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Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority

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Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms.[1] Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority,[2] the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues[3] for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

——————

“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”

General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976[4]

Meanings of Decisional Irrationality

Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition.[5] Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.

               This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.

               How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.

               By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.[6]  From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons.  I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.

               In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran.[7] Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place  variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran;[8] or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.[9]

In the Beginning

               Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.[10]

Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie.  For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”[11]

               It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.

               There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.

               Not a one.

Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president.[12]  Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.

International Law and US Law

Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States.[13] Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of  the law of the land.”

These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.

               Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked.[14] As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.[15]

               For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality,[16] or military necessity.[17]

               Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense.[18] Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”

               Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.[19]

Matters of Chronology and Crisis

               What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?[20]

               In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption[21] that any  president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.

               This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.

               There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.

               Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.

The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter           

               Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.

               Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946)[22] that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere)  to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.[23]

               Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.

Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning.[24] That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by  visceral expectations of American “mass.”[25]

               Then it would be too late.

 American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable.[26] For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.

But what should we do now?


[1] For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres,  The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975);  Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy ((Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[2] This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.

[3] These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.

[4] General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.

[5] “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”

[6] This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[7]Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?”  The Atlantic, August 2012; and 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 (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.

[10] One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[11] Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.

[12] Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.

[13]  See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).

[14] For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[15] See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.

[16]  The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.

[17] The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.

[18] Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.

[19] The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.

[20] Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use. https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-lieu-senator-markey-introduce-restricting-first-use-0

[21] In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”

[22] See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).

[23] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.

[24] “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

[25] The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres,  https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/02/emptiness-and-consciousness

[26] There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

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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Defense

Why shouldn’t Israel Undermine Iran’s Conventional Deterrence

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When Naftali Bennett took over as the prime minister of Israel, it was expected that he would take a different approach compared to Netanyahu. This could be a probable expectation, save for the issue of Iran, since Iran is considered a consistent strategic and existential threat in the eyes of Israeli political and military officials same way that Israel has always been considered an enemy in the strategic culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, with the resumption of the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Israel has intensified its campaign for an imminent military strike on Iran. On the other hand, Iran has tried to create a balance of missile threat against Israel based on valid deterrence during the past years.

However, the level and the nature of performance and deterrence of these two influential actors of the Middle East are fundamentally different. While Iran has defined its deterrence based on hybrid missile deterrence concepts—including direct and extended deterrence—, Israel’s deterrence is based on preemptive warfare, a.k.a. “immediate deterrence,” irrespective of its nuclear capabilities, policies of “strategic ambiguity” and “defensible borders strategy.”

From a direct deterrence perspective (i.e., the strength of a large missile fire from within Iranian territory) and given the extended and asymmetric dimensions (i.e., strengthening missile capabilities of the axis of resistance), the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that Israel will gradually become weaker and more fragile defensively, considering the importance of objective components in the area of ​​deterrence—such as geographical depth and population, and this will derive Israeli leaders to consider their fragile security and survival before any attempt to take on a direct military confrontation with Iran. For instance, when the tensions over Iran’s nuclear program escalated between 2010 and 2013 during the Obama administration, none of Iran’s nuclear facilities was attacked, despite Israel’s repeated expression of its willingness to do so. Former defense minister Ehud Barak justified this inaction with the pretext of Barack Obama’s opposition and lack of support.  In fact, the Netanyahu administration sought to instill this idea to the world that Israel has both the “determination” and the “ability” to attack Iran should this preemptive action not have been faced with Washington objection. The fact that Netanyahu still failed to implement the idea even during Trump administration—as John Bolton points out in the first chapter of his book—despite his overwhelming support for Israel, indicated the fact that Israel does not have independent military capabilities and determination to take such hostile action at no cost without the support of the US.

Therefore, despite the constant claims of Israeli officials, this country’s general strategy so far has been to avoid direct military confrontation with Iran and to focus on less intense and covert warfare. This has changed since 2017 due to Israel’s objection to pro-Iranian forces regaining the control over Al-Bukamal Qa’im border crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border, and the consequent lack of a proportionate and retaliatory response from Iran to Israel’s ongoing operations in Syria. In fact, inaction of Iran has allowed Israeli army to expand its campaign from northern borders and the Golan Heights (as the first ring) to the province of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, then to the depths of Iraq in cooperation with the US (as the second ring), and eventually, inside the Iranian territory (as the third ring). The expansion of Israel’s subversive actions deep inside Iran is an effort to discredit Iran’s deterrence as well as undermining Iran’s strategic stability, while also dismantling Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities.

In the meantime, Israel’s embark on the strategy of Third-Circle Directorate based on intensifying low-level but effective military actions on Iranian soil has played a greater role in undermining Iran’s conventional deterrent advantages. Israel’s repeated operation and its recklessness in accepting responsibility for such actions has taken Israel’s belief and determination that it can target Iran’s assets and strategic resources inside and outside of Iran with numerous intermittent actions to a new level. Therefore, it can be said that while the previous positions of Israeli officials regarding the bombing and cessation of Iran’s nuclear capabilities were mostly focused on the assassination of Iranian scientists, targeted cyberattacks, sabotages, and bombings of industrial, security, and military facilities, there is no guarantee that the Third-Circle Directorate would not extent to explicit and direct entry of Israeli fighters, bombers or ballistic missiles to bomb Iran’s nuclear and military facilities in cooperation with the United States or independently.

If Israel mistakes Iran’s inaction with inability to respond and decides to extend Mabam Campaign to air or missile strikes inside the Iranian borders, it should not be sure of the unpredictable consequences. Iran has not yet responded decisively to cyber-attacks, the assassination of its scientists, and the Israeli sabotages due to the fact that these actions have been designed and carried out in such a way that Iran has assessed the damage as compensable. That is, a long set of low-level attacks were conducted to change the state of the field without taking actions that justifies an extensive reaction. Iran’s failure to respond to the recent Israeli attack on the port of Latakia is a clear example of the success and effectiveness of Salami Slicing strategy. Such strategies are designed to engage Iran in a polygonal dilemma: that it cannot respond to every individual military actions and small-scale sabotage, while inaction against these multiple small and non-intensive attacks will gradually result in losing its strategic position and deterrent credibility.

This very, unique Israeli strategy in military confrontation with Iran has reinforced the assessment of the Bennett administration about the serious weakness of Iran’s conventional deterrence. As a clear case Foreign Minister Yair Lapid claimed that “Israel could attack Iran if necessary without informing the Biden administration, which is looking to rejoin the nuclear deal”. This problem became more apparent after the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, especially in the last months of Donald Trump’s presidency. In other words, if Tehran decided to respond directly to various Israeli actions, such as the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and attacks on its military and industrial centers, the risk of a war with Israel with the support of the US would increase. By the same token, this has in fact given Tehran an opportunity not to retaliate based on the concept of conventional strategic stability. That is, at this level of conflict, Iran’s confidence in its ability to retaliate makes it easier for this country to limit and delay the response. From Iranian perspective, therefore, conventional strategic stability means preventing armed conflict in the Middle East, especially a level of conflict that directly threatens its security and territory.

However, if Israel tries to discredit Iran’s conventional deterrence and strategic stability by launching a direct air strike into Iranian territory, Iran’s retaliatory response will not be as limited and symbolic as the attack on the US base of Ain al-Assad in Iraq, because Tehran would face the so-called “Sputnik moment” dilemma, which forces it to test its missile credibility. In such a situation, Iran will be forced to first, launch a decisive comprehensive missile response against Israel and then change its deterrent structure from conventional to nuclear by leaving the NPT in order to contain pressure of domestic public opinion, maintain its credibility with regional rivals such as Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and even the Republic of Azerbaijan, and to reassure its proxy forces in the axis of resistance.

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Indo-Pacific strategy and the new China-IDF relationship

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The signing of the United States of America (the new Aukus defense agreement and the Quad Quartet agreement with Japan, India and Australia), had significant future repercussions on the Middle East region and the balances of power and influence within it, given its great geopolitical importance, according to these new American agreements in the “Indo-Pacific region”, China will have to (face a new strong defense alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, then transfer this entire Chinese conflict to the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear file and increase Chinese influence in the sea straits and waterways in the Middle East), an alliance welcomed by regional partners such as  Japan. The three countries in the new US regional alliances and polarizations of “Japan, India, and Australia” also make it clear that such agreements with the United States of America are a (historic opportunity for them and their allies to protect common values ​​and enhance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region). On the other hand, we find that those American agreements and alliances in the “Indo-Pacific” region surrounding China will be reflected in one way or another and may increase in the Middle East, for China will have to transfer conflict and competition with Washington to the region, Israel and Iran, and this will have future consequences and repercussions.  The countries of the region in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, as follows:

The equation of competition between the United States and China in the Middle East has increased since the Biden administration took office, and here (placing the neutral countries in the middle became more difficult). One of the areas that may witness an escalation in the intensity of competition between the two sides is the Middle East.

To understand the vision of regional countries for their interests with the two powers, it is necessary to look at the initial indicators issued by the Biden’s administration towards the region. It has become clear that the US administration has a desire to reformulate its approach towards the region, but (it is not yet clear how deep this American step and its impact on the regional security structure sponsored by the United States, especially in the Arab Gulf region).

The US Defense Secretary “Lloyd Austin” announced a comprehensive strategic review of the status of US forces around the world, including the Middle East. It seems that officials in the US Department of Defense “Pentagon” are tending to reconsider the status of US forces in the Middle East, which may be understood (not a condition of reducing them), in favor of increasing the size of the forces in the “Indo-Pacific” region.

At the present time, the Biden administration’s focus was on (ending the war in Yemen, reviving the negotiation track over the Iranian nuclear file), and it did not show much interest in other pivotal files.

In parallel with the previous US approach, the US National Security Adviser “Jake Sullivan”, reduced the number of Middle East experts in the US National Security Council, and significantly increased the number and hierarchy of Indo-Pacific experts.

Defense Minister “Lloyd Austin” also appointed three advisers to him, all of them are Asian experts, and none of them specialize in Middle Eastern issues, in contrast to the approach of all previous US administrations, due to the danger of China, according to the current US security strategy.

These American steps toward China reflect the Biden administration’s vision of the world from the perspective of “the theory of the great power conflict”, which prevailed during the Cold War, and the decline of the Middle East on its list of priorities.

On the Israeli-Chinese side, Beijing will try to play an increasing role inside Israel in order to bring about rapprochement with Tel Aviv at the expense of Washington.  Here, we note the (extent and seriousness of Chinese companies sought to obtain contracts to operate the main Israeli ports, as Washington was particularly concerned about a Chinese company winning a tender to manage a port in Haifa, where the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet is anchored).

Perhaps the future analysis will come in (China’s attempt to play a challenge to American interests inside Israel, and China’s future planning in order to manage all Israeli ports, and thus control the shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea). Which is what Washington fears the most.

In addition to China’s desire to invest and be present in vital infrastructure projects in Israel, (China is trying to obtain this advanced Israeli technology, and trying to obtain any monopoly information that can be harvested in China by Israeli companies to benefit from it in the aspects of Chinese progress and innovation), thus, he challenged American technological progress from the Israeli gate.

The most important and most dangerous for me, analytically, is the attempts of the People’s Republic of China to obtain all Israeli trade secrets related to the United States of America, and even more dangerous in the future is (the rapprochement of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with the Israel Defense Forces, which relies heavily on advanced American equipment such as  Fighter “F-35”).

From my analytical point of view, the expectation remains that (if China succeeds in increasing its ability to exist, monitor and infiltrate the Israeli army), this may allow Beijing to obtain all American military technological secrets from Israel directly, and here is the danger for the United States of America being  Israel is a conduit through which the (People’s Liberation Army of China) “PLA” achieves greater parity with the US armed forces. This is what Washington is trying to confront from Tel Aviv to counter Chinese influence there, as the United States of America cannot in any way allow its military technology to fall into the hands of its main opponent, China.

   Perhaps the final analysis here, is explaining that (the absence of American thinking of a clear strategy until now to confront the growing Chinese influence in the region and the world), and perhaps it is a continuation of the same approach of the “Trump’s administration”, as the United States shows interest in what it does not want, without presenting a clear vision of the results that you want access to this conflict.

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Defense

China, Vietnam, Philippines and United States Sustainability in the South China Sea

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The guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville during a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Harris/U.S. Navy/Flickr

Authors : Nabel Akram, Imran Altaf, Komal Tariq

Supremacy of any world power depends upon its control over the important Geo-strategic places. A hegemon must have influence over the Geo-strategic places. This rule is generally applied for every world super power. Other factors like the will to lead, economic, political and military factors are also important but these factors are restricted in a specific sphere of influence. Influence over Geo-strategic important places enhances the influence over other countries related to that place. Britain remained the superpower due to occupation of such important places. The US as a super power and hegemon, is enjoying influence over the Geo-strategic places in the world. The US has influence over Malacca Strait, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal etc. (Oral, 2012). On strategic places, the US is facing challenges from China and Russia. Russia has occupied Crimea the strategically important place in East Europe which covers black sea and offered a way towards Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, China is struggling hard to get control over South China Sea (SCS). The SCS is an important Geo-strategic, Geo-economic and geopolitical place for world. It contains plenty of natural resources and the hub of fishing. It covers half of the world trade passage. The US has enjoyed strong influence in this place after WWII, but, now the US is facing great resistance from China. The US does not want to lose its influence in East Asia and the SCS. The US is struggling hard with the coordination of the ASEAN states, Japan, Australia and India. China is gradually strengthening its control over the SCS. Due to economic growth, China has got influence over regional countries. Most critical area of South China Sea dispute contains two groups of islands such as Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. Paracel archipelago comes under the rule of China (The People’s Republic of China, 2014). China has occupied this group of islands in 1974. Spratly islands are most disputed among China, Philippines and Vietnam (Ngo, 2017). This group of islands are under the different countries like China, Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Taiwan. China has constructed seven artificial islands on this place (Southerland, 2016). The US has initiated Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the SCS region with objective to contain China from establishing its hegemony in this region. It has increased the sensitivity of this issue in region (Harress, 2015).   

Vietnam and Philippines both are the potential rival of China in South China Sea dispute. These countries have deep economic and diplomatic ties with China. Both countries are engaging China to set up alliances with the US and other important states for restraining and hedging China. Vietnam and Philippines are making efforts to strengthen their military setup against China. The US is providing its assistance to the rival states of China and opposing Chinese irredentist claim with the help of maritime law and the right of freedom of navigation in the SCS as an international sea. In this way, China has to face potential rivalry from the US, Vietnam and Philippines in SCS.

Philippines and Vietnam have huge trade and diplomatic relations with China for hedging China. Both countries even have strong economic and strategic relations with Chinese competitors like the US, Russia, Japan and India. In this way, both countries are reducing the risk. Vietnam is consistently building its military capabilities through strong economy and making alliances with the strong countries and international and regional institutions. There are following way which cause to hedging China.

  • For hedging China, Philippines and Vietnam are engaging China through a huge trade volume and interdependence. Vietnam has become the biggest trading partner of China. Mutual interdependence will cause to stop China from taking any aggressive action against Vietnam.
  • Philippines and Vietnam are developing diplomatic, political, party to party and people to people relations with China. This will help to know about the behavior of China towards Philippines and Vietnam over South China Sea dispute.
  • Philippines and Vietnam are focusing to increase its military strength. For this purpose, Vietnam has bought large military equipment from Russia and developed its military equipment complex in Vietnam for modernizing its military equipment with the help of Russia. Philippines has increased its military alliance with the US.
  • Vietnam has made alliances with world powers like the US, Russia, India, Japan etc. to secure itself against any aggression from China. For this purpose, it has engaged itself in many exercises and joint ventures with the US and many other countries.
  • Philippines and Vietnam has improved its relations with neighboring countries who can provide help in time of difficulty. This is the reason that Philippines and Vietnam are active in ASEAN forum.

China would play its role as a hegemon after the US. The US should contain China through its neighboring countries like Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and Russia. To gain hegemonic status, it is necessary to become regional hegemon. John Mearsheimer supports regional hegemon. He gives example of the US that it first became regional hegemon in 1898 after Monroe doctrine and gained world hegemonic status after the WWII (Mearsheimer, 2004).

China has acquired economic and military power and about to become a regional hegemon. John Mearsheimer (2006) suggests China to gain hegemonic status; China must need to become regional hegemon and to get more power than its neighbors like Japan, Russia and India. China should increase its military strength and power. China has to regain Taiwan for establishing the status of regional hegemon (Mearsheimer, China’s Unpeaceful Rise, 2006).

Rising security demands of China has unsecured the neighboring countries. Arm race has been started in East Asia region. Although, China has maintained good relations with its neighbors but they have strong concerns over Chinese security measures. China’s largest economy and advanced military stimulate China to control its surroundings (Roy, 2013).

After open up policies, China has rapidly grown and become world imminent actor. To become a great power, China has to respond all challenges positively and set its priorities to overcome its drawbacks. In future, China should not claim its hegemony. China should need to advocate new world system with some reforms in economy and politics without claiming its hegemony (Bijian, 2005).

China is the largest trading partner of Vietnam. Vietnam’s second largest export partner is China with 13.2 percent of its export. The US secure biggest trading partner with 21 percent of Vietnamese export and Japan secured third with 8.4 percent of Vietnam export. Vietnam’s first largest import partner is China with 34 percent of its import and Japan secured fourth largest import partner with 6.4 percent of Vietnamese import (CIA, 2017). A huge numbers of Chinese foreign direct investment companies are working in Vietnam. It is estimated that about 833 companies are running their business in Vietnam in 2011. The quantity of these companies are increasing day by day and their total registered capital is 4.3 billion. There are following benefits of Vietnam for economic partnership with China;

Spratly Islands (Kalyan Islands Group) are the part of Philippines territory. KIG is the part of Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS 1982 (Palma, 2009). Philippines has filed a case against China and its historical claim of nine dash lines in International court of Tribunal in Hague in 2013. Court has given decision in favor of Philippines on 12 July 2016 but China has rejected the decision and remained adamant in its claim (France-Presse, Agence, July 8th, 2016). Philippines and Chinese relations worsen due to Philippines case and the ongoing problem in Scarborough Shoal and Chinese construction of new islands. This was the scenario when Philippines new president Rodrigo Roe Duterte took charge on 30 July 2016 (Philippine History, 2017) and initiated new strategy that is called strategic hedging. Although Philippines previous governments have close economic and political relations but current government is leading in this respect.  Philippines started to engage China with a huge trade volume. Politically, Philippines has come closer to China (Shead, 2017).

The Geo-strategic position and bundle of resources are the main reason that China is very conscious to control this region whereas other regional actors like Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Brunei are also active for sovereignty over these islands due to Geo-proximity and resources. The US as the global hegemon has become the part of this game and wants to get its part from these resources. This is the reason that it has established strong alliances with other stack holders against China and also provoking Japan, Australia and India against China due to this regional dispute. The SCS is important for the US for three purposes; first it secures the US trade and military, second, it is check to restrain and contain the Chinese hegemony in the East Asia region (Mustajib, 2016), third, it is necessary for the protection of the US allies like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan and ASEAN member countries. On the trade basis, the SCS is the passage of the 5 trillion annual ships (Robinson, 2018) and ships related to the US trade and military activities are worth 1.2 trillion dollar trade with East Asian countries (Mustajib, 2016).

Peace lies in continuous diplomatic engagement of claimant countries of the SCS dispute. Any change in existing status quo might put the peace of whole region at risk. Philippines and Vietnam consider China as an assertive state. Both States want to establish close relations with China in order to stop China from assertive actions. The US has strong political, economic and military bilateral alliances with Philippine, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.  The US has launched the FONE operations in the SCS to contain China. These operations show that the US wants to sustain its hegemony in East Asia.

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