During the first twenty years or so of the nuclear age, a number of major books and articles were published on the theory of nuclear deterrence. One of the most important was Thomas Schelling’s 1960 book, The Strategy of Conflict. Schelling pointed out that in some circumstances pretending to be irrational could be an effective strategy of prevailing over an adversary in a conflict of will. The rationality of irrationality, Schelling called it.
Here’s how it worked: The problem of nuclear deterrence is that while the threat to use nuclear weapons to prevent another nuclear power from attacking you or your allies may in some sense be rational, if the threat fails and you are attacked it would be utterly irrational to make good on the threat, since you would be destroyed in the ensuing nuclear retaliation. Hence the problem: if your adversary considers you to be rational, it may not be convinced by your threats to do something that would be irrational: thus, in theory anyway, it may ignore the threat and attack anyway.
The solution that is at least implied by the Schelling theory: deliberately engage in irrational behavior, so as to cause your adversary to believe you would actually make good on your irrational threat to use nuclear weapons.
Crazy, no? Of course. The problem is that you are unlikely to gain a presumably useful reputation of being capable of irrationality by simply saying “I’m nuts, so watch out:” you actually have to do crazy things. And to play that game in a nuclear environment is absolutely crazy.
One might have thought that this painfully obvious problem with the rationality-of-irrationality strategy would prevent it from being employed in the real world. However,
Richard Nixon did employ it during the Vietnam War, calling it, appropriately, “The madman theory.” After Watergate, it was revealed that in the late stages of the war Nixon had told his close aide Robert Haldeman: ''I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button.”
So, even though by 1970 it was clear that the strategic stakes for the U.S in Vietnam (the domino theory) had been highly exaggerated, and even though the war was highly unpopular, and even though Nixon was willing to negotiate a compromise solution, nonetheless on several occasions he escalated the war: in particular, by suddenly extending its scope by bombing Cambodia in 1970, and by the infamous “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi in December 1972, the heaviest U.S. bombing campaign of the entire war, undertaken not in the hope of actually winning the war, but only in order to gain slightly more favorable terms from North Vietnam in the ongoing negotiations that ended the U.S. involvement a few months later.
Both of these actions had been completely unexpected, and a shocked if not terrified world wondered if Nixon had lost his mind. Which was precisely Nixon’s intention, of course; “What a clever fellow I am,” he apparently thought, “I’ll just pretend to be crazy, and then the commies will have to give in.” But, given the low stakes and the enormous risks, Nixon was mistaken: he thought he was pretending to be crazy, but he really was crazy. The fatal flaw in the rationality-of-irrationality strategy.
All this by way of prelude to an examination of the latest, and surely the craziest employment of the rationality-of-irrationality strategy of nuclear deterrence: Chuck Freilich’s thirty-four page study and recommendations for Israeli policy, “The Armageddon Scenario: Israel and the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism.” Freilich’s core argument is that Israel must enhance its deterrence against nuclear terrorism by adopting a policy under which it will initiate nuclear attacks against any state or non-state group that has a “declared nuclear terrorist capability, a stated intention to acquire one, or an advanced suspected one.”
While Freilich does not refer to rationality-of-irrationality theory, that is clearly the logic of his argument. Does he actually mean what he seems to be saying: that Israel should not merely retaliate against a state or terrorist group that attacks it with nuclear weapons, but should completely destroy, in advance, any unfriendly state or group that declares it has the intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, or is merely suspected of having such an intention?” Yes.
To be sure, there are all sorts of crackpot theories and arguments, particularly concerning the use of nuclear weapons, but most of them are unlikely to actually influence state policies. However, Freilich’s arguments are more ominous, since he is at very heart of the Israeli government-military-academic establishment: a former Deputy National Security Adviser to the Israeli government and an Israeli delegate to the UN, now a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a professor of political science at Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities. The “Armageddon Scenario” was published by Bar-Ilan University’s Center for National Security Studies, a rightwing thinktank that is known to be highly influential within the Netanyahu government.
Here is Freilich’s argument. Israel (and the United States) faces a grave threat of nuclear terrorism, not only from a nuclear Iran, but perhaps “one which may be no less likely and actually far more difficult to counter [because]….those most likely to pursue nuclear terrorism may be fundamentally nihilistic and thus undeterrable… [they] may be prepared to pay any cost in lives – their own and others' – in pursuit of their goal of destroying Israel.” Moreover, because al-Qaeda can blend in with the population and perhaps clandestinely set off a nuclear weapon in an Israeli or American city, there may be “no return address,” as he puts it, for retaliation.
The problem is real: Osama Bin Laden is known to be seeking nuclear weapons--which could be acquired by theft, loss of control over nuclear arsenals, or clandestine transfer or sales of nuclear weapons by North Korea or Pakistan-- and he has openly threatened to use them against Israel and the United States. Freilich is hardly the first analyst to have noticed the problem, despite his modest claim to be “the first to examine the nature of the nuclear threat Israel faces and to propose potential responses to it.” However, the nature of his proposed responses is certainly original.
To begin, Freilich argues that the nuclear terrorism problem cannot be solved by political or diplomatic means and he has no criticism—not a word--of Israeli policies and behavior towards the Palestinians; rather, the underlying premise of his argument is that the Israeli occupation and increasingly harsh repression of the Palestinians have nothing to do with the hatred it has engendered in the Arab/Muslim world. For those who find this premise to be preposterous the only solution can be a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole, precisely what has been offered to Israel by the Arab world since 2002.
Freilich not only rejects such a course, he argues—and this is also certainly original—that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would actually increase the threats to Israel: “Peace in the Middle East, although desirable, unfortunately will not provide for true reconciliation….For the radicals who will never accept Israel, a peace agreement will further increase their determination to try and restore ‘Arab rights’ by all means possible….A Palestinian state might create a sanctuary for terrorist organizations, which could use its territory, with or without its knowledge and cooperation, to develop and deploy a nuclear bomb on Israel's borders and near major population centers. …The more Israel is accepted in the region and establishes peaceful relations with Arab states, the more the radicals will be determined to find new ways of achieving their goals.”
To meet this problem, Freilich concludes, Israel must adopt a new and more far reaching deterrence policy: “If the source of a terrorist nuclear attack against Israel is unknown, or if it is known to originate with al-Qaeda or Iran, Israel should make it clear that its response will be unlimited and include not just major population centers, but all sites of value, including those of major symbolic importance…such as Muslim cultural and religious sites.”
But even such draconic threats might not be sufficient, Freilich fears, to dissuade terrorist attacks. Therefore, Israel must go beyond deterrence and adopt a policy of preventive war: “In the event of a declared nuclear terrorist capability, a stated intention to acquire one, or an advanced suspected one, the known or suspected perpetrator and host country should be attacked with overwhelming and if necessary devastating force, in the attempt to prevent the threat’s materialization.”
Now, the general idea that in some circumstances innocent states might have to consider a preventive war against particularly dangerous enemies cannot be dismissed out of hand, at least in theory. In retrospect, for example, it would have been far better if Britain and France had rearmed and attacked Nazi Germany soon after Hitler came to power in the early 1930s.
However, Freilich’s recommendations go far beyond any kind of preventive war ever before seriously envisaged—and not merely because Israel is anything but an innocent victim. Taken literally, Freilich’s policies would require an immediate all-out Israeli attack against Pakistan and North Korea, for surely it may be reasonable to “suspect” that some of their nuclear weapons might, by one means or another, end up in the hands of al-Qaeda.
Well, Freilich probably doesn’t wish to be understood as going that far, since Israel could not prevent Pakistan or North Korea from destroying its cities in retaliation. Despite his ambiguous language in this regard, he probably would confine the Israeli threat and its implementation to states or groups that do not yet have the means for massive retaliation, but might in the future. So, for now, presumably, it would merely be necessary for Israel to immediately attack only the “major population centers” and “Muslim cultural and religious sites” in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan, and any other Muslim states that are known or suspected to be either pursuing a nuclear option or “harboring” al-Qaeda or other Muslim terrorist groups.
To be sure, Freilich concedes that Israel does not have the capability to take such actions on its own. Therefore, the United States must join forces with it, at least by expressing “unconditional support for all measures Israel might have to take in the face of this [nuclear terrorist] threat” and, even better, by joining with Israel “to pursue a broad range of preventative options, from limited, targeted military operations, to massive options, including occupation of the country suspected of harboring the threat (e.g., Lebanon), in order to root it out at all costs….in which any and all capabilities will be brought to bear to ensure complete success [in order to]guarantee the threat's complete elimination.” (emphasis in original) Fortunately, it seems unlikely that the Obama administration—or even, for that matter, its Republican opponents-- will be attracted to Freilich’s modest proposal.
There is indeed a threat of nuclear terrorism against Israel and the United States—to this country, to a substantial degree, precisely because of its near-unconditional support of Israel. The best way to defuse this threat would be a negotiated and fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, while it is (shall we say) far-fetched to argue that such a settlement would increase the terrorist threat, it must be conceded that it might not eliminate it altogether: the conflict has gone on for so long, and with such terrible consequences for the Palestinian people, that the bitterness and hatred it has engendered in the Islamic world might continue for some time.
For this reason alone, it may not be the case that a two-state solution is the best way for Israel to solve its deterrence problem. Recently, despairing of the possibility that a two-state solution will ever be reached, a number of observers are considering a one-state solution: that is, a single Jewish-Palestinian binational democratic state. Under the present circumstances, it is hard to see how such a fantasy could be realized: all the factors that now prevent a two-state solution--principally blind Israeli stupidity-- would make a one state solution even more impossible. Yet, what might finally convince the Israelis—or at least should convince them—is the realization that the close intermixing of Jews and Arabs in a single state and in its major cities would be the best possible deterrent against any Islamic nuclear terrorist attack.