Facing Nuclear Madmen? Israel’s Security and Enemy Rationality

By Prof. Louis Rene Beres

“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 often absurd theatre of modern world politics, constructions that rest upon ordinary logic can quickly crumble before madness.

Consider Israel, especially as it may soon have to confront an Iranian nuclear adversary with a potentially “suicidal” preference ordering. Left to proceed unhindered with its ongoing and illegal (under international law) program of nuclearization, Iran’s current leadership (and possibly even a successor “reformist” government in Tehran) could proceed to value Israel’s destruction more highly than even its own physical security. Such a prospect is highly improbable, to be sure, but – if rooted in particular visions of a Shiite apocalypse – it is not inconceivable.

Israel’s ultimate source of national security lies plainly in nuclear deterrence. Although obviously still implicit, and not at all open or acknowledged, this policy that is necessarily based upon enemy rationality could “crumble before madness.” In certain imaginable instances, the result of failed Israeli retaliatory threats could be total destruction.

By definition, the logic of deterrence always rests upon assumptions of rationality. History, however, reveals the persistent fragility of all such assumptions. We know too well that nations sometimes even behave in ways that are consciously self-destructive. Sometimes, perhaps even mirroring the infrequent but decisively aberrant behavior of individual human beings, national leaders choose to assign the very highest value to preferences other than collective self-preservation.

Strange as it may seem, it has happened before, and it will happen again.

For the moment, no single Arab/Islamic adversary of Israel would appear to be conclusively irrational. No current adversary appears ready to launch a major first-strike against Israel using weapons of mass destruction (in the future, this calculation could include nuclear weapons) with the recognition that it would thereby elicit a devastating reprisal. Of course, miscalculations and errors in information could always lead a perfectly rational enemy state to strike first, but this decision, by definition, would not be the outcome of irrationality or “madness.”

Still, certain enemy states, most likely Iran, could one day decide that “excising the Jewish cancer” from the Middle East would be worth the costs, any costs. In principle, this improbable prospect might be avoided by Israel with timely and pertinent “hard target” preemptions, but any such expressions of what is known under authoritative international law as “anticipatory self-defense” are presently difficult to imagine. This difficulty lies in myriad operational limitations (today, all Iranian nuclear assets are deeply hardened, widely dispersed, and substantially multiplied), and also in expected political costs. For now, this means that : (1) a tactically successful Israeli preemption must remain very unlikely; and (2) any preemption, even a tactical failure, would elicit overwhelming and possibly unendurable public and diplomatic condemnation.

Interestingly, a “bolt-from-the-blue” CBN (chemical, biological or even nuclear) attack upon Israel that is launched with the expectation of city-busting reprisals would not necessarily exhibit irrationality or madness. Within such an attacking state’s particular ordering of preferences, a presumed religious obligation to annihilate the “Zionist Entity” could simply represent the overriding value. Here, from the standpoint of the prospective attacker’s authoritative decisional calculus, the expected benefits of producing such annihilation would exceed the expected costs of any expected Israeli reprisal. Judged from this critical standpoint, therefore, a seemingly “crazy” attack decision would be perfectly “logical.”

To better understand this scenario, an enemy state with these particular sorts of exterminatory orientations could represent the individual suicide bomber in macrocosm. It is a powerful image. Just as individual Jihadists are now manifestly willing to achieve “martyrdom,” so might certain Jihadist states become willing to sacrifice themselves collectively.

In one more or less likely variation of this scenario, it is conceivable that Iranian or other Arab/Islamic leaders making the decision to strike at Israel would be willing to make “martyrs” of their own peoples, but not of themselves. In this significant decisional variation, 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 families) were themselves already underway to a predetermined albeit still earth-bound safe haven.

There would be no alluring visions of paradise in these particular enemy calculations.

So, what is Israel to do? It can’t very well choose to live, indefinitely, with enemies who might not always be reliably deterred by usual threats of retaliation, and who are themselves armed with weapons of mass destruction. Jerusalem can’t readily decide to preempt against selected Iranian or other threatening military targets, as the tactical prospects of success would now be very remote, and because the global outcry (even in Washington) would be deafening. It cannot place more than partial faith in anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which, after all, would require a near-100% reliability of intercept to be purposeful in any “soft-point” protection of Israeli cities.

The essential strategic opportunities still available to Israel now seem very limited, and the existential consequences of failure could effectively include national extinction. What, then, shall the Government of Israel do?

Here is one suggestion. If Israel’s enemies were all presumably 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 productively exploit the strategic benefits of pretended irrationality. Recognizing that in certain strategic situations it can be rational to feign irrationality, Jerusalem could then work to create more cautionary behavior among its relevant adversaries. In such cases, for example, the threat of an Israeli resort to a “Samson Option” could be enough to dissuade an enemy first-strike. Recalling the ancient Chinese strategist, any more explicit Israeli hints of “Samson” could indicate a very useful grasp of Sun-Tzu’s good advice to always diminish existential reliance on defense, and, instead, to “seize the unorthodox.”

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

Israel could benefit from a greater understanding of the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” but only in special 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 far-reaching political settlements (President Obama still talks enthusiastically of the Road Map and Mitchell Plan), this belief is born largely of frustration and naïve self-delusion, and not 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 and openly in very many Arab/Islamic newspapers and texts.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. What is Israel to do? “In the end,” we may learn from the great classical poet, Goethe, “we depend upon creatures of our own making.” What, then, shall Israel “make?”

To begin, Israel must fully 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, must be to identify this operative 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 could still be deterred by threats aimed toward what they do hold to be most important.

What, then, might be most important to Israel’s prospectively irrational enemies, potentially even more important than their own physical survival as a state? One possible answer is the avoidance of shame and humiliation. Another would be avoidance of the unendurable charge that they had somehow defiled their most sacred religious obligations. Still another would be leaders’ avoidance of their own violent deaths at the hand of Israel, deaths that would be attributable to Israeli strategies of “targeted killing” and/or “regime-targeting” by Jerusalem. This last suggestion may be problematic, however, to the extent that being killed by Jews for the sake of Allah could be regarded as a distinct positive. In this connection, we must recall that there is no greater form of power in world politics than power over death. Dying for the sake of Allah could be regarded in certain contexts as a clerically-blessed passport to heaven-bound immortality.

These tentative answers are only a beginning; indeed, they are little more than the beginning of a beginning. Strategic problems are fundamentally intellectual problems. What is needed, now, is a sustained and conspicuously competent intellectual effort to answer such questions in much greater depth and breadth.

Clearly, Israel, in the future, will need to deal with both rational and irrational adversaries. In turn, these enemies will be both state and sub-state actors. On occasion, Israel’s leaders will even have to deal with various complex and nuanced combinations of rational and irrational enemies, sometimes simultaneously.

Israel must prepare to deal with “nuclear madmen,” both as terrorists and as national leaders, but, at the same time, it must fashion a suitable plan for dealing with nuclear adversaries who are neither mad nor irrational. With such an imperative, Israel must do everything possible to enhance its deterrence, preemption, defense and war-fighting capabilities. This means, inter alia, enhanced and explicit preparations for certain “last resort” operations.

Concerning any prospective contributions to Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could serve to convince certain would-be attackers that 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 “counter value” (counter-city) in mission function.

The Samson Option, by definition, would be executed with counter value-targeted nuclear weapons. It is likely that any such last-resort operations would come into play only after all Israeli counterforce options had 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 could 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 counter value force posture. In almost any event, the time to end Israel’s “bomb in the basement” policy will soon be at hand.

Similar to Samson’s plausible impact upon Israeli nuclear deterrence, 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 actually impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear warfighting options.

Concerning prospective contributions to Israel’s nuclear war fighting options, preparations for a Samson Option could convince enemy states that 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 counter value-targeted Samson weapons are additional to its counterforce-targeted war fighting weapons. Without such a communication, any preparations for a Samson Option could impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear warfighting options.

Undoubtedly, as was formally concluded by Project Daniel more than seven years ago (see Israel’s Strategic Future, the Report of Project Daniel), nuclear warfighting should always be avoided by Israel wherever possible. But, just as undeniably, there are some circumstances in which such exchanges could be unavoidable. Here, some form of nuclear warfighting 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 also the implausibility of (c) and (d).

“Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?” This opening question from Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV does have considerable and immediate relevance to Israel’s existential dilemma. At the same time, the mounting strategic challenge to Israel will assuredly and primarily come from enemy decision-makers who are not-at-all mad, and who are altogether rational. With this in mind, Israel will need to promptly fashion a comprehensive and suitably-calibrated strategic doctrine 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 evident and indisputable survival goals. It would also take close account of the possible interactions between these strategic options, and of the determinable synergies between all conceivable enemy actions directed against Israel. Figuring out these particular interactions and synergies will be a computational task on the very highest order of intellectual difficulty.

Nuclear strategy is a “game” that sane and rational people can and must play, but to compete effectively and purposefully, a 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 and glaringly uncertain forms of assessment, but they also constitute an utterly indispensable foundation for Israel’s long-term security.

“For by wise counsel,” we learn from Proverbs (24, 6), “Thou shalt make thy war.”

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LOUIS RENÉ BERES is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he is the author of ten books and several hundred published articles dealing with Israeli security matters, including SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1986). Professor Beres served as Chair of “Project Daniel,” a private small-group effort to counsel former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on existential nuclear threats to Israel. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.

Copyright by Professor Louis Rene Beres

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