Looking Ahead in Jerusalem: Systematizing Future Nuclear Threats

In looking ahead to prospective nuclear threats, especially from Iran, Israeli military strategists must proceed systematically, with a properly fashioned analytic template that accounts for both the rationality and intentionality of all pertinent enemy decision-makers. Opinion

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: AP)

"Theory is a net; only he who casts will catch." (Novalis)

For the moment at least, prima facie, Israel faces no nuclear adversaries. Plausibly, however, this reassuringly favorable asymmetry will not last forever. Moreover, when it does eventually come to an end, and this cessation almost certainly with particular regard to Iran, Jerusalem should already be prepared with a suitable decisional template. This systematic template would then be necessary for blunting or perhaps even removing a now unprecedented nuclear threat.

By definition, any such prospectively future security hazard could reveal certain genuinely existential properties.

To properly prepare for any still-impending nuclear adversary (later, for example, there could arise one or several Sunni Arab state nuclear foes), Israel must approach this expectedly multi-layered threat from a suitably disciplined perspective. This means, inter alia, factoring into any coherent Israeli nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of principal decision-makers in Tehran or elsewhere and also in Jerusalem; and (b) the foreseeably intentional or unintentional intra-crisis behaviors of these same national decision-makers.

In Jerusalem, it is already time to be substantially scientific, or – using the more narrowly precise terminology of German poet Novalis as embraced by philosopher of science Karl Popper (see Popper's classic text, The Logic of Scientific Discovery) – to be more demonstrably theoretical. If a very basic dichotomous distinction is made regarding both the rationality and intentionality variables, four logically possible and intellectually useful categories/scenarios will result.

In time, these potentially instructive narratives could prove indispensable to fashioning Israel's long-term security policies. Accordingly, they should be carefully prepared and closely examined by the Prime Minister's aptly senior planners and strategists. Thereafter, all four resultant models could be still further nuanced or finessed by the introduction of certain additional factors. Understood in the languages of methodology or philosophy of science, these additional factors would be correctly known as "intervening variables."

To begin, we may consider the following:

(1) Rational/Intentional: Both Israeli and enemy leaders are fully rational (i.e., each values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences), and any nuclear exchange between them would be the ascertainable result of fully deliberate decision choices by one or both of the pertinent decision-makers.

(2) Rational/Unintentional: Both sets of leaders are fully rational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of certain unintended decision choices made by one or both of them.

(3) Irrational/Intentional: Either Israeli or enemy leaders, or both, are irrational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of still fully deliberate decisional choices made by one or both.

(4) Irrational/Unintentional: Either Israeli or enemy leaders, or both, are irrational, and any nuclear exchange between these adversarial leaders would necessarily be the outcome of certain unintended decisions made by one or both.

In such bewilderingly complex strategic matters, nothing could be more practical than good theory. Always, such comprehensive policy explanations could help guide Jerusalem beyond otherwise vague or "seat-of-the-pants" appraisals of any future adversarial nuclear conflict possibilities. Under no circumstances should such multi-sided crisis possibilities be treated or reciprocated on an (implicitly or explicitly) ad hoc basis.

The key reason for this prescription is textbook-simple. Science-based probabilities must be drawn from the discernible frequency of relevant past events. In these cases at hand, however, there are no such relevant past events.

Any nuclear crisis between Israel and enemy states would be utterly unique or sui generis. It follows, among other things, that Israel's Prime Minister and his principal national security advisors ought never to become overly-confident about predicting future nuclear crisis outcomes, or even about their own presumed expertise in being able to handle such starkly conceivable crises.

In essence, and by definition, there are no experts in such matters. Logically, no one in Jerusalem or Tehran (or for that matter, in Washington or Moscow) could meaningfully be an expert on nuclear war. For Israel, especially, the cautionary core significance of this observation should never be underestimated.

Still, for Jerusalem, there is much more to assess.

Capable Israeli strategic analysts must enhance their planned nuclear investigations by identifying both the basic distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks resulting from the different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. Accordingly, those analysts who would remain too completely focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could underestimate the more salient and cumulative enemy nuclear threat to Israel.

One additional conceptual distinction must now be mentioned and then suitably inserted into any Israeli analytic "mix." This is the subtle but still serious difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. To wit, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be certain recognizable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be accidental.

Most critical are those significant errors in calculation committed by one or both or several sides – more-or-less reciprocal errors that could sometime lead directly and inexorably to an expressly nuclear conflict. The most blatant example here would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that might emerge during the course of any one particular crisis escalation. Such misjudgments would plausibly stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage during any competition in nuclear risk-taking.

In more obviously strategic parlance, this would mean a more-or-less conspicuous multi-party search for "escalation dominance."

For achieving a good start in this sort of required theorizing, Israeli analysts would first need to pinpoint and conceptualize all vital similarities and differences between deliberate nuclear war, inadvertent nuclear war, and accidental nuclear war.

There would then also need to be various related judgments concerning identifiable expectations of both rationality and irrationality within each affected country's core decision-making structure. Correspondingly, a potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could sometime be a failed strategy of "pretended irrationality." A posturing Israeli prime minister who had too "successfully" convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

In more specifically legal or jurisprudential terms, this enemy might then choose to identify (either reasonably or unreasonably) the already-launched preemption as permissible "anticipatory self-defense."

"Played" in the other direction, an Israeli leadership that had begun to take very seriously an enemy leader's self-declared unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first itself. In this alternate case, Jerusalem would become the preempting party that could then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. In any such circumstances, those Israeli strategists charged with fashioning an optimal strategic posture should consciously recall Carl von Clausewitz's oft-quoted warning (in On War) concerning "friction."

This famously "Clausewitzian" property represents the unerringly vital difference between "war on paper" and "war as it actually is."

Also possible, amid any such chess-like strategic dialectics, the first "game" (above) might end not with an enemy preemption, but instead with Israel deciding to "preempt the preemption." Here, Israeli decision-makers, sensing the too-great "success" of their own pretended irrationality, might quickly foresee the enemy's consequent insecurity, and then decide to "strike first before they strike first."

Clearly, in all such exceedingly complex narratives, there would be appropriate cause for concern about encountering any "infinite regress problem." Once again, in this connection, if the game were played in the other direction, it might sometime end not with an Israeli preemption generated by overriding fears of enemy irrationality, but rather with an enemy first-strike intended to preempt a then-anticipated Israeli preemption.

To be sure, none of these dialectical calculations are for the intellectually faint-hearted; nonetheless, they can be minimized or disregarded only at very great existential peril.

One final point warrants mention. Staggering dialectical complexities notwithstanding, and irrespective of any partial or comprehensive orientations to any prospective nuclear crisis, a future Israeli posture of feigned or pretended irrationality is not inconceivable. Years ago, in exactly this regard, the then Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, coyly declared: "Israel must be seen (by its enemies) as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." Looking ahead, such seemingly "out-of-the-box" Israeli security postures are manifestly uncertain or problematic, but they are not self-evidently "out-of-the-question."


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. 

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