Surviving amid chaos: Israel's most dangerous game

Neither the United States nor the United Nations will save Israel, the first, for lack of capacity, the second, for lack of good will.

A Jewish woman and her child walk through Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A Jewish woman and her child walk through Jerusalem's Old City
"The worst does sometimes happen."
Friedrich Durrenmatt, A Dangerous Game
Swiss playwright, Friedrich Durrenmatt, was not thinking about Israel's national security, when he wrote these forbidding words, in A Dangerous Game. Nonetheless, his broadly philosophic argument does fit perfectly in shaping the Jewish State's particular outlook for long-term survival. Moreover, the reason for this especially good fit is counter-intuitive; it is an explanation positively brimming with conspicuous irony.  
Unless Israel begins to fashion its essential strategic doctrine with a view to including various plausible irrationalities, it will never find safety. 
How, precisely, can a beleaguered mini-state (a Jewish state, no less) forge order out of regional chaos? The correct answer is perplexing, and also, at least partially unexpected.
Do not continue to base Israel's core security policy upon standard assumptions of enemy rationality. 
Such starkly untraditional advice could create new and substantial strategic planning complications in Tel Aviv. Still, the alternatives could turn out to be much worse. This is because nation-states, like the individual human beings from which they are necessarily constructed, remain prone to irrationality and unreason.
Periodically, it is impossible to deny, states act more-or-less viscerally, out of deeply primal emotions and private passions, rather than from (1) any appropriately cool-headed, "objective" calculations, or from (2) any consciously neutral assessments of decisional "cost-effectiveness." 
From the standpoint of national strategy, the basic imperative for Jerusalem is clear. The task must be to ascertain wide-ranging enemy preferences, and also, determinable enemy preference hierarchies. Soon, if Israel should begin to face a nation-state Jihadist adversary that would value certain presumed religious expectations more highly than collective physical survival (in other words, a suicide-bomber writ large), its indispensable nuclear deterrent could fail. In turn, this failure could portend a heightened probability of nuclear and/or biological war. 
It could also place Israel in the increasingly menacing cross hairs of mass destruction terrorism.
What can help? In understanding world politics, even fiction literature can sometimes be illuminating or redemptive. As Israel may learn from the Swiss playwright, Friedrich Durrenmatt, so, too, can it learn from W.B. Yeats:  “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” prophesied Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Going forward, Jerusalem would be well-advised to heed the great Irish poet.
To be sure, global disorder is not new. Assembled in assorted armed camps, pleasingly called nation-states, all peoples continue to coexist, more or less rabidly and insecurely, in a persistently anarchic world. In time, in this all-too-often irrational global setting, there may no longer be any meaningful safety in arms, no possible rescues from political authority, no remediating answers from science. Then, openly animated by superstition and unreason, new and much larger wars may rage unextinguished, until, finally, every flower of civilizational culture is trampled, and until all things human are leveled in a vast and potentially conclusive chaos.
Israel should strive to look behind the news. Well aware that an incremental collapse of world authority structures will cumulatively impact its few friends as well as its many enemies, leaders of the Jewish State will soon need to advance certain aptly credible premonitions of collapse. The rationale, here, would be to chart more durable "road maps" to survival. 
To begin, IDF planners will need to discard the debilitating cartographies of assorted others - including the deceptive maps of a "Two-State Solution." Then, they must take scrupulous account of growing enemy inclinations to act in ways that are seemingly contrary to ordinary human judgments of national self-interest. In essence, for Jerusalem, this means a basic obligation to acknowledge that Israel's state enemies might not always be subject to ordinary deterrent threats of military destruction. 
What shall be done to protect against such formidable enemies, foes which could even be armed, in the not-so-distant future, with nuclear weapons?
In expressly philosophical terms, a key lesson for Jerusalem may be intellectual. Ultimately, there might be more to be learned about strategy from Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, than from Plato, Cicero, and Kant. It's not that Israel's Jihadist enemies are remotely acquainted with such patently irreverent and arcane literary genres, but that these Western thinkers had already understood the perpetual presence or even primacy of irrationality in human affairs.
There would be great danger for Israel in presuming too much Reason in enemy decision-making, and also in general world affairs. Today, the use of violence within and between states is often self-propelled and self-rewarding, effectively supplanting Clausewitz with De Sade. This important argument has been made most convincingly, perhaps, by novelist Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel. Describing a sheer force of violence that wills itself as force, he speaks of this refractory will as "naked, as naked as in Kafka's novels....The aggressivity of force is thoroughly disinterested; unmotivated; it wills only its own will; it is pure irrationality."
These observations are not merely abstract or generally philosophical. They are distinctly palpable, and recorded in the daily news. Consider ISIS, now closing in on Israel from both the North and the South. Nonplussed by the US-led alliance, Egypt-based Ansar Bait al-Maqdis threatens Israel from Sinai, while al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria, operates very close to the Golan Heights. For Israel, the deteriorating situation is made even more complicated by the ongoing danger of Syrian weapons transfers to Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia terror group. 
Whatever their differences, all of these sub-state enemies of Israel share an Islamist doctrinal obsession with personal mortality. More precisely, all of their constituent fighters are convinced that terror attacks on "infidels" and "unbelievers" represent thoroughly legitimate and death-defying forms of religious sacrifice. By their own calculations, these fighters regard remorseless terror attacks as always the ideal way to buy themselves free from the intolerable penalty of perishing. 
For these Jihadist terrorists, "martyrdom," which Americans and Israelis will always view as one form or another of madness, is utterly sane.
Once they have acknowledged the critical place of chaos, unreason, and absurdity in enemy calculations, especially in their own regional "neighborhood," Israel’s leaders will need to consider how they should respond to progressively fractionated life in a coming state of nature. Here, the triggering mechanism of civilizational collapse could originate from still-escalating enemy irrationalities, and could spawn a variety of significant mass-casualty attacks against Israel, or against other western democracies. Significantly, to such plausibly prospective aggressions, even the United States would not be immune.
In essence, the world is a system. Chaotic disintegration of this planet-wide system would inevitably and decisively transform the Israeli micro-system. Ultimately, such transformations could produce total or near-total societal destruction. 
In anticipation, Israel will have to reorient certain core portions of its strategic planning, to a growing assortment of worst-case prospects. Now, focusing much more deliberately and realistically on a wide range of self-help security options, Israel could, on occasion, need to pretend irrationality.
"Israel must be seen as a mad dog," once warned Moshe Dayan, "too dangerous to bother."
Neither the United States nor the United Nations will save Israel, the first, for lack of capacity, the second, for lack of good will.
 For Jerusalem, certain mainline diplomatic processes that are comfortingly but erroneously premised on assumptions of reason, will have to be renounced, and reconfigured, yielding to alternate strategies that better acknowledge regional unreason and "anti-reason " (a term favored by the late German philosopher, Karl Jaspers) and even global absurdity.  
Credo quia absurdum.
"I believe because it is absurd." For Israel, this statement represents a troubling policy mantra, one worth repeating, and thereby, one worth regarding. While it is more difficult to plan Israel's strategic policy on the presumption of multiple and intersecting enemy irrationalities, it is still an impediment than should be confronted head on, and never merely shrugged off.
Israel must take heed of an underlying wisdom. Durrenmatt, the Swiss playwright, was assuredly correct. "The worst does sometimes happen." 
The immediate task, for Jerusalem, is to do whatever is needed to ensure that there will be no more "sometimes."
LOUIS RENÉ BERES  (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on war, terrorism, and nuclear security matters. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, and Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003), he is the author of ten books on international relations and international law, including several of the earliest major works on Israel’s nuclear strategy.