The Implications of Irrational US Nuclear Weapons Use for Israel

February 21, 2017

7 min read

Louis Rene Beres

“Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” (Moshe Dayan)

Increasingly, Americans and others are worrying about the prospect of an irrational nuclear decision in the White House. To some extent, at least, this fearful prospect is related to the new US president’s unhidden preference for more openly confrontational foreign policies, a belligerent preference that expressly favors, inter alia, the “rationality of pretended irrationality” principle. What is required now are suitably analytic assessments of all accessible issues, not merely further partisan struggles, or narrowly journalistic exposés.

This advice could ultimately have various derivative implications for several major US allies, especially Israel. After all, any discernible collapse of rational nuclear decision-making in Washington could substantially impact Jerusalem. Most obviously, an irrational US attack against a still-nuclearizing Iran – one that would likely be defended by President Trump as “anticipatory self-defense” – could quickly produce certain highly destructive retaliations against Israel.

Plausibly, such enemy retaliations, carrying assorted and possibly even cascading risks of uncontrolled escalation, would most likely originate not only in Iran itself but also with Tehran’s own Hezbollah surrogates. This scenario is not meant to suggest that any characterization of the preemptive American attack as anticipatory self-defense would necessarily be inappropriate, but only that we are correctly concerned here with core matters of Israel’s national strategy and survival, not jurisprudence. Moreover, the myriad cascading harms that US decisional irrationality could bring upon Israel might also be “synergistic.” This means that the cumulative “whole” of such harms would effectively exceed the additive sum of its separate “parts.”

In US nuclear command authority, it is already widely known, the so-called “two man rule” of redundant nuclear safeguards does not apply at the highest (presidential) level. And while it is increasingly under discussion by concerned persons in the just-beginning Trump Era, fears of presidential irrationality have generally been expressed only in surreptitious whispers, almost inaudibly, sotto voce, perhaps so as not to reveal too great a sense of personal anxiety. Nonetheless, this tacit refusal to confront head-on an issue of stunningly overriding importance is perilous, all the more so during the next several months, when President Trump can expect to be tested by Pyongyang and may have to make various time-urgent decisions concerning North Korea’s steadily expanding military nuclearization.

There are expected hindrances or caveats. American strategists and Israeli military planners will need to understand that attaching any scientifically meaningful assessments of probability to predictions of presidential irrationality is just not “technically” possible. Always, our principal forecasting thinkers should be reminded, scientific affirmations of probability must be based upon a conspicuously determinable frequency of pertinent past events.

All things considered, of course, it is cumulatively good news that there have as yet been no identifiable examples of an American president making irrational decisions about US nuclear weapons.

But is this really an entirely true statement? Maybe there already have been such actual cases? Consider this. During the Cuban missile crisis, then President John F. Kennedy ordered his “quarantine” of Cuba (a euphemism or diplomatically sanitized alternative to “blockade,” which is a traditionally possible casus bellum) with an apparently full awareness of corresponding risks. More precisely, according to Theodore Sorensen, his biographer, JFK seemingly believed that even his intentionally softened escalatory response would carry portentous odds of an ensuing nuclear war with the USSR that were “between one out of three, and even.”

Although we now know – based upon what we just learned about ascertaining probabilities, and the discoverable frequency of past events – that any such estimate was necessarily without scientific foundation, what matters most is that JFK himself believed in these ominously high odds.

Was JFK acting irrationally about literally unprecedented nuclear matters in October 1962? Was his declared “quarantine” a genuine instance of nuclear decisional irrationality, one that turned out to have been well-crafted and successful only by sheer happenstance? After all, it could have ended, as then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had expressly feared, with some sort of “Armageddon.”

Or was it, rather, an example of what I call the “rationality of pretended irrationality?” Isn’t this exactly the thinking that Moshe Dayan had in mind when he urged: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”

If a deliberate “rationality of pretended irrationality” move, President Kennedy was playing a carefully calculated game of strategy, much like the game of “Chicken” once played with automobiles by assorted teenage delinquents. In Chicken, the objective of each player is twofold: (1) not to be chicken, but also (2) not to be dead.

In offering an answer here, permit me two personal anecdotes.

First, regarding McNamara’s widely reported (after the crisis had been resolved) apprehensions of an “end of the world scenario” over Cuba, I once had a face-to-face occasion to ask the former Defense Chief about these reports. That was in the Fall of 1967, during a small academic conference at Princeton. Sitting next to me at dinner, in the Nassau Inn, McNamara responded to my unambiguously direct query with a repetitive nod of his head, and the aptly simple remark, “I wouldn’t want to experience that again. Ever.”

Second, regarding President Kennedy’s alleged assignment of very high odds to his chosen 1962 quarantine strategy, Sorensen reported that JFK had made this seat-of-the-pants assessment only after telephoning Admiral Arleigh Burke, a former Chairman of the JCS. When, in 1977, I became Admiral Burke’s roommate for several days in Annapolis, at the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, or NAFAC (where Burke and I were serving co-chairs of panels on “The Use of Force”), I explicitly asked him about Sorensen’s numbers. Without any hesitation, the Admiral replied that the well-respected Kennedy biographer had in fact reported Burke’s telephone response to Kennedy accurately and truthfully.

For both Washington and Jerusalem, there is still another reason why forecasting President Trump’s upcoming nuclear policy decisions can never be based upon any scientifically-garnered probabilities. The reason here is not just a question of being unable to credibly assess the odds of any future presidential irrationality. It is also a matter of Mr. Trump himself being unable to calculate the probable outcomes of any particular nuclear decision that he should ultimately decide to make.

This forecasting inability has nothing to do with any personal intellectual deficit on the president’s part, but rather with the indisputable and irremediable absence of any pertinent past events.

If, for example, the American president should sometime seek an “expert” probability assessment or prediction concerning North Korean escalation to nuclear weapons (in the near term, such an escalation could more or less plausibly relate to Japan, US forces in the region, and/or to certain already-reachable targets in Alaska or Hawaii), there would be no suitably relevant history for him to draw upon, factor in, or purposefully ponder. The same point can now be made regarding the expected results of any American attack launched against Iran, one where enemy escalatory responses could include not only direct Iranian air attacks on Saudi and Gulf oilfields but also indirect Hezbollah aggressions against Israel. Again, in any such scenario, there would be no opportunity, by definition, to render a scientifically meaningful estimation of applicable probabilities, or “odds.”

Returning to the core issue of any prospective US presidential irrationality regarding nuclear weapons, it is conceivable that such consequential missteps could become less likely over time, on the more-or-less logical assumption that experience in office would correlate favorably with increased caution, but that conclusion could offer a merely “commons sense” explanation. At best, in fact, it would represent a “tricky” or contrived extrapolation from some earlier historical eras, one wherein the main argument would still have made some sense in the pre-nuclear past. In any event, during a still-upcoming nuclear crisis involving the United States, President Trump would have to strike an utterly optimal balance between the always unavoidable search for “escalation dominance,” and the closely matching need to avoid being locked into any desperate sequence of move and countermove.

Expressed as an appropriately dynamic process, one driven by its own unstoppable inner momentum, this escalatory sequence could promptly create a self-limiting pattern of extrication that could then lead inexorably to either a nuclear exchange or full-blown nuclear war. Obviously, either immediately or over time, the costs of any such war could severely impact Israel and perhaps assorted other regional states, as well as the United States itself.

As President Kennedy had fortuitously revealed in 1962, strategic risk-taking can be significantly advantageous up to a point, but figuring out exactly where that critical point should be is by no means a readily predictable or handily calculable task. Indeed, well-documented histories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis all seem to agree that the superpowers had then come very close to a very different and authentically calamitous sort of conclusion. Once again, already back at Princeton in 1967, I had heard this cautionary conclusion directly from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Nuclear strategy is a game that sane national leaders must learn to play, but never with any reassuringly plausible assurances of determining probable outcomes. The only way this “probabilistic unpredictability” can change is if, in the years ahead, examples should actually accumulate of specific nuclear escalations and outcomes. To be sure, this accumulation is not something we ever ought to wish for; instead, it would be far better for us to continue to have to concede an incapacity to more reliably “figure the odds” of any nuclear crisis engagement, or resultant nuclear war.

It follows from all this dialectic that we can’t yet usefully determine just how likely it is that America’s new president would ever give an irrational order to use American nuclear weapons. But scholars can still reasonably advise Mr. Trump that unprecedented nuclear dangers lurk not only in sudden “bolt from the blue” enemy attacks but also in unanticipated and uncontrolled forms of nuclear escalation. As far as pretending irrationality is concerned – a tactic that may or may not have figured importantly in the Cuban Missile Crisis, depending upon one’s own particular interpretation of JFK’s 1962 strategic calculations – it could rapidly become a double-edged sword for Mr. Trump.

In certain circumstances centered on the Middle East, the self-destructive sword’s “edge” could inflict near measureless harms, not only upon the United States but also upon Israel.

Most purposeless of all, in this connection, would be a President Trump who naively confuses copious bluster and bravado for a convincing rendition of irrationality. Donald Trump has persistently hinted at the alleged benefits of his pretending irrationality in foreign relations, but there is yet absolutely no evidence that he also understands the corollary requirement of a compelling policy “follow through.” No doubt, Moshe Dayan once had a promising point in his own strategic argument that Israel should best be seen as a “mad dog,” but it is also plausible that he would have strongly favored certain attendant preparations to ensure “escalation dominance.”

In essence, these preparations would have been based upon a carefully prepared and incrementally nuanced “ladder” of sequenced retaliations and counter-retaliations.

Under certain circumstances, the “rationality of pretended irrationality” tactic can represent a very sane move in the bewilderingly complex game of nuclear strategy, but it must always be undertaken with certain inherent limitations. Above all, for the foreseeable future, this means fashioning strategic policy without any substantially precise or scientific estimations of probable outcome. Looking ahead, it follows that for both the United States and Israel, there can be no adequate substitute for maximum caution and prudence in absolutely every instance of strategic risk-taking.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Defense

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