"STRATEGIC BALANCE"
IN THE MIDDLE EAST:
AN INJURIOUS CONCEPT

By Louis Rene Beres

The Jaffee Center at Tel-Aviv University has recently released its annual report on "strategic balance in the Middle East." This year the report indicates that the strategic balance in this volatile area is clearly tipped in Israel's favor. Consequently, argues Center Director Shai Feldman, author of the report, violent attacks by the Palestinians will not escalate to regional war.

It is a nice argument, resting upon a nice metaphor. For centuries, after all, the idea of an equilibrium between states has been accepted as indispensable to management of world power. When there is a favorable power "balance," we are informed, there is "stability." There is only one problem with this nice metaphor. IT IS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT AND ERRONEOUS. Even worse, it creates serious misunderstandings of what is truly important in processes of war avoidance, leading certain states - in this case the exceptionally imperilled State of Israel - to overestimate their security.

Israel, says Shai Feldman, now enjoys a very favorable strategic balance with its adversaries. Israel's deterrent power, we learn from the report, "remains robust, serving as a barrier against escalation to a regional war." Moreover, says Feldman, the strategic gap favoring Israel continues to widen, especially in areas of technologies that are critical to optimal employment of military force. Paramount among Israel's advantages, we are told, are air power, intelligence systems (including space-based intelligence assets) and ballistic missile defense. In contrast to the Israel Defense Force (IDF), Feldman notes, all Arab armies lag in the realms "that allow the successful execution of ground, naval and air operations."

Only false comfort will be generated by such rationality-based optimism. Little of value is understood by this report. Sadly, Israel's enemies do not think precisely like analysts at the Jaffee Center. As a result, they may calculate the cost-effectiveness of many military options that are ruled out by Feldman's deference to "balance." Indeed, the IDF may be superior on all measurable fronts - even perhaps to any combination of Arab/Islamic armies - but if enemy states do not cooperatively recognize this superiority, or are annoyingly indifferent to it, they may still attack. If Feldman is correct, such an attack may indeed prove less than gainful for the attacker(s). But this will offer little consolation to the thousands of Israelis who are injured and who will perish because Arab states refused to think according to unimaginative rules of the Jaffee Center.

There is always great danger for Israel in presuming too much Reason in enemy decision-making. In the Islamic Middle East the use of violence within and between states is sometimes self-propelled, effectively supplanting Clausewitz with De Sade. A general argument has been made convincingly by Milan Kundera. Describing a sheer force of violence that wills to assert itself as force, he talks about this force as "naked, as naked as in Kafka's novels....The aggressivity of force is thoroughly disinterested; unmotivated; it wills only its own will; it is pure irrationality."

There exists, among Israel's enemies, a voluptuousness all their own; the voluptuousness of war against the Jewish State as such. It is in Israel's strategic interest not to lose sight of this unmeasurable voluptuousness. It is vastly more helpful to this interest than concocted images of "balance." Israel's enemies, for the most part, are not guided strictly by Clausewitz. They are, increasingly, animated by far more primal needs and expectations.

"Men as a rule willingly believe what they want to believe." So says Julius Caesar in THE GALLIC WAR. For Israel, the impact of Caesar's insight became very evident on October 6, 1973, with the start of the Yom Kippur War. Until then, the country had been committed to something known generally as "the concept," the KONTZEPTZIYA, the contrived idea that the Arabs were unwilling and incapable of renewing hostilities against the Jewish State. Based upon data-backed presumptions of a favorable military balance for Israel, the IDF Intelligence Branch (Aman) concluded, until October 5, 1973, that war was "highly improbable" or "improbable."

The Jaffee Center report, if taken seriously, will lead Israel toward another MEHDAL, to a monumental intelligence blunder. The report speaks of "balance" and "power," but misunderstands entirely both concepts. Israel's overall strategic advantage can never be sustained by superior forces. From the standpoint of credible deterrence, even dramatically superior Israeli forces could fail to prevent enemy first-strikes. Conversely, even substantially inferior Israeli armed forces could conceivably convince enemy states that the expected gains of striking first would be exceeded by the expected costs. DETERRENCE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH A BALANCE OF POWER.

None of this is to suggest that the Jaffee report is incorrect in arguing for an Israeli strategic "edge," but rather to indicate that the truest measures of power in world politics are often much more nuanced and subtle than meticulous comparative measurements of military assets. In this connection, Feldman fails completely to recognize the potentially decisive synergies between Arab terrorism and Arab war against Israel. According to the report: "...the difficulties entailed in addressing the challenges of Palestinian violence do not erode Israel's overall strategic advantage." A far more correct understanding would reveal that persistent Arab terror attacks upon Israel greatly undermine that country's faith in its own leadership. Further, this Arab strategy of attrition weakens Israel's self-confidence and resolve, bit by bit, until its declining morale and collective well-being are eroded altogether. At this point, Arab strategy will shift from attrition (terrorism) to annihilation (war) - a shift expressing profoundly important interactions that had been ignored by an Israeli strategic community focused narrowly upon neatly-fashioned considerations of "balance."

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LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) is now Professor of International Law, Department of Political Science, Purdue University and has lectured and published widely on international relations and international law.
BERES@POLSCI.PURDUE.EDU



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