ISRAEL'S ULTIMATE FEAR:
"IRRATIONAL" NUCLEAR ENEMIES
By 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 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 precarious dependence (however implicit) upon nuclear deterrence, this suggests that security built upon threats of retaliatory destruction could fail altogether.
For the moment, no single Arab/Islamic adversary of Israel would appear to be irrational. That is, no such adversary would appear to be ready to launch a major first-strike against Israel with weapons of mass destruction - in the future, possibly even nuclear weapons - in the expectation that it would 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, Iraq and Iran come immediately to mind, could ultimately decide that "excising the Jewish cancer" from the Middle East would be worth the costs, however massive. In principle, this prospect might be avoided by Israel by timely "hard target" preemptions, but such expressions of anticipatory self-defense (the term used in international law) are now exceedingly problematic for both tactical and political reasons.
Strictly speaking, an Iraqi and/or Iranian "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 these states' particular ordering of preferences (that is, their particular hierarchy of wants), 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 Israeli reprisal, however overwhelming the latter.
To a certain extent, an enemy state with such orientations would represent the individual suicide bomber writ large. Just as tens of thousands of young Arab males are willing to die to achieve "martyrdom," so might certain individual states be willing to sacrifice themselves to fulfil the presumed will of Allah. In the second case, however, it is conceivable that Iraqi and/or Iranian 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 alright to sacrifice huge portions of their respective populations, but only while the leaders were already underway to Switzerland or Saudi Arabia.
What is Israel to do? It can't very well choose to live, indefinitely, with enemies who 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 Iraqi and/or Iranian military targets because the tactical prospects of success are very remote and because the global outcry would be deafening. It assuredly cannot rely upon the United States, which - in the context of such Arab/Islamic first-strikes, would be helpful only in helping to bury a million Jewish dead. And it cannot place too much faith in anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which would require a near-100% reliability of intercept to be purposeful (an inconceivable requirement).
The opportunities available to Israel are very limited; the consequences of failure are nothing short of 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 pretend irrationality, it could 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 feigned irrationality. This is the case because the more probable Israeli threat of massive counterstrike associated with irrationality would be no more compelling to Iraq and/or Iran 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 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 Iraq and Iran (and soon to include "Palestine"). 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 assassination 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's established centers of strategic studies. Rather, it must take place wherever informed and intellectually capable friends of Israel can be found.
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. Professor Beres's work is well-known to Israel's academic, military and intelligence communities. BERES@POLSCI.PURDUE.EDU