May 24, 2011
The Samson Option: 'Palestine' and Israel's Nuclear StrategyBy Louis René Beres
In the always arcane discourse of nuclear strategy, dialectical thinking is a "net." Only those who cast will catch. To calculate Israel's best strategic options following President Barack Obama's plans for "Palestine," therefore, the capable strategist must continue to ask and answer difficult questions -- sequentially, persistently, patiently, and above all, systematically. Only by seamlessly drawing together this complex body of interrelated queries and replies can the serious strategist ever hope for a coherent and comprehensive body of military and diplomatic theory. The only alternative is the usual patchwork quilt of journalistic or reportorial "explanation," an arbitrary mélange of more or less disjointed information and factoids lacking even the rudiments of predictive thought. Now, after Mr. Obama's speech, more than ever, Israel needs wise counsel.
Stubbornly following the twisted cartography of his Middle East Road Map, President Barack Obama remains determined to midwife the birth of a twenty-third Arab state. This certain-to-be fragmented and radically unstable country called "Palestine" would promptly become a bitter and irreconcilable enemy of the United States.
There is further irony here. On the very same day that he praised members of the U.S. intelligence community for assassinating Osama bin Laden, Obama spoke forcefully on behalf of creating a new anti-American terror state. Should he succeed, the long-term security costs to this country from "Palestine" will likely outweigh even the most grievous new harms being conceived by al-Qaeda.
There is even a generally unrecognized nuclear dimension to probable "Palestine"-related harms. Despite Mr. Obama's expressly broad and plainly generic dislike of nuclear weapons -- a dislike based much more on visceral emotion and clichéd "wisdom" than on dialectical logic or considered reason -- any American-assisted birth of "Palestine" would substantially enlarge regional and worldwide risks of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. In essence, before any such portentous birth could be performed, a gravedigger would have to wield the forceps.
In the best of all possible worlds, Prime Minister Netanyahu, guided by lucidity, would strongly oppose all forms of Palestinian statehood. This would include opposition to even Netanyahu's own proposal for a "demilitarized" Palestinian state. Disingenuous even to Israel's allies, intra-national and international, this idealized proposal for bilateral coexistence with "Palestine" stood no chance of success from the start. Inevitably, the new Palestinian government, supported by both codified and customary international law, would correctly assert its "inherent" right to national armed forces for "self defense." Palestine, after all, with President Obama's utterly misconceived blessing, would now be a fully sovereign state.
It is possible, of course, going forward, that persistently crude and not-so-subtle pressure from Washington to accept Palestine could prove geopolitically irresistible to Mr. Netanyahu. A basic question thus presents itself: in such threatening circumstances, what should Israel's operational and doctrinal response be? Importantly, one possible answer would concern Israel's nuclear strategy, especially its so-called "Samson Option."
On its face, a Palestinian state should have no direct bearing on Israel's nuclear posture. Yet, although non-nuclear itself, Palestine could still critically impair Israel's indispensable capacity to wage essential forms of conventional war. In turn, this impairment could enlarge the Jewish State's incentive to rely on unconventional weapons in certain assorted and dangerous strategic circumstances.
Significantly, a primary cause of any such impairment is apt to be the current and ongoing training of Palestinian Authority "security forces" by the United States. Recently underway in Jordan, this flagrantly self-defeating military program, commanded by U.S. Lt. General Keith Dayton, could contribute mightily to any post-state aggression by Palestinian fighters always determined to destroy Israel.
Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." Barack Obama is now creating conditions on the ground in which designated IDF units, in any post-Palestinian independence Middle East, would have to fight desperately against Fatah elements trained by the United States. With this incomprehensible program, therefore, we are arming and preparing the next generation of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. terrorists.
Credo quia absurdum. The guiding U.S. presumption is that these Fatah elements are relatively "moderate." A similar and equally foolish U.S. presumption is that there are now identifiably "moderate" elements functioning within the terrorist organization Hezbollah. Extending erroneous American strategic thinking to Lebanon, this curious idea has been expressed on several occasions by John Brennan, advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism to President Obama.
What is Israel to do? Confronting a new enemy Arab state that could act collaboratively and capably (thanks to the U.S.) with other Arab states, or possibly even with non-Arab Iran, and also confronting potentially serious synergies between the birth of Palestine and renewed terrorism from Lebanon, Israel could feel itself compelled to bring hitherto clandestine elements of its "ambiguous" nuclear strategy into the light of day. Here, leaving the "bomb in the basement" would no longer make strategic sense. For Israel, of course, the geostrategic rationale for some level of nuclear disclosure would lie not in stating the obvious (merely that Israel has the bomb), but rather, inter alia, in persuading all prospective attackers that Israel's nuclear weapons are usable, secure, and penetration-capable.
Palestine, too -- even if it would not actively seek collaboration with other Arab or Islamic countries -- could still be exploited militarily and geographically against Israel by different regional enemies of the Jewish State. Iran and Syria, of course, represent the most obvious candidates to carry out any such exploitations. One year ago, Iran reportedly transferred an undetermined number of Scud missiles to Syria. In Damascus, the "Arab Spring" notwithstanding, plans are being made to smuggle these Scuds into northern Lebanon, from where they could then strike any major city in Israel.
Israel's core nuclear strategy, however secret and ambiguous, must always remain oriented toward deterrence. The Samson Option refers to a presumed Israeli policy that is necessarily based upon an implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. This policy, to be sure, could be invoked credibly only where such aggressions would threaten Israel's very existence. For anticipated lesser harms, Samson threats would likely not appear believable.
In Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv, the main point of any Samson Option would not be to communicate the availability of any graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent -- that is, a deterrent (resembling what was once called "flexible response" in the U.S.) in which all possible reprisals would be more or less specifically calibrated to different and determinable levels of enemy aggression. Rather, it would intend to signal the more-or-less unstated promise of a counter-city ("counter value" in military parlance) reprisal.
The Samson Option, then, would be unlikely to deter any aggressions short of nuclear and/or certain biological first strike attacks upon the Jewish State.
In essence, Samson would "say" the following to all potential attackers: "We (Israel) may have to 'die,' but, this time, we don't intend to die alone."
A Samson Option could serve Israel better as an adjunct to particular deterrence and preemption options than as a core nuclear strategy. The Samson Option, therefore, should never be confused with Israel's main security objective. This core objective must always be to seek effective deterrence at the lowest possible levels of conflict.
To suitably strengthen Israeli nuclear deterrence, visible preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince enemy states that aggression would not be gainful. This would be most convincing if (1) Israeli Samson preparations were coupled with some level of visible nuclear disclosure (e.g., ending Israel's posture of nuclear ambiguity); (2) Israel's Samson weapons appeared sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first strikes; and (3) Israel's Samson weapons were recognizably "counter value" in mission function.
Samson could also support Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a greater Israeli willingness to take existential risks. In matters of nuclear strategy, it may sometimes be better to feign irrationality than to purposefully project complete rationality. Earlier, in IDF history, Moshe Dayan had genuinely understood this strangely counterintuitive injunction: "Israel must be like a mad dog," said Dayan, "too dangerous to bother."
In our topsy-turvy nuclear world, it can be perfectly rational to pretend irrationality. But in any given Middle East conflict situation, the precise nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would have to depend in large part upon prior enemy state awareness of Israel's counter value targeting posture. Rejecting nuclear war as a purposeful strategic option, the Project Daniel Group, in its then-confidential report to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon more than seven years ago (January 16, 2003), recommended exactly such a deterrence posture.
To strengthen possible strategies of preemption, preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince Israel's own leadership that certain defensive first strikes would be cost-effective. These leaders would then expect that any Israeli preemptive strikes, known under international law as expressions of "anticipatory self-defense," could be launched with reduced apprehensions of unacceptably damaging enemy retaliations. This complex expectation would depend upon many pertinent factors, including (1) previous Israeli decisions on nuclear disclosure; (2) Israeli perceptions of the effects of such nuclear disclosure on enemy retaliatory intentions; (3) Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability; and (4) a presumed enemy awareness of Samson's counter value force posture.
As with Samson-based enhancements of Israeli nuclear deterrence, any identifiably last-resort nuclear preparations could support Israel's critical preemption options by displaying a bold national willingness to take existential risks. In this connection, the steady and undisturbed nuclearization of Iran should come immediately to mind.
But pretended irrationality can be a double-edged sword. Brandished too "irrationally," Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could encourage enemy preemptions. Here, again, the specter of a nuclear Iran should emerge front and center.
Left to themselves, neither deterred nor preempted, certain Arab and/or other Islamic enemies of Israel, especially after the U.S.-assisted creation of a Palestinian state, could bring the Jewish State face-to-face with the palpable torments of Dante's Inferno, "[i]nto the eternal darkness, into fire, into ice." Israeli strategic planners and political leaders, therefore, should soon begin to acknowledge an absolutely primary obligation to (a) strengthen their country's nuclear security posture and (b) ensure that any failure of nuclear deterrence would not spark nuclear war or nuclear terror.
One way for Israel to partially meet this obligation, particularly after President Obama's undimmed support for Palestine and equally misguided support for "a world free of nuclear weapons," would be to focus more openly and precisely on the Samson Option. In so doing, considerable attention will need to be directed to the presumed rationality of enemy leaderships, both state and sub-state. How can the capable IDF strategist recognize the difference between real and pretended irrationality?
This will become an urgent question. In those rare cases where an enemy state or terror group might not value its own physical survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, the standard logic of deterrence would be rendered inoperable. In such cases, all bets would be off regarding probable enemy reactions to Israeli threats of retaliation. The probability of any such case arising may be very low, but the attendant disutility of any single case could still be intolerably high.
IDF planners and other interested strategists should now consider also the cumulative capabilities and intentions of Israel's non-state enemies -- that is, the entire configuration of anti-Israel terrorist groups. Such assessments should now offer more than a simple group by group inventory of enemy assets and intentions. These groups should also now be considered in their entirety, collectively, as they may interrelate with one another vis-à-vis Israel.
These several hostile non-state organizations will also need to be examined in their interactive relationships with core enemy states. Recalling, for example, the discussion of Palestine (above), it is important to recognize and understand all possible synergies with Iran and Syria in particular.
In the matter of synergies, interested strategists will also need to consider critical "force multipliers." A force multiplier is a collection of related characteristics, other than weapons and size of force, that may make any military organization more effective in combat. A force multiplier may be generalship, tactical surprise, tactical mobility, or particular command/control system enhancements.
Seeking improved force multipliers for Israel, strategic thinkers should now assess well-integrated elements of cyber-warfare, and a reciprocal capacity to prevent and blunt any incoming cyber-attacks. Today, this particular force multiplier could even prove to be decisive.
In a world of growing international anarchy, IDF planners should now investigate all pertinent enemy force multipliers, challenging and undermining enemy force multipliers, and developing/refining its own force multipliers. More specifically, this means an appropriately heavy IDF emphasis on air superiority, communications, intelligence, and surprise. Again, recalling Moshe Dayan's counterintuitive injunction, it may also mean a heightened awareness of the possible benefits of pretended irrationality (Samson Option).
The state system of international statecraft came into being in the 17 th century, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. For the most part, our "Westphalian" system remains almost entirely anarchic. Several emerging hazards to Israeli national security will be shaped by this primary condition.
Nonetheless, to observant strategists, there will also be a discernible geometry of chaos, and calculating the implications of this particular "geometry" will prove to be an important and cost-effective task. Before this can happen, interested strategists must take steps to ensure that their analyses and recommendations are detached from any false hopes. Recalling Thucydides, writing prophetically (416 BCE) on the ultimatum of the Athenians to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War: "Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined[.]"
To the extent that these forthcoming strategic difficulties are related to the now-impending creation of a Palestinian state, they are problems largely created by U.S. President Barack Obama. For Israel, it follows that the very best current path to prevent existentially perilous interactions between enemy state nuclearization and Palestinian statehood is to oppose the latter immediately and totally.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of some of the earliest major books on Israeli nuclear strategy.