Dayan’s earlier advice? If Israel’s identifiable national adversaries were presumptively irrational in the ordinary sense, there would likely be no real benefit to any assumed Israeli 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 an expectedly rational State of Israel.
Pretended irrationality can “work” only vis-à-vis fully rational adversaries. 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 more-or-less calculable circumstances where such enemy states were presumed to be irrational, something else could be needed, something other than nuclear deterrence, preemption, and/or active defense.
Although many commentators and scholars still believe the answer to this quandary lies in certain diplomatic or political settlements, this time-dishonored belief is one born largely of frustration. Sigmund Freud, who would have best understood the great attraction of power over death in world politics, would likely call such belief an “illusion,” or an example of “wish fulfillment.”
Going forward, Israel must understand, inter alia, that irrationality need not imply madness. Even an irrational state leadership could maintain an instrumental, consistent, and transitive hierarchy of wants. The first deterrent task for Israel must 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 dissuaded by certain other threats aimed at what they do hold to be most important.
What might be most important to Israel’s prospectively irrational state enemies, potentially even more important than their own physical survival as a state? One possible answer is the avoidance of certain forms of presumed apostasy, shame, and humiliation. This would include avoiding the potentially unendurable charge that they had somehow defiled their most sacred religious obligations.
Another would be leaders’ strongly-preferred avoidance of their own violent deaths at the hand of Israel, deaths that could be attributable to Israeli strategies of “targeted killing,” and/or “regime-targeting.” In these cases, the particular Islamic leaders would not themselves have been persuaded by the usually compelling benefits of “martyrdom.” This last suggestion could be problematic to the extent that, theologically, being killed by Jews for the sake of Allah ought doctrinally to be regarded as a distinct positive.
Dying for the sake of Allah, as planners should recall, could be regarded in these leadership contexts as a clerically-blessed passport to immortality.
In the future, facing increasingly high levels of possible destruction, Israel will need to deal with both rational and irrational adversaries. These enemies, in turn, will be both state and sub-state actors. On occasion, Israel’s leaders will also have to deal with various complex and subtle combinations of rational and irrational enemies, sometimes even simultaneously.
Ultimately, Israel must also prepare to deal with “nuclear madmen,” both as terrorists and as national leaders. But, first, it must fashion a suitable plan for dealing with nuclear adversaries who are neither mad nor irrational. With such an imperative, Israel should now do everything possible to enhance its deterrence, preemption, defense, and war-fighting capabilities. This means, among other things, enhanced and explicit preparations for certain “last resort,” or “Samson” operations.
Concerning any prospective contributions to Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could serve to convince certain would-be attackers that their anticipated aggression would not be gainful. This is especially true if such Israeli preparations were combined with certain levels of disclosure, that is if Israel’s “Samson” weapons were made to appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes and if these weapons were identifiably “countervalue” (counter-city) in mission function.
The Samson Option, by definition, would be executed with countervalue-targeted nuclear weapons. It is likely that any such last-resort operations would come into play only after all Israeli counterforce options had already been exhausted.
Concerning the previously mentioned “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a national willingness to take existential risks, but this would hold true only if Israeli last-resort options were directed toward rational adversaries.
Concerning prospective contributions to preemption options, preparations for a Samson Option could convince Israeli leaders that their own defensive first-strikes would be undertaken with diminished expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This sort of convincing would depend, at least in part, upon antecedent Israeli government decisions on disclosure (that is, an end to “nuclear ambiguity”); on Israeli perceptions of the effects of disclosure on enemy retaliatory prospects; on Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons’ vulnerability; and on an enemy awareness of Samson’s countervalue force posture. In any event, the optimal time to end Israel’s bomb in the basement policy, and thereby replace “deliberate ambiguity” with appropriate forms of disclosure, will soon be at hand.
Similar to Samson’s plausible impact upon Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable last-resort preparations could enhance Israeli preemption options by displaying a clear and verifiable willingness to accept certain existential risks. In this scenario, however, Israeli leaders must always bear in mind that pretended irrationality could become a double-edged sword. Brandished too flagrantly, and without sufficient nuance, any Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could sometimes impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear war-fighting options.
Concerning prospective contributions to Israel’s nuclear war fighting options, preparations for a Samson Option could convince enemy states that accomplishing a clear victory over Israel would be impossible. With such reasoning, it would be important for Israel to communicate to potential aggressors the following very precise understanding: Israel’s countervalue-targeted Samson weapons are additional to its counterforce-targeted war-fighting weapons. Without such a communication, any preparations for a Samson Option could conceivably impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear war-fighting options.
Undoubtedly, nuclear war fighting, wherever possible, should be avoided by Israel. The true purpose of Israel’s nuclear forces and doctrine must always be deterrence ex-ante, not revenge ex-post.
There still remain some readily identifiable circumstances in which nuclear exchanges could be unavoidable, whatever Israel might actually have done to prevent them. Here, some forms of nuclear war-fighting could ensue, so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes launched against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) conventional Israeli preemptive strikes would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capability; and (d) Israeli retaliations for enemy state conventional first strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.
From the standpoint of protecting its overall existential security, this means that Israel must take appropriate steps to ensure the plausibility of (a) and (b), above, and the implausibility of (c) and (d).
“Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?” Repeating this pertinent question from Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV does have immediate relevance to Israel’s existential dilemma. At the same time, the mounting strategic challenge to Israel will come primarily from enemy decision-makers who are not-at-all mad, and who are still more-or-less rational.
Promptly, Israel will need to fashion a comprehensive and suitably-calibrated strategic doctrine, one from which various specific policies and operations could readily be extrapolated. This focused framework would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence, preemption, active defense, strategic targeting, nuclear war fighting) with basic survival goals. It would also take close account of the possible interactions between these strategic options, and of determinable “synergies” between all conceivable enemy actions directed against Israel. Actually calculating these particular interactions and synergies will present a computational task on the very highest order of intellectual difficulty.
Nuclear deterrence is a “game” that Israel’s national leaders must play, but to compete effectively, any would-be winner must always first assess (1) the expected rationality of each critical opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality oneself. These are undoubtedly complex, interactive, synergistic, and glaringly imprecise “forms” of assessment, but, just the same, they constitute a much-needed foundation for Israel’s long-term security. Doctrinally, therefore, it is already time for them to become an integral part of Jerusalem’s aptly revitalized Order of Battle.
Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.
Article posted in it’s entirety with permission from Professor Beres