Paul Pillar

Inevitability and Overconfidence in the Launching of War

The current issue of the journal International Security has a couple of articles with interesting insights on the unwise use of military force. The insights are particularly relevant to—although this is not the subject of either article—the most likely unwise use of military force that would damage U.S. interests in the foreseeable future: an attack by either Israel or the United States against Iran in the name of setting back the Iranian nuclear program. The possibility that such folly would be committed, especially by the current Israeli government, keeps getting mentioned and even predicted.

One of the articles, by the Norwegian scholar Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, revisits the Israeli attack against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, making use of materials unavailable before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Braut-Hegghammer's conclusion is that the Israeli attack was counterproductive, for two sets of reasons. One concerned the state of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time of the attack, which was basically drifting and, although providing some of the technological base that possibly could have been used in the future toward acquiring nuclear weapons, was not geared up to produce such weapons. The political momentum to develop a weapons option was “inconsistent at best.” The Osirak reactor itself was not well designed for purposes of supporting a weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency later assessed that visual verification and materials accounting would have detected any diversion to a weapons program. On-site French engineers constituted an additional safeguard. Saddam Hussein had not “secured the basic organizational resources or budget.” Iraqi pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was “both directionless and disorganized.”

The other set of reasons involved the Iraqi response to the Israeli attack, which was to establish for the first time a nuclear weapons program that not only had direction and organization but also was clandestine and kept away from international scrutiny. As Braut-Hegghammer summarizes the response:

The Israeli attack on Osirak created a window of opportunity for Iraqi nuclear entrepreneurs to persuade Saddam to establish a nuclear weapons program. First, the violation of Iraqi sovereignty created a strategic imperative to respond. Second, the attack refocused Saddam's inconsistent attention on the issue of nuclear weapons.

The resulting clandestine program to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium as the fissile material accelerated through the 1980s and brought Iraq much closer to a nuclear-weapons capability than could have been projected from anything Iraq was doing prior to the Israeli attack.

The other article, by Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney and titled “The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return,” examines why decision makers who may have carefully calculated costs and risks and been wary of going to war when war did not seem imminent become less careful when on the eve of conflict. The authors ground their explanation in a finding from experimental psychology that people shift from a “deliberative” mind-set before deciding to take an action to an “implemental” mind-set after their decision. The latter frame of mind entails several psychological biases, including closed-mindedness, biased processing of information, cognitive dissonance, self-serving evaluations, an illusion of control and excessive optimism, all of which add up to overconfidence. Expectations for what can be accomplished through armed force get inflated, and the costs and challenges of the coming war get less attention. The authors apply their concept to prewar situations, including the months leading up to World War I. They point out that the shift to the biased “implemental” way of thinking occurs whenever war seems inevitable, regardless of whether the decision makers in question are initiating the war or have it forced on them. The whole dynamic can help to make the prediction of war a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This set of findings is worrisome given all the talk about “no other option left” or “Israel may be forced [sic] to act” as applied to the paranoia about Iranian nuclear activities. Much of the discourse about this subject already seems to blend prediction with prescription. The psychological mechanism that Johnson and Tierney describe accentuates further the danger that acceptance of launching a war with Iran, as a reasonable and even likely option, will become a costly self-fulfilling prediction. Apply also the lesson of 1981, and the predictive-prescriptive talk becomes not only self-fulfilling and highly costly but also counterproductive. Most of the relevant attributes of Iraq's situation back then are present as well today with Iran. To the extent they are different—such as the larger and more dispersed nature of Iranian nuclear facilities, making them harder to knock out without a much larger attack, and maybe not even with a larger attack—only amplifies the counterproductivity.