Paul Pillar

Staving Off Israeli Folly

Bruce Riedel's hard-hitting article about a possible Israeli military attack on Iran has appropriately attracted attention.  I commend the piece for conveying the clear message that such an attack would be disastrous for U.S. interests, and that consequently major efforts to reduce the chance of such an attack are in order.  To his credit, Bruce has offered specific ideas for trying to do that, which have the common theme of trying to reassure the Israelis about their security and U.S. support for that security.  Of course, the more specific one gets in proposing alternative solutions to anything, the more targets there are for critics to shoot at.  Perhaps some of Bruce's suggestions deserve to be shot at, and perhaps some are infeasible (such as NATO membership for Israel, which Bruce himself all but admits is a nonstarter).  But much of this is shooting at trees while losing sight of why we need to grow a forest.

I have heard from friends who have reacted very negatively to the article, gagging on the idea of bestowing still more largesse on Israel, in the form of not just additional security guarantees but also ever-more-advanced weapons systems, as a response to the possibility of this ostensible ally recklessly doing something that would be highly damaging to U.S. interests.  I gag on that idea as well.  It brings to mind the tactic that the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il has developed into a well-honed art form, of using reckless behavior or threatened behavior to shake down other states for assistance, whether it is food aid or a civilian nuclear power plant.  But some dangers are sufficiently great to warrant even steps that may trigger a gag reflex.  Starting a war with Iran may be one of those dangers.  Given political as well as strategic realities, steps to reduce that danger need to recognize--and to stress--that resorting to military force against Iran would be damaging to Israel's interests as well as to those of the United States.  Moreover, anything that comes across as Israel-bashing is sure to be counterproductive.

My fellow National Interest blogger Jacob Heilbrunn also has criticized Bruce's ideas, making arguments about what aspects of deterrence in the Cold War did or did not work.  The arguments themselves can be criticized, but this would be off the point.  Strategic logic about what deterred the USSR during the Cold War or what would deter a future nuclear-armed Iran is not the issue.  The issue is what will keep Israel from doing something foolish and damaging.  If it were all a matter of the strategic logic of deterrence, this whole worrisome problem would never have arisen in the first place.  Even with a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel will retain overwhelming nuclear superiority to go along with its conventional military superiority, retaining what Cold War strategists would call escalation dominance.

The danger of Israel going to war is rooted more in Israelis' emotion and historical baggage than in strategy and logic.  To the extent logic does enter into it, it is less a matter of dealing with any Iranian bolt out of the blue than of retaining whatever else Israel gains (or thinks it gains) by enjoying a regional nuclear weapons monopoly.  The main criticism to be made of Bruce's ideas is that by focusing on strategic deterrence, the proposals may not be aimed directly enough at the actual reasons that Israeli leaders are teetering on the brink of folly.

This danger is serious enough that we need all the ideas we can get.  If Bruce's aren't good enough, let's hear some others.