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U.S. Foreign Policy Threats to Israel’s National Security: Strategic Imperatives for Jerusalem

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Though U.S. President Donald Trump describes himself as pro-Israel, any seriously analytic assessment of his foreign policies would point toward a different conclusion. On the surface, of course, Mr. Trump’s earlier transfer of America’s embassy to Jerusalem, his recent acceptance of Israel’s established West Bank settlements and his undiminished rhetorical support of Israel’s overall security posture suggest a sympathetic U.S. administration. Still, however unwitting or unintentional, the actual expected consequences of Trump foreign policies are sorely injurious for Israel, not gainful.

As for the tangible dangers posed by these policies, they could be sudden and immediate or incremental and long-term.

For doubters, core examples are readily available. These include the American president’s strengthening of certain leading Sunni Arab military forces (as a presumptive counter-vailing power to Shiite Iran) and his declared U.S. departure from Syria. Already, this staged withdrawal is emboldening Hezbollah.

At this particular stage, for Israel, the well-organized Shiite militia supervised from Tehran poses a greater overall strategic threat than any traditional Arab army. In specific reference to a commonly perceived threat from Iran, Saudi and Egyptian military objectives are now more closely aligned with Israeli security goals than once might have even been thought possible. Still, in predictably short order, those Sunni Arab states joined together in a common Trump-led struggle against Shiite Iran could falter in their apparent allegiance. Any such substantial weakening could be triggered by altogether reasonable fears that a US-generated war with Iran would produce irrecoverable harms.

 One unintended corollary of any such Sunni-Arab weakening could be a more militarily capable and worrisome regime in Teheran and Moscow.

All things considered, and however one might choose to analyze Israel’s dynamic geopolitical challenges[1] – a task that must inevitably prove both multi-layered and expansively complex[2] – Donald Trump’s foreign policies will remain determinably “net-negative” for the country’s national security.[3] Upon considered reflection, the American president’s conspicuous policy declarations concerning Israel’s “eternal capital,” its West Bank settlements and its enduring access to conventional arms transfers will provide few if any strategic benefits to Israel. Moreover, from an international law perspective, these declarations will prove essentially irrelevant.[4]

In Israel, it is time to inquire: what is the bottom line? The correct response? It is that the Trump presidency, even if well-intentioned toward the Jewish State, lacks sufficient intellectual resources. Longer-term, this seat-of-the-pants or “doctrine-free” American administration is likely to become as darkly injurious for Israel as it has already become for the United States. This U.S. presidency, after all, believes more in “attitude, than preparation;” in virtually all matters of substance, it remains determinedly anti-historical and anti-intellectual. Also, this presidency is glaringly unconcerned about peremptory human rights, as evidenced, inter alia, by Trump’s flagrantly open abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies.

For Israel, the salient message here should be clear. This abandonment should stand as an unambiguous warning against placing too much faith in American security pledges or commitments, especially during the persistently dissembling “Trump Era.”

There is more. From the start, North Korean nuclear negotiations have been mismanaged by Trump; correspondingly, Pyongyang continues to expand and modernize its advanced nuclear weapons missile programs.[5] While the American president has repeatedly drawn false comfort from “falling in love” with Kim Jung Un (a demonstrably unrequited love), the North Korean dictator makes any once-credible hopes for “complete denuclearization” unassailably nonsensical.

Similarly, Mr. Trump’s unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the July 2015 JCPOA pact concerning Iran has accelerated that adversarial state’s worrisome nuclearization. Ominously, too, fearful strategic nuclear/hypervelocity missile developments are expanding in Russia, a superpower foe which sees in this unreflective American president an optimally convenient surrogate for achieving Moscow’s national military goals.

The principal reason for identifying the unreliability/unpredictability of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy for Israeli security is intellectual. Persistently, wittingly, Donald Trump has revealed a near-total lack of historic or strategic understanding, and a derivative disregard for all constitutive elements of civilized international relations.[6] In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the following  critical question ought soon be posed:

Should those officials responsible for meeting Israel’s security obligations place their existential bets on such evidently fragile analytic foundations?

It’s not a complicated question.

The comprehensive security dilemma for Israel posed by U.S. President Trump is augmented by various similarly serious jurisprudential deficits. These legal shortcomings include an apparent unconcern for certain “peremptory” obligations of national and international law.[7]  Without suitable embarrassment, this president has argued that he maintains a personal right to override US Constitutional expectations concerning birthright and US citizenship, and that the US had properly terminated its codified obligations under the INF Treaty with Russia.

Regarding the specific matter of this president’s INF Treaty termination, which was not ipso facto illegal, the deleterious security outcome could still prove multi-faceted and broadlyoverwhelming.

More concretely, this more-or-less negative outcome could be made manifest in certain measurable or indecipherable increments, or rather in sudden “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attacks. Often, because the foreign and defense policies of nation-states are not only intersecting, but “synergistic” (situations wherein the “whole” would be greater than the aggregate sum of its “parts”), these attacks would not necessarily stem directly from Russia.[8] Instead, they could represent a derivative but by no means insignificant nuclear involvement of North Korea.

One conceivably plausible outcome of various Trump-induced misunderstandings will be a continuously-expanding nuclear arms race between the superpowers.[9]  For Israel in particular, any such corrosive expansion could spawn serious “spillover” risks for itself and for the wider Middle East.[10] Taken together, these mutually-reinforcing risks would concern incessant destabilization, terror and war, and could present in many possible configurations and/or synergistic interactions.[11]

 President Donald Trump’s earlier “seat-of-the-pants” withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA pleased his political “base” at home, but it also enlarged the overall Iranian nuclear threat to Israel.[12]  Looking back, even if the JCPOA had been a manifestly imperfect agreement – a reasonable judgment – it did not necessarily follow that unilateral abrogation would be in America’s or Israel’s best interest. Once again, the major problem here with Donald Trump’s strategic assessment was that it was wholly devoid of any logical or persuasively analytic underpinnings.

It derived from “attitude, not preparation.”

There is more. For Israel, there is a relevant early history. Then, openly, presidential candidate Donald Trump had advised “killing the families” of terrorists and being less openly concerned about humanitarian international law –  that is, about the civilizing rules of engagement found collectively at the Law of War or the Law of Armed Conflict.[13] In essence, inter alia, heeding this president’s lawless counsel on such a salient matter would have amounted to a US reversal of incontrovertible Nuremberg Principles.[14]

Such a law-violating reversal would carry unforeseeable but still fearful consequences involving nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

All things considered, Israel now faces a unique and markedly complex dilemma. Whatever the logical underpinnings and determined coherence of its own unilateral foreign policies, President Donald Trump’s continuing missteps with Syria,[15] Iran, Russia, China, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and certain still-compliant European allies will further destabilize the Middle East – directly or indirectly; and suddenly or incrementally. Whatever Jerusalem should decide to do or not to do about the “big picture” – a security vision that must include the tangible emergence of “Cold War II”[16] – this unsteady region could slip irretrievably into ever-deeper levels of authentic “chaos.”[17]

The most presently meaningful question for Jerusalem should concern whether this slippage is apt to be the immediate result of some Trump-generated catastrophe, or whether it will manifest itself instead in certain calculable and episodic bouts of Trump policy-induced suffering.

With this query in mind, one critical issue must concern imperative re-evaluations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”[18]

To date, the “bomb-in-the-basement” policy has made eminently good sense for Israel.  Presumptively, both friends and foes already recognize that Israel possesses significant nuclear capabilities that are (1) survivable; and (2) capable of penetrating any determined enemy’s active defenses. For these adversaries not to acknowledge these capabilities would require a very hard-to-explain and implausibly generalized intellectual deficit.

Going forward, what should Israel do about its vital nuclear posture? How, exactly, should this traditionally ambiguous stance be adapted to the convergent and inter-penetrating threats of potentially still-impending Middle Eastern/North African revolutions, a nuclear Iran,[19] and Israel’s justifiably constant concern about negotiating useful agreements with various state[20] and sub-state (terrorist) organizations.[21]

The conventional wisdom routinely assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of merely holding nuclear weapons. By this argument, removing Israel’s nuclear bomb from the “basement” would only elicit new waves of global condemnation, and would do this without returning any commensurate benefits.

History, however, reveals that the conventional wisdom is often unwise. The pertinent strategic issues for Israel are not at all simple or straightforward.  Instead, in the inherently arcane world of Israel’s nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states merely acknowledge the Jewish State’s nuclear status. Instead, it is important that these states further believe that Israel holds usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would be willing to employ such weapons in certain definably clear circumstances.[22]

Still to be generated Trump instabilities in the Middle East could create more good reasons to doubt that Israel would benefit from any uninterrupted continuance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain apparent developments within Israel’s intersecting defense and intelligence communities, that the country’s senior leadership already understands such informed skepticism. To best augment such an understanding, however, Israel’s nuclear strategists should proceed interrogatively – in effect, creating a continuously self-refining “strategic dialectic” from which suitable answers and policies could be incrementally extracted and/or systematically deduced.[23]

This will call for refined “preparation,” not “attitude.”

One basic point now warrants reiteration.  Israel is imperiled by existential threats that fully justify its nuclear weapons and that require a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. This basic need exists beyond any reasonable doubt. After all, without such weapons and doctrine, Israel could not expectedly survive over time, especially if certain neighboring regimes should sometime become still more adversarial, more jihadist and/or less risk-averse.  

Israeli nuclear weapons and purposeful nuclear doctrine could prove vital to those more-or-less predictable scenarios requiring preemptive action or suitable forms of retaliation.

Generically, military doctrine describes how a country’s national forces would fight in various recognizable combat operations. The literal definition of doctrine derives from the Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Though generally unanticipated, the full importance of doctrine lies not only in ways that it can animate and unify military forces, but also in the particular fashion that it can transmit certain desired “messages.” In other words, doctrine can serve a state (especially an endemically beleaguered state such as Israel) as a critical form of communication, and to its friends and foes alike.

Israel could benefit from any such broadened understandings of doctrine. The principal risks facing Israel are now more specific than broadly general or benignly generic. This is because Israel’s extant adversaries in the region could at some point be joined by: (1) a new Arab state of “Palestine;”[24] and by (2) a newly-nuclear Iran.  In the presumptively worst case,  any such inauspicious “joining” would take place at the same time.[25]

For Israel, merely possessingnuclear weapons, even when fully recognized by pertinent enemy states, could never by itself ensure successful deterrence. In this connection, though starkly counter-intuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve the overall credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.  With this key point prominently in mind, the injurious potential of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be reduced by making selectively available certain additional information.

This additional information would concern the security of Israel’s nuclear weapon response capabilities.

Carefully limited yet helpfully more explicit, it would center on distinctly major and inter-penetrating issues of Israel’s nuclear capability andits decisional willingness.

 Skeptics, no doubt, will disagree. It is, after all, seemingly sensible to assert that nuclear ambiguity has “worked” thus far. Arguably, while Israel’s current nuclear policyhas done little to deter multiple conventional terrorist attacks, it has plainly succeeded in keeping that country’s enemies, whether singly or in collaboration, from mounting any existential aggressions.

Inevitably, as the nineteenth-century Prussian strategic theorist, Karl von Clausewitz, observed in his classic essay, On War, there can come a military tipping point when “mass counts.” Israel, of course, is very small.  Its enemies have always had an undeniable and irreversible advantage in “mass.”   Perhaps even more than any other imperiled state on earth, Israel needs to steer clear of any such tipping point.[26]

For the several reasons already mentioned, this imperative is more compelling in the Trump years than before, even if the American president is more expressly “pro-Israel” in his rhetoric and policy formulations than his predecessor.

 An integral part of Israel’s multi-layered security system lies in effective ballistic missile defenses, primarily, the Arrow or “Hetz.” Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully-tested Arrow, augmented by the newer, shorter-range and systematically-integrated operations of “Iron Dome,” “David’s Sling,” and various related active defenses, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to adequately protect Israeli civilians. No system of missile defense can ever be entirely “leak proof,” and even a single incoming nuclear missile that manages to penetrate Arrow or its corollary defenses could conceivably kill tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Potentially, this fearful reality could prove less consequential if Israel’s continuing reliance on deliberate ambiguity were suitably revised or altered.

 In essence, current Israeli policy of maintaining an undeclared nuclear capacity is unlikely to work indefinitely. Leaving aside a jihadist takeover of nuclear Pakistan,[27] the most obviously unacceptable “leakage” threat would come in the future from a nuclear Iran. To be effectively deterred, any newly-nuclear Iran would then need certain convincing assurances that Israel’s atomic weapons were both invulnerable and penetration-capable.

Any Iranian judgments about Israel’s capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would then depend largely upon some prior Iranian knowledge of these weapons, including their perceived degree of protection from surprise attack and their presumed capacity to “punch-through” certain relevant Iranian defenses, both active and passive.

A nuclear weapons-capable Iran may already be a fait accompli. For whatever reasons, neither the “international community” in general nor Israel in particular has managed to create sufficient credibility to undertake timely preemptive action. Plausibly, any such critical defensive action would have required various complex operational capabilities, and could have generated manifestly unacceptable Iranian counter actions.

It is likely that Israel has already undertaken some very impressive and original steps in cyber-defense and cyber-war, but even the most remarkable efforts in this direction would not be enough to stop Iran altogether. The sanctions sequentially leveled at Tehran over the years have had an economic impact, but  they have also had no determinable impact in halting Iranian nuclearization altogether or stopping Tehran’s discernible enhancements of intercontinental ballistic missile potential.

In time, a nuclear Iran could decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah or with another kindred terrorist group.To prevent this destabilizing sharing, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran, inter alia, that Israel possesses a useful range of distinctly usable nuclear options.  Accordingly, Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be loosened by releasing certain very general information regarding the availability and survivability of appropriately low-yield weapons.

Israel should now be calculating (vis-à-vis a prospectively nuclear Iran) the exact extent of subtlety with which it should consider communicating key portions of its nuclear positions.[28] Naturally, Israel should never reveal any very specific information about its nuclear strategy, hardening or yield-related capabilities.

One more point. An Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would not help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy. It is possible, at least, that certain elements of Iranian leadership might sometime subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shiite apocalypse. By definition, such an enemy would not value its own continued national survival more highly than every other preference or combination of preferences.           

Were its leaders to be or turn non-rational, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm.  Such a challenging prospect is certainly improbable, perhaps even at the very outer fringes of plausibility. But it is also not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect obtains in already-nuclear and residually coup-vulnerable Pakistan.  

To protect itself against military strikes from irrational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.[29]

Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind a so-called Samson Option, which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.[30]

 Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward deterrence, and not war-fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon some implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions.  Israel’s small size means, among other things, that any nuclear attack would threaten Israel’s existence and could never be tolerated.

A Samson Option would make sense only in certain “last-resort” or “near last-resort” circumstances. If the Samson Option is to become part of a genuinely credible national deterrent, an end to Israel’s deliberate ambiguity posture would be essential. The really tough part of this transformational process would be determining the proper timing for any such action vis-à-vis Israel’s core security requirements, and also pertinent expectations of the so-called “international community.”[31]

The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s overriding security objective: Always seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of military conflict.

There is more. In our often counter-intuitive strategic world, it could sometimes become rational to pretend irrationality. The nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend, at least in part, upon a designated enemy state’s awareness of Israel’s intention to apply counter-value targeting when responding to nuclear attack.

But Israeli decision-makers would need to be wary of releasing too-great a level of any specific strategic information. Also worrisome, of course, is that the American president could be perceived as authentically irrational,[32] thereby prodding “anticipatory preemptions”[33] against the US directly, or (depending upon particulars) certain close U.S. allies.  Israel represents a prospectively obvious case in point.[34]

None of this is meant to suggest that an Israeli movement away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity would be prospectively helpful only on matters involving specifically nuclear threats. Plausibly, of course, the credibility and cost-effectiveness of any Israeli nuclear retaliatory threat would be greatest where the expected aggression were similarly nuclear. Still, there are recognizable circumstances in which a determined enemy or coalition of enemies might contemplate launching “only” a devastating conventional first-strike against Israel, and conclude that such an offensive move would be sensible because it would not expectedly elicit an Israeli nuclear retaliation.

In such altogether conceivable circumstances,[35] the enemy state or coalition of enemy states would have concluded that any non-nuclear first strike against a nuclear Israel, however massive, would be perfectly rational. This is because the Jewish State’s anticipated retaliation would presumably stop short of being nuclear.

If, however, the expected aggressor(s) had previously been made aware that Israel was in possession of a wide-array of capable and secure nuclear retaliatory forces, both ion terms of their range and yield, these enemies would more likely be successfully deterred. Here, as a distinctly welcome consequence of various incremental and previously nuanced disclosures, Jerusalem will have signaled its pertinent adversaries that it can and will cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold in order to punish any potentially existential national harms.

In more narrowly military parlance, Israel’s actions here would be designed to better ensure “escalation dominance.” In this scenario, moreover, the relevant nuclear deterrence advantages to Israel of taking certain movements away from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” would lie in the uniquely compelling signal that it sends. This “signal” is that Israel will not necessarily need to retaliate with massive and conspicuously disproportionate nuclear force.

It will have available certain other more readily believable retaliatory options.

Such tangible advantages could also extend beyond the enhancement of credible threats of Israeli nuclear retaliation to supporting credible threats of Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should initiate a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against Iran before that state becomes nuclear capable (not an “aggression,”[36]  but an act of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law[37]), the likelihood of any massive Iranian conventional retaliation could best be diminished if there were certain more openly disclosed and prior Israeli threats of aptly measured nuclear counter retaliations. In essence, and in illuminating historical terms, by following an incremental path away from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” Israel would less likely replicate America’s much earlier nuclear posture vis-à-vis the then Soviet Union, that is a posture of threatening “massive retaliation.”[38]

 In the final analysis, there are various specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of any purposefully selective and incremental end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The optimal time to begin such an “end” may not yet have come. But at the moment that Iran or any other obvious foe would have verifiably crossed the nuclear threshold, that critical time will have arrived.  Moreover, should that critical moment come, Israel should already have configured (1) its optimal allocation of nuclear assets; and (2) the precise extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed.

 Significantly, such preparation could meaningfully enhance the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture.

A fully-recognizablesecond-strike nuclear force should then be revealed. Of necessity, such a robust strategic force – hardened, multiplied, and dispersed – would be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran or another prospective nuclear adversary, so long as it is led by presumptively rational decision-makers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.

To more comprehensively protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel still has no logical alternative to developing an always- problematic conventional preemptionoption.[39] Operationally, especially at this very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of any success against multiple hardened and dispersed targets. Regarding deterrence, however, it is also noteworthy that “irrational” is not nearly the same as “crazy” or “mad.”[40] An irrational enemy leadership could successfully maintain national preference orderings or hierarchies that are both consistent and transitive.

Even an irrational leadership could sometime be subject to threats of deterrence that credibly threaten certain deeply held religious as well as public values. The principal difficulty, for Israel, is to routinely ascertain the precise nature of these core enemy values. Should it sometime be determined that an Iranian leadership were genuinely “crazy” or “mad,” that is, without any decipherable or predictable ordering of preferences, all usual deterrence “bets” could necessarily give way to preemption.     

By definition, such vital determinations would be strategic, rather than jurisprudential. From the discrete standpoint of international law, and perhaps in view of Iran’s occasionally genocidal threats against Israel, a preemption option could still represent a fully permissible expression of anticipatory self-defense.[41] Again, this purely legal judgment would be separate from any parallel or coincident assessments of operational success. For now, at least, these assessments all point overwhelmingly to the avoidance of any still-residual preemption option.[42]

Whether or not a prompt or incremental shift from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to express nuclear disclosure is indicated will depend upon several very complex and interdependent factors. These factors include the specific types of nuclear weapon involved; the presumed reciprocal calculations of designated enemy leaders (state and sub-state); the expected effects on rational decision-making processes by these enemy leaders; and the expected effects on both Israeli and adversarial command/control;/communication processes. Correspondingly, if bringing Israel’s bomb out of the “basement” were ever expected to produce selected enemy pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority and/or new and seemingly less stable launch-on-warning procedures, the likelihood of certain unauthorized or accidental nuclear wars could be increased.

In many ways, growing instability in the Middle East is the plausible outcome of  US President Donald Trump’s disjointed foreign policies.[43] Such instability, in turn, could heighten the potential for assorted expansive and prospectively unconventional wars. Israel, it follows, must continue to prepare capably to upgrade its strategic posture, especially its national military nuclear strategy and its corollary longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.

 Otherwise, recalling the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Israel and America could sometime have to bear witness to abundantly measureless lamentations; that is, to the irremediably grievous observation that because of once-avoidable US White House derelictions, “…. the center cannot hold.”


[1] See, for example, latest INSS Strategic Survey (Israel): https://www.inss.org.il/publication/conclusion-strategic-assessment-policy-recommendations/

[2] “Whenever the new Muses present themselves,” says Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, “the masses bristle.” See Ortega’s The Dehumanization of Art (1925) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), p. 7.

[3] A 2016 monograph published in Israel examines Israel-American strategic relations from the opposite direction; that is, it considers the impact of Israel’s nuclear strategy on US national security. See Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security, Tel-Aviv University, Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, December 2016:  https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf 

[4] In all such scholarly examinations of any nation-state’s security policy, operational issues must be carefully distinguished from jurisprudential ones. Accordingly, Trump US foreign policy decisions could prove harmful to certain Israeli military operations, but helpful to that country’s legal position in one setting or another, or vice-versa.

[5] Earlier, North Korea had assisted Syria in constructing a nuclear reactor, the same facility that was destroyed by Israel in it Operation Orchard on September 6, 2007. Although operationally unlike Israel’s earlier (June 7, 1981) Operation Opera, this second preemptive attack in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria was also an expression of the so-called “Begin Doctrine.”

[6] Even in the midst of an historic or “Westphalian” anarchy in international relations, there obtains a dominant jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This fundamental expectation is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[7] Under international law, the idea of a Higher Law – drawn originally from the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews – is contained, inter alia, within the principle of jus cogens or peremptory norms. In the language of pertinent Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969: “A peremptory norm of general international law….is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole, as a norm from which no derogation is permitted, and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” Also worth pointing out here is that international law is always an integral part of US law, an incorporation that can be found both in the US Constitution (especially at Article 6, “The Supremacy Clause”) and at various US Supreme Court decisions, most famously at The Pacquete Habana (1900).

[8] Still, the US force withdrawal from Syria will plausibly exacerbate risks of a direct Israel-Russia confrontation. See, on this scenario:  https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Avoiding-an-Israeli-Russian-conflict-in-Syria-after-US-withdrawal-577015  More generally, this withdrawal will enhance Russian power and influence in the Middle East, a deleterious consequence for Israel that may or may not accurately reflect Trump’s intentions. Though it would first appear prima facie absurd that an American president would actually seek to expand rather than curtail Russian military power, such an expectation would be fully consistent with several other unexpected policy positions taken by Trump vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin.

[9] See Louis René Beres, “Nuclear Treaty Abrogation Imperils Global Security,” Yale Global Online November 1, 2018   https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/nuclear-treaty-abrogation-imperils-global-security

[10] Risks threatening Israel’s security may form an intricately interconnected network. Purposeful assessments of such risk must always include a patient search for possible synergies and for potential cascades of failures that would represent an especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties within this genre that will warrant careful assessment include contagion potential and persistence.

[11] The worst case scenario here brings to mind utterly core queries of the ancient Greek tragedian: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?” (1 The Complete Aeschylus: The Oresteia 146, Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds., 2nd ed., 2011).

[12] Regarding earlier strategic assessments of prospective nuclear threats from Iran, see Louis René Beres and John T. Chain (General/USAF/ret.), “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran”? The Atlantic, August, 2012; and also: Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[13] In large measure, the law of armed conflict is concerned with the principle of proportionality, which has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, or the law of exact retaliation. Specifically, the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” posture can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah or Biblical Pentateuch.

[14] These Principles – like the Nuremberg trial judgment itself – are based fundamentally upon natural law. In turn, the very idea of natural law is based upon the acceptance of certain principles of right and justice that prevail solely because of their own intrinsic merit.  Eternal and immutable, they are external to all acts of human will and interpenetrate all human reason.  This idea and its attendant tradition of human civility runs continuously from Mosaic Law and the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present day.  For a comprehensive and far-reaching assessment of the natural law origins of international law by this writer, see Louis René Beres, “Justice and Realpolitik:  International Law and the Prevention of Genocide,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 33, 1988, pp. 123-159.  (This article was adapted from Professor Beres’ earlier presentation at the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, Tel-Aviv, Israel, June 1982.)

[15] For Israel, Mr. Trump’s disjointed plan to pull US forces from Syria can only be disadvantageous. See, earlier, https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Avoiding-an-Israeli-Russian-conflict-in-Syria-after-US-withdrawal-577015

[16] Hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of just such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[17] See this writer’s latest book, Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[18] In regard to the core underlying issue –  Israel’s right to develop and deploy nuclear weapons – the following point is worth emphasizing: No state is under any per se legal obligation to renounce its own access to nuclear weapons; under certain markedly residual circumstances, moreover, even an actual resort to such weapons could conceivably be lawful. On July 8, 1996, the International Court of Justice handed down its Advisory Opinion on “The Legality of the threat or Use of Force of Nuclear Weapons.” The closing paragraph of this Opinion concludes, inter alia: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”

[19] On these core points, see: Israel’s Strategic Future: Project Daniel, The Project Daniel Group (Louis René Beres, Chair), Ariel Center for Policy Research, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, Israel, May, 2004. This special report was delivered by hand to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003 by Ambassador Zalman Shoval. The Group’s six members were: Professor Louis René Beres (Chair); Naaman Belkind, former Assistant to the Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense for Special Means; Major-General /Professor Isaac Ben-Israel (IDF/ret.); Dr. Rand Fishbein; Dr. Adir Pridor, Lt. Colonel (ret.), Israel Air Force, and Head of Military Analyses, RAFAEL, Israel; and Colonel (ret.), Israel Air Force and Member of Knesset, Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto.

[20] The agreements that put an end to the first Arab-Israeli War (1947-1949) were general armistice agreements negotiated bilaterally between Israel and Egypt on February 24, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 251-70, 1949); Israel and Lebanon on March 23, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 287-98. 1949); Israel and Jordan on April 3, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 303-20, 1949); and between Israel and Syria on July 20, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 327-40, 1949). 

[21] Regarding the antecedent legal obligations of certain sub-state or insurgent surrogates, Israel must remain wary about signing pacts resembling the Oslo Agreements, inter alia, because such agreements can impose unequal obligations. In this connection, several U.S. federal court decisions affirm that legal agreements between sub-state and state parties may even impose asymmetrical compliance expectations. More precisely, in the case of Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, a 1981 civil suit in U.S. federal court wherein the plaintiffs were Israeli survivors and representatives of persons murdered in a terrorist bus attack in Israel in 1978, Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards opined: “…I do not believe the law of nations imposes the same responsibility or liability on non-state actors, such as the PLO, as it does on states and persons acting under color of state law.”

[22] There are two recorded incidents in which an explicit reference was made to Israel’s “bomb” by a prime minister, but neither of these events went beyond a purely vague and general commentary. On December 22, 1995, then Prime Minister Shimon Peres had declared to the Israeli press that Israel would be willing “to give up the atom” in exchange for peace. Years later, on December 11, 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert uttered a very similar remark.

[23] The base term, “dialectic,” originates from the Greek expression for the art of conversation. A common contemporary meaning is method of seeking truth by correct reasoning. From the standpoint of shaping Israel’s nuclear strategy, the following representative operations could be regarded as essential but nonexclusive components: (1)a method of refutation conducted by examining logical consequences; (2) a method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species; (3) logical reasoning using premises that are probable or generally accepted; (4) formal logic; and (5) the logical development of thought through thesis and antithesis to fruitful synthesis of these opposites.

[24] Some Israeli supporters of a Palestinian state argue that its prospective harms to Israel could be reduced or even eliminated by ensuring that new state’s immediate “demilitarization.” But for informed reasoning contra this argument, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and Ambassador Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vo. 28., No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

[25] For much earlier writings by this author concerning the prospective impact of a Palestinian state on Israeli nuclear deterrence and Israeli nuclear strategy, see: Louis René Beres, “Security Threats and Effective Remedies: Israel’s Strategic, Tactical and Legal Options,” Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel), ACPR Policy Paper No. 102, April 2000, 110 pp; Louis René Beres, “After the `Peace Process:’ Israel, Palestine, and Regional Nuclear War,” DICKINSON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 15, No. 2., Winter 1997, pp. 301-335; Louis René Beres, “Limits of Nuclear Deterrence: The Strategic Risks and Dangers to Israel of False Hope,” ARMED FORCES AND SOCIETY, Vol. 23., No. 4., Summer 1997, pp. 539-568; Louis René Beres, “Getting Beyond Nuclear Deterrence: Israel, Intelligence and False Hope,” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF INTELLIGENCE AND COUNTERINTELLIGENCE, Vol. 10., No. 1., Spring 1997, pp. 75-90; Louis René Beres, “On Living in a Bad Neighborhood: The Informed Argument for Israeli Nuclear Weapons,” POLITICAL CROSSROADS, Vol. 5., Nos. 1/2, 1997, pp. 143-157; Louis René Beres, “Facing the Apocalypse: Israel and the `Peace Process,'” BTZEDEK: THE JOURNAL OF RESPONSIBLE JEWISH COMMENTARY (Israel), Vol. 1., No. 3., Fall/Winter 1997, pp. 32-35; Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why Golan Demilitarization Would Not Work,” STRATEGIC REVIEW, Vol. XXIV, No. 1., Winter 1996, pp. 75-76; Louis René Beres, “Implications of a Palestinian State for Israeli Security and Nuclear War: A Jurisprudential Assessment,” DICKINSON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 17., No. 2., 1999, pp. 229-286; Louis René Beres, “A Palestinian State and Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” CROSSROADS: AN INTERNATIONAL SOCIO-POLITICAL JOURNAL, No. 31, 1991, pp. 97-104; Louis René Beres, “The Question of Palestine and Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” THE POLITICAL QUARTERLY, Vol. 62, No. 4., October-December 1991, pp. 451-460; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Palestine and Regional Nuclear War,” BULLETIN OF PEACE PROPOSALS, Vol. 22., No. 2., June 1991, pp. 227-234; Louis René Beres, “A Palestinian State: Implications for Israel’s Security and the Possibility of Nuclear War,” BULLETIN OF THE JERUSALEM INSTITUTE FOR WESTERN DEFENCE  (Israel), Vol. 4., Bulletin No, 3., October 1991, pp. 3-10; Louis René Beres, ISRAELI SECURITY AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS, PSIS Occasional Papers, No. 1/1990, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland, 40 pp; and Louis René Beres, “After the Gulf War: Israel, Palestine and the Risk of Nuclear War in the Middle East,” STRATEGIC REVIEW, Vol. XIX, No. 4., Fall 1991, pp. 48-55

[26] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had recognized the importance of strategic depth. Although he did not use such a precisely modern term, Sun-Tzu did note expressly as follows: “If there is no place to go, it is fatal terrain.” See Sun-Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 11, “Nine Terrains.”

[27] Pakistan has been tilting more recognizably toward small or tactical nuclear weapons, indicating a growing preference for “counterforce” or nuclear war fighting strategies of deterrence.  Since Pakistan announced its first test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile back in 2011, that country’s emphasis upon smaller nuclear ordnance has been very conspicuously oriented toward the primary deterrence of conventional war.

[28] This also brings to mind the essential “seamlessness” of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. In this connection, see the recent joint article by Professor Beres and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval:  https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[29] “Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz, in his classic discussion of “friction” in On War, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”

[30] See recent article by this author at Modern War Institute, West Point:  Louis Rene Beres, https://mwi.usma.edu/israel-samson-option-interconnected-world/

[31] Comments Emmerich de Vattel in his legal classic, The Law of Nations (1758): “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of nations, is that each nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of the other nations.”

[32] The Israeli nuclear strategist could benefit here from Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s instructive remark about the German philosopher Hegel: “Hegel made famous his aphorism that all the rational is real, and all the real is rational; but there are many of us who, unconvinced by Hegel, continue to believe that the real, the really real, is irrational – that reason builds upon irrationalities.”

[33] The term “preemption” has strategic but not legal meaning. Usually, it references a defensive military strategy that involves striking a presumed enemy first, with the more-or-less carefully calculated expectation that the only determinable alternative is to be struck first itself. A preemptive attack differs from a preventive attack in that the latter is launched merely out of an ongoing concern (whether correct or incorrect) to halt any longer term deterioration in a particular military balance, and not in response to any precise fear of imminent hostilities. As a preventive strike can never be per se permissible under international law, the distinction between preemptive and preventive war is always jurisprudentially important.

[34] Preemption has figured importantly in previous Israeli strategic calculations.  This was most glaringly apparent in the wars of 1956 and 1967, and also in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.  Significantly, it was essentially the failure to preempt in October 1973 that contributed to heavy Israeli losses on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts during the Yom Kippur war, and almost brought about an Israeli defeat.  During January, May, and October 2013, Israel, understandably apprehensive about Damascus’ supply of military materials to Syria’s Hezbollah surrogates in Lebanon, preemptively struck pertinent hard targets within Syria itself. For a jurisprudential assessment of these undeclared but still-appropriate expressions of anticipatory self-defense, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, “Striking Hezbollah-Bound Weapons in Syria: Israel’s Actions Under International Law,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, Online, posted August 26, 2013.

[35] Even in such potentially fearsome circumstances, authoritative law stipulates that Israel must first seek to exhaust all peaceful remedies. A similar jurisprudential imperative can be found in Jewish religious law.  “When thou comest near to a city to fight against it,” proclaims Deuteronomy 20:10, “then proclaim peace to it.”  Maimonides also calls for diplomatic solutions before hostilities begin to milhemet mitzvah (a war commanded by the Torah or Pentateuch): “No war is declared against any nation before peace offers are made to it.”  The biblical commentator Abrabanel (1437-1508) argues not to hurry to go to war.  For more complete examinations of war in the Jewish tradition, consult Efraim Inbar, “War in Jewish Tradition,” The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9, No. 2, June 1987, pp. 83-99.

[36] On the crime of “aggression,” see especially: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[37] For a potentially contra view, see: See Ian Brownlie, International Law and the Use of Force by States, 272-73 (1963) (asserting that the United Nations Charter modified the international custom of anticipatory self-defense and that self-defense is justified only in response to an actual armed attack); Wright, The Cuban Quarantine, 57 AM J. INT’L L. 546, 559-63 (1963) (interpreting Article 51 in conjunction with Article 33 to allow only a “peaceful means” of dispute resolution and a prohibition on the use of unilateral force until an actual armed conflict occurred); L. HENKIN, HOW NATIONS BEHAVE 141-44 (2d ed. 1979) (arguing that the Charter restricts the traditional right of self-defense to those situations where an armed attack has occurred); L. GOODRICH, E. HAMBRO,  A. SIMONS, CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS:  COMMENTARY AND DOCUMENTS 178 (1946) (advocating a restrictive interpretation of Article 51 under which self-defense is only justified in response to an actual armed attack).

[38] Regarding “massive retaliation,” it was followed, in the United States, by the doctrine of “flexible response,” and ultimately evolved into doctrine known as a “countervailing nuclear strategy.”  Codified in Presidential Directive # 59, which was signed on July 25 1980, and later reaffirmed by President Ronald Reagan, this strategy represented the then latest retreat from the core doctrine authoritatively defined by John Foster Dulles on January 13, 1954.  To demonstrate continuing flexibility, the countervailing strategy envisioned a broad array of nuclear retaliatory choices operating within a carefully defined spectrum of deterrence.  See, in this connection, by this author: Louis René Beres, “Presidential Directive 59: A Critical Assessment,” Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College, Vol. XI, No. 1., March 1981, pp. 19-28.

[39] The core point here had already been understood by Israeli strategist and IDF Military Intelligence Head, Yehoshafat Harkabi, back in the mid-1960s. Writing in Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace, Harkabi indicated: “It must be emphasized that the impulse to act first, the competition to preempt, is not a result of aggressive tendencies or bloodlust on either side. It is a defensive action inherent in the very instability of an unfortunate situation, in which survival depends upon opening fire first, or, in other words, upon initiating a surprise attack.” (See Y. Harkabi, Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace, translated from the Hebrew, Israel Program for Scientific Translations, 1966, p. 42).

[40] On madness, see Seneca, 1st Century AD/CE: “We are mad, not only individuals, but nations also. We restrain manslaughter and isolated murders, but what of war, and the so-called glory of killing whole peoples? Man, the gentlest of animals, is not ashamed to glory in blood-shedding, and to wage war when even the beasts are living in peace together.” (Letters, 95).

[41] For the very earliest scholarly commentary by this author on anticipatory self defense under international law, with special reference to Israel, see:  Louis René Beres and (COL./IDF/Res.) Yoash Tsiddon Chatto, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 9., No. 2., 1995, pp. 437 – 449; Louis René Beres, “Preserving the Third Temple: Israel’s Right of Anticipatory Self-Defense Under International Law,”  VANDERBILT JOURNAL OF TRANSNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 26, No. 1.,  April 1993, pp. 111- 148;  Louis René Beres,  “After the Gulf War: Israel, Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  HOUSTON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW,  Vol. 13, No. 2.,  Spring 1991,  pp. 259 – 280;  Louis René Beres,  “Striking `First:’  Israel’s Post Gulf War Options Under International Law,”  LOYOLA OF LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL,  Vol. 14,  Nov. 1991,  No. 1.,  pp. 1 – 24;  Louis René Beres,  “Israel and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  ARIZONA JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW,  Vol. 8, 1991,  pp. 89 – 99;  and Louis René Beres,  “After the SCUD Attacks:  Israel, `Palestine,’ and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  EMORY INTERNATIONAL LAW REVIEW,  Vol. 6,  No. 1.,  Spring 1992,  pp. 71 – 104.  For an examination of assassination as a permissible form of anticipatory self-defense by Israel, see, Louis René Beres, “On Assassination as Anticipatory Self-Defense: The Case of Israel,” HOFSTRA LAW REVIEW, Vol. 20, No. 2., Winter 1991, pp.  321 – 340.  For more general assessments of assassination as anticipatory self-defense under international law by this author, see:  Louis René Beres, “The Permissibility of State-Sponsored Assassination During Peace and War,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1991, pp. 231 – 249;  and  Louis René Beres,  “Victims and Executioners:  Atrocity, Assassination and International Law,”  CAMBRIDGE REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS,  Winter/Spring, 1993.

[42] A related question concerns legality in any ongoing war begun by another state. Here we may recall the opinion of Grotius in his COMMENTARY ON THE LAW OF PRIZE AND BOOTY:  “…it is obvious that a just war can be waged in return, without recourse to judicial procedure, against an opponent who has begun an unjust war; nor will any declaration of that just war be required….  For as Aelian says, citing Plato as his authority–any war undertaken for the necessary repulsion of injury, is proclaimed not by a crier nor by a herald, but by the voice of Nature herself.”  See H. Grotius, DE IURE PRAEDAE COMMENTARIUS, ed., by James Brown Scott, a translation of the original manuscript of 1604 by Gladys L. Williams, with the collaboration of Walter H. Zeydel, New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1964, p. 96.

[43] In this regard, one ought to bear in mind the still-relevant warning of Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Middle East

The battle for Libya: The UAE calls the shots

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s inauguration of a new Red Sea Egyptian military base was pregnant with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, backed by United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Mr. Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Mr. Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to structure the ceasefire so that it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.

The manoeuvres are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the maritime agreement that would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Warning that it would block European Union backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement was in place, Greece was one of the countries Mr. Haftar visited in the days between his rejection of a ceasefire and a conference on Libya hosted by Germany that is scheduled to be held in Berlin on January 19.

Mr. Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month old assault by the field marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) that is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt since it backed Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratic elected president and the Emirates’ determination to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Mr. Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists as well as Turkey, but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is increasingly also coloured by Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it may be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum that also poses a problem for the UAE at a time that Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

Stepping up involvement in Libya risks Egypt becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.

Egypt claims the dam puts a million Egyptian jobs, US$1.8 billion in economic output annually and electricity valued at US$300 million at risk.

The base is aimed at “securing the country’s southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea,” according to a spokesman for Mr. Al-Sisi.

The president has warned that Egypt would take all the necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile waters.

So far, Egypt is banking on mediation helping it avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia were a conflict to erupt.

The question is whether Mr. Haftar, who without signing the ceasefire agreement reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms, and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The United Nations has accused the UAE together with several other countries, including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Mr. Haftar who has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

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Berlin Conference on Libya

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What are the strategic, military and political differences between the war in Libya of  2011-2012 and the current conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya?

There are many differences. The first one is that the powers that started the clash between an ambiguous Cyrenaic “entity”, with strong jihadist connotations (it should be recalled that, also with Gaddafi, Cyrenaica was the greatest geographical area from which the jihadists of the Afghan and Central Asian wars originated) and the Tripolitan entity were, at the time, separate and almost all Western entities. Currently, those who command and rule on the ground in Libya are only formally subject to a droit de regard of other powers outside the Middle East or Asia.

Due to its sloth, the whole of Europe is about to disappear from the Maghreb region and, in the future, from Africa. Moreover, the latter would be the “complementary continent” of the Eurasian peninsula.

 The proxy war between Colonel Gaddafi who, in any case, acted proudly alone, except for a limited Chinese and East Slavic support, and the Jihadist friends of the West in Cyrenaica – where the tradition of specific Islamic radicalism (the Senussite brotherhood) was still strong – was the last operation of the unfortunate and foolish U.S. project of the “Arab Springs”, based on the techniques of “unorthodox, but non-violent and mass warfare” developed at the time by the Albert Einstein Foundation, an association promoted by Gene Sharp in 1983.

As a CIA Vice-Director said, the idea of the “Arab springs” was “to avoid any contact between the Arab crowds and Al Qaeda” and hence to make the Arab crowds turn against the jihad.

Needless to add anything else, History has already taught us its lesson.

Currently the great proxy war has turned into a great operation in which the major points of reference for the forces on the ground in Libya are not ahead, but are strategically following their forces of reference on the ground in Libya.

Because power relations count on the ground while, as Giacomo Leopardi taught us, the “belle fole” are ineffective and illusory.

In the Berlin Conference, General Haftar – the strong man of Cyrenaica’s Government – presents himself with a never fully completed and unsuccessful advance towards Tripoli, in spite of the fact that the UN-sponsored government of al-Sarraj had important defections from the qatibe group of Misrata and that the forces of former Colonel Gaddafi have now reached Tripoli suburbs, as well as in spite of the fact that the financial and operational support from  Egypt – especially now-from the Russian Federation, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has never ceased.

Due to his poor health and to “keep” its troops under control, which could disperse exactly as those of al-Sarraj, General Haftar needs a symbolic, but also politically effective and quick victory against the people of Cyrenaica, once hated by the people of Tripolitania.

 King Idriss II, the last Libyan monarch before Gaddafi’s coup, organized by the Italian intelligence Services, boasted of “having never been to Tripoli”.

Hence Khalifa Haftar, the man who was harshly punished by Colonel Gaddafi himself for his clumsy operation in Chad – the long and decades-long Libyan operation in the South to repel the pro-French forces of Tombalbaye and Hissene Habrè – has not yet won and cannot fail to win in a short lapse of time. Otherwise he becomes irrelevant to its supporters and will lose his social and economic credibility, which is essential in this type of war.

However the Russian Federation, which has openly supported him and which still holds him in high esteem, does not want rash decisions and presses for an agreement with Turkey enabling Russia to act as a real mediator, since Westerners still talk about irrelevant issues with the representatives of al-Serraj, the man still surrounded in his palace on Tripoli’s port, at which h arrived – just appointed by the United Nations without any particular rational reason – by sea, because he knew that he would immediately be taken out or killed in Tripolitania’s airport of Mitiga.

Russia wants to exploit – in a short lapse of time – the strategic void that is on the ground and in Western decision-makers’ minds.

Therefore, it needs a quick agreement between the Libyan parties to exploit the central role played by Russia and hence dictate its own conditions to Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, with which there are other Russian outstanding issues, as well as with the other players in the Gulf, who still do not know how to make the most of the new tension on the ground between the United States and Iran, which could start operating again in Libya through Qatar and, possibly, with its own expeditionary force, organized by the new leadership of the Al Quds Force, full of Syrian Shiites and former collaborators of the Pasdaran Iranian forces in Syria.

Exactly the same as Turkey is doing, by sending – from the Northern Syrian areas currently acquired by Turkey –  the Syrian “Turkish” jihadists, who were created and trained by MIT, i.e. Erdogan’s intelligence Services, to support the “Muslim brother” al-Sarraj.

 In other words, it is the division and/or availability of the proxy players, the fighters on the Libyan ground, which determines the behaviour of their “great” points of reference, not vice versa.

 Furthermore, in the Russian Federation, the new political configuration of the country’s leadership is not irrelevant to Russia’s engagement in Libya.

With his new reform of the representative system and the Russian government, announced on January 16, President Putin wants to reassure himself of the possibility of appointing his future successor, without particular contracts and agreements with other Russian power groups and lobbies.

 The Russian power, which has long been firmly in Vladimir Putin’s hands, now finds itself more divided and less malleable in the hands of the current Kremlin’s nomenklatura.

The latter is changing its skin and is probably also using the street riots against President Putin to push for a new power struggle between Putin’s “heirs apparent”, thus forcing him to make unavoidable choices even in foreign policy.

In the future President Putin probably wants to concentrate on Europe and on the economic transformation of his country and he will be ever less interested in embarking on peripheral adventures than in his primary goal, which will be the internal economic and social reconstruction and the stability of his Near East.

Nevertheless the former Head of the Russian intelligence Services no longer has in his hands – smoothly and without discussion – his old “power elite”, whom he wants to radically reform, also with the pretext – or perhaps the real intention – of eradicating “corruption”.

Therefore even President Putin cannot play all his cards in the Berlin Conference.

France almost explicitly says it wants to extend the truce in Libya, waiting for better times, which will never come. It also wants small hegemony over the possible agreement between al-Sarraj and General Haftar.

 Even if there were an agreement, it would not be determined by France or Italy, but by the real forces on the ground, that is to say by the actual power of the local military organisations, all of which are almost in non-European hands.

 Even if there were an agreement, the fact of stating at first want you want shows the existence of suicidal ideation.

 What does France really want, whose intelligence services are at the origin of the first scenes of the insurgency, supported by a phantom section of the Parisian “association for human rights”, Libyan section – and which today, for the most part, is still behind General Haftar? Certainly, for obvious anti-ENI reasons.

 First of all, France wants – from General Haftar- the management of the oil reserves between the East, Sirte and the first part of Tripolitania in favour of France, as well as strategic control of the Libyan South for further exploration by Total, which should achieve the objective No.1 of the French presence in Libya since 2011, i.e. the taking of ENI and Italy’s total expulsion from the Maghreb region.

 Russia instead wants-at the very least – to reach the goal of a military base in Cyrenaica, which should change Russia’s whole strategic equation vis-à-vis the EU, although Europe is not yet aware of this.

  This is not fully incompatible with certain Italian interests, which could play Russia against France.

 Russia is not interested in those who control Libyan oil from the Eastern and central areas of the country, but in those who supply it to it better and at a lower price.

 Moreover, France wants to hegemonize the new “interposition force” that should be established by the United Nations.

 Here the Italian government’s ambiguities have been dangerous and sometimes funny.

 Firstly, there was the idea of entrusting everything to Europe, an organization that certainly has a “deep void” as Foreign Affairs Commissioner – albeit I am not referring to the current Commissioner Borrell – but neither does it have any credible political and military organization for out-of-area operations.

 Which EU structure should deal with the pacification of Libya?

 The political and military Group? The European Union Military Committee (EUMC), which “provides military advice to the CFSP” (the EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner) and is currently chaired by the Italian General Graziano?

 It is not suitable to command and control, but only to ask the EU Member States what they want to do with their individual Armed Forces.

Furthermore – just to use a metaphor – when there are always many of us at lunch, we must always know who pays.

The Italian idea of replicating Unifil II, the 20-year-old adverse possession of a large part of South Lebanon, which was not even able to stop Hezbollah’s “little war” of August 2006 against Israel is not a model, but just naivety.

Unifil is something different from an area ban or an Interposition Force. It is a political-military platform for the whole Middle East, where everyone talks to everyone, but sheltered from everyone, which could not be the case for a Force between al-Sarraj and Haftar.

 I also have the strong impression that, after the statements made by Italian Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio regarding the fact that the Italian soldiers (Who? Those recalled from other African or Middle East positions, connected to Libya and no less important than it?) “will never be engaged, for any reason, in armed actions”, all the other EU Member States got a good laugh out of it.

 So what does Italy want to do with the Interposition Forces, whose Rules of Engagement are also inevitably drawn up by the United Nations, not by Italy?

  Probably, the idea is for it to be a sort of unarmed security guard for some international judges, who will verify without being able to notify the truce breaks. Hence it would be like the global export of the “Clean Hand Operation”, the judicial probe which is at the origin of Italy’s poor “Second Republic”, rather than the development of a smart Italian policy for the Maghreb region.

From the very beginning, Italy- intoxicated from its supposed Kantian ethicality, but still proud of its “Article 11” of the Constitution – has declared, as a country defeated in World War II, that it still wants to be so and to remain so sine die.

 The Armed Forces of any country are like the bank deposit of any foreign policy.

 If decisions are taken without the Forces’ cash that serves to put them into practice and, above all, to force the others to accept the geopolitical stare decisis, hence decisions or blank checks are issued.

Hence what does Italy want from Libya and from the next Berlin Conference?

 To be expelled from North Africa, which is essential for its energy and material-military security, as well as for civilian and military communications.

 Italy now plays the role of the geopolitical waiter, a role not far from some of the professions actually carried out by some of the current decision-makers until a few years ago.

Just to use again a metaphor, currently Italy prefers to pick up crumbs and concessions – which will not be there – from the African meal of others.

Moreover, in a context where – as is right -the following countries have been invited to the Berlin Conference: Algeria, which we have also lost; China, which is very interested in the Libyan reconstruction business; the African Union, which will represent above all the interests of the sub-Saharan countries; the Arab League, which will set great store by a stable pacification of the jihad with the rest of the African Muslim community, so as to take the jihad out of Westerners’ hands; the Republic of Congo, ready to play an important role for its internal energy and economic reconstruction needs; Egypt, which wants to take General Haftar out of the other Middle East players’ hands to use him as a force for redesigning Egypt’s Western security and against the expansion – through Turkey – of the Islamic Brotherhood, i.e. enemy No.1 of Al Sisi’s power; the United Arab Emirates, which want to obtain the maximum economic and political leverage from their new and unusual position in the Maghreb region, designed to exclude much of “Old Europe”.

 Saudi Arabia – also central to General Haftar – does not want to go against the United States and Israel, thus increasing its commitment to the Tobruk government that organizes Haftar’s policy, but it also wants to maintain a sound hegemony over the Maghreb region against Turkey (but without harming its good relations with Russia and the United States, still essential for its regional Wahhabi wars). Hence support to General Haftar, but wisely and with discretion.

What does Turkey want? Currently it strongly supports al-Sarraj, backed  also by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose primary point of reference is Qatar, an ambiguous correlator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with whom it has decisive economic relations. Erdogan wants a Tripolitania that has fallen into Turkey’s hands because Italy has not been able – or rather has not wanted – to support it militarily, possibly also with a real interposition force – not a newly-armed escort for the Maghreb “Clean Hand Operation”.

Turkey also wants strategic continuity between its very recent oil and gas agreements with Tripolitania – primarily maritime continuity, but which needs a very efficient land coverage.

 Even this redesign of the SAR and the Maritime Control Areas, which are by nature bilateral agreements, will see Italy excluded from the direct control of its ENI oil networks from central Libya to the Libyan coast. And this is no coincidence, considering that Tunisia – a possible Italian alternative to the restriction of ENI’s Libyan area – has not yet been invited to the Berlin Conference of January 19, 2020.

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Middle East

Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

 Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement,” Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

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