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Israel’s urgent strategic imperative

By Louis René Beres

“Whenever the new Muses present themselves, the masses bristle.”
— Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art

It is hard to understand at first, but Israel’s survival is linked to certain core insights of the great Spanish existentialist philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset. Although he was speaking to abstract issues of art, culture, and literature, Ortega’s insights can be extended productively to very concrete matters of world politics. More precisely, just as there must take place periodic “revolutions” in the way that we humans look at beauty (Ortega’s intended argument), there must also appear new ways of understanding national strategies.

Strategic theories, like theories of art, are essentially a “net.” In war and peace, only those who cast will catch. Moreover, this net must be constantly re-woven and refined. Without a carefully derived and markedly innovative system of theory, the IDF will be unable to conform its critical order of battle to the constantly changing and increasingly lethal correlation of forces mustering on the regional battlefield.

Not all of the staggering IDF planning problems are purely theoretical or conceptual. Even where strategic studies proceed on a sound intellectual foundation — for example, one that would involve appropriately dialectical reasoning, rather than merely sterile accumulations of collected data — they will still need to remain sheltered from unsound political judgments. This lack of sheltering was the real problem back in the “old days” of Oslo, and it is still likely to be a source of concern in the current intellectual climate of a US-endorsed Road Map.

Yet another expression of utterly twisted cartography, the politics-driven Road Map could quickly override even the most sophisticated and otherwise promising directions of Israeli strategic studies.

What needs to be done?

First, Israeli strategists must look directly, unhesitatingly, and relentlessly at their country’s manifestly existential threats, and then identify these particular threats, promptly and openly, as the primary object and rationale of their inquiries. They must, therefore, reveal an unambiguous hierarchy of what is now most important to safeguard and secure, and display a subsequent obeisance to the determined rank-orderings of this effectively “sacred” hierarchy.

Second, Israeli strategists must fully understand, and without any further delay, that Israel is a system; that existential threats confronting Israel are themselves interrelated; and that the complex effects of these interrelated threats upon Israel must be examined together.

Third, Israeli strategists must understand that the world arena is best understood as a system, and that any disintegration of power and authority structures within this wider macro-system will impact, with more-or-less enormous and at-least partially foreseeable consequences, the Israeli micro-system. Since the seventeenth-century and the Peace of Westphalia (1648), all world politics have been anarchic. Still, anarchy is not the same as chaos. How shall Israel prepare to survive in a world of growing chaos?

Fourth, Israeli strategists must consciously and conspicuously turn away from too-much “prudence,” that is, from altogether too-mainstream kinds of strategic analyses. For the moment, these assessments may please their designated military and political advocates, but they could nonetheless remain potentially valueless, or even counter-productive, for vital Israeli policy formations.

A principal assumption of current Israeli strategic studies is the always idée fixe of rationality in enemy calculations. Because the functioning of nuclear deterrence necessarily depends upon this core assumption, Israeli strategists consequently turn away from any unexpected circumstances in which rationality would not be expected to operate. The predictable and dangerous result is that Israeli strategic studies may now accomplish too-little to prepare the political leadership in Jerusalem for increasingly probable confrontations with irrational enemy states, or with equally-irrational state proxies.

Naturally, Israeli strategists must soon acknowledge, more forthrightly, the still-conceivable fusion of a non-rational leadership in Tehran, with a nuclear military capacity. This combination, after all, could produce what amounts to a suicide-bomber writ large. However, irrationality is not the same as madness; such national decision-makers would value certain preferences more highly than continued national survival.

Fifth, Israeli strategists, in their work, must learn to consider seemingly irrelevant literature, not the mundane and narrowly technical materials normally generated by American strategists, but the authentically creative and artistic product of writers, poets, and playwrights. The broad intellectual insights that can be gleaned from such serious literature can provide a fundamentally better source of strategic understanding than the visually-impressive, but often misleading matrices, mathematics, metaphors, and scenarios of our military “experts.”

Sixth, Israeli strategists need to recognize the distinct advantages of private as opposed to collective academic thought. There is a suitably correct time for collaborative or “team” investigations, but in certain matters concerning Israeli security, we may sometimes discover greater conceptual value in the private musings of certain talented single individuals, than in the combined efforts of entire academic centers.

Seventh, Israeli strategists now need to open up, again, and with far greater diligence and formal insight, the question of nuclear ambiguity. Here it must be understood that examining the “bomb in the basement” is not merely a matter of belaboring the obvious, but rather one of optimally exploiting appropriate and variable levels of nuclear disclosure, for purposes of enhanced nuclear deterrence, and, quite possibly, non-nuclear preemptions.

Eighth, Israeli strategists still need to widen their consideration of the broader national questions of nuclear weapons and national strategy. Key issues will be those of nuclear targeting doctrine, and ballistic missile defense. Corollary concerns should center on investigations of the “rationality of pretended irrationality” (a strategy that may now already be underway in North Korean nuclear posturing), and on more-or-less explicit intimations of a refined “Samson” doctrine.

Ninth, Israeli strategists must cease their contemplation of an end to national existence as a purely objective consideration. These strategists can somehow contemplate the literal end of Israel in their formal studies, and still persevere quite calmly in their most routine day-to-day affairs. This ironic and potentially counterproductive juxtaposition would no longer be the case if these flesh-and-blood scholars could begin to contemplate the very moment of Israel’s collective disappearance.

Tenth, Israeli strategists should pay special attention to the compelling requirements of scholarly audacity — to steer clear of the comfortable intellectual middle-ground. Individual strategists will need to take risks, both personal and professional, in finding serious policy answers to the vital strategic questions. From the beginning, Israelis have generally exhibited remarkable and even unique levels of personal bravery in war. As yet, however, there have been substantially fewer evident examples of “bravery” in Israeli strategic scholarship. For the most part, this scholarship has been narrowly technical and viscerally imitative of its American antecedents.

Israel has always had to travel along precipices. From the beginning, therefore, its overriding obligation has been to somehow keep its balance. Now, when still-growing and sometimes intersecting sources of instability present themselves, this obligation can best be met by accepting certain new and more creative forms of strategic scholarship. In the end, Israel’s fate will hang upon its willingness to accept and refine “new Muses” in all areas of its indispensable strategic thought.

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of ten books and several hundred scholarly articles dealing with international relations and international law. He has lectured and published widely on strategic matters in Israel, Europe, and the United States. Professor Beres’ writings also appear in many major newspapers and magazines, including US News & World Report and The Atlantic.

If you are interested in this subject, you may be interested in The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present, edited by John Andreas Olsen and Colin S. Gray. It focuses on grand strategy and military strategy as practiced over an extended period of time and under very different circumstances, from the campaigns of Alexander the Great to insurgencies and counter-insurgencies in present-day Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Image credit: chess board with figure. Image by DusanJankovic, iStockphoto.

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