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by Louis René Beres


The more things change, the more they remain the same. However distasteful, Israelis must still keep impending war on their minds. Indeed, today, this troubling mindfulness must be especially focused on those more or less probable regional conflicts with potentially existential consequences.[1]

In the visible hierarchy of catastrophic threats, Iranian nuclearization looms largest and most conspicuously. But there are also other critical hazards on the strategic horizon, several with distinctly synergistic prospects. The most serious hazard is unmistakably the coincident creation of a Palestinian state, together with all of the accumulated, attendant and incremental costs of a still-delusionary "peace process."

Israel's senior operational planners must look very closely at all of these interpenetrating and interwoven security challenges. Keeping especially Iran and "Palestine" in mind, particular attention will need to be directed toward what military thinkers have sometimes identified as the correlation of forces,[*] now with a substantially improved orientation to both (a) the prevailing correlation, and (b) the preferred correlation.

Since the Second Lebanon War (2006),[2] IDF strategists and tacticians have begun to use this operational planning concept in creative and non-traditional ways. Historically, a correlation of forces approach has generally been applied as a tangible measure of competitive armed forces, ranging from quantitative considerations at the subunit level, and extending all the way up to assessments of major formations. It has also been used to compare resources and capabilities at both the operational levels of day-to-day strategy, and at the much higher levels of "grand strategy." At times, this particular application has been related to the similar, but less comprehensive military notion of force ratios.

Presently, facing an even broader and more ominous variety of existential security threats than ever before, perils originating from both state and sub-state adversaries, Israel must undertake broader and more complex correlation of forces assessments. IDF planners must, in this new and wider search, seek more than a traditionally "objective" yardstick for the appropriate measurement of opposing forces. Although defense strategists in Tel Aviv already routinely compare all available data concerning both the numerical and qualitative characteristics of relevant units, including, inter alia, personnel, weaponry and equipment, IDF field commanders will now also need to cultivate some newly "subjective" kinds of understanding. This unorthodox recommendation may appear to fly in the face of the usual military emphases on facts, but — in war as well as in peace — these "facts" are often the result of very personal and particular interpretations.

In exploiting a suitably improved concept of a correlation of forces, Israel's senior planners, soon to be led by a new IDF Chief of General Staff, Major General Yoav Galant, will seemingly have to reject a basic axiom of mathematics. They will need to recognize that some critical force measurements must not only remain imprecise, but that the unavoidable imprecision itself may include important forms of military understanding. For example, a particular enemy's consuming dedication to certain presumed religious expectations, his utterly uncompromising strength of will, may resist more traditional sorts of measurement, but it may still be determinative.

In certain military assessments, as in human psychology, there are ascertainable variables that are plainly refractory to measurement, but may still be of considerable importance.[3]

Several emerging hazards to Israeli national security will be shaped by a distinctively "Westphalian" geometry of chaos. In this delicately unbalanced and largely unprecedented set of imprecise calculations, the whole, paradoxically, may turn out to be more (or less) than the sum of its parts. It follows that Israeli planners will need to bring a still more nuanced and intellectually unorthodox approach to their multi-disciplinary work. This means, especially, a counterintuitive awareness that proper planning must sometimes presume enemy irrationality, and that it must also be able distinguish between authentic enemy irrationality, and pretended enemy irrationality.

How can the IDF planner actually recognize the difference between real and contrived irrationality? This is an urgent question; it cannot be answered by any standard reference to more traditional correlation of forces modes of analysis.

These same issues of rational decision-making will also have to be looked at from the standpoint of optimizing Israel's own capacity to project certain purposeful images of military policy. Reciprocally, therefore, IDF planners will have to decide when Israel would be better served in both its deterrence and war-fighting capabilities by the deliberate projection of an image of limited or partial irrationality. Earlier, Moshe Dayan had displayed a more visceral idea of this posture when he warned: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." But Israeli planners must also be mindful here of pretended irrationality as a double-edged sword. Brandished too provocatively, any recognizable preparations for a so-called "Samson Option" could unexpectedly encourage certain enemy preemptions.

By its improved use of correlation of forces thinking, Israel will need to seize every available operational initiative — including certain appropriate intelligence and counterintelligence functions — to best influence and control each enemy's particular matrix of expectations. This is a tall policy order, especially as these multiple enemies will include both state and sub-state adversaries, often with substantial and subtle interactions between them. Moreover, in an age of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, the consequences of certain IDF planning failures could be literally intolerable.

Now, in greater detail, what should be the more holistic IDF concept of correlation of forces?

First, this concept must take careful account of enemy leaders' intentions as well as capabilities. Such an accounting is always more subjective than any more traditional assessments of personnel, weapons and basic logistic data. But such an accounting will also need to be thoughtful and nuanced, despite relying less on tangible scientific modeling, than upon behaviorally informed profiles. It will not be enough for IDF planners to judiciously gather and examine relevant hard data from all of the usual sources. It will also be important to put Israeli planners directly into the "shoes" of each enemy leader, president, king or terrorist, thus determining, among other things, what relevant Israeli capacity and vulnerability looks like to them.

Second, expanding more precisely what has just been discussed, any properly refined IDF correlation of forces concept must take very close account of enemy leaders' rationality. Any adversary that does not conform to the presumed rules of rational behavior in world politics ( an increasingly probable scenario) might not be deterred by any Israeli threats, military or otherwise. This is the case even where Israel would actually possess both the capacity and resolve to make good on its pertinent deterrent threats.

Where an enemy state or sub-state would not value its own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, the standard logic of deterrence would be immobilized. Here, all bets would be off concerning probable enemy reactions to Israeli retaliatory threats.

This sobering point now refers especially to prospective nuclear security threats from a potentially unstable Iran. In this widely recognized theatre of possible future war, especially if President Ahmadinejad, his clerical handlers and/or his successors should subscribe to faith-based expectations of a Shiite apocalypse, Israel could find itself confronting what amounts to a suicide bomber in macrocosm. This radically unfavorable scenario, of course, would be contingent upon a prior willingness by both Jerusalem/Tel Aviv and Washington to forego any remaining preemption options.

Insofar as assassination/targeted killing may be considered as a particular form of preemption ("anticipatory self-defense" under international law),[4] however, it is plausible that the United States and Israel could abandon any operational plans for the more standard and recognizable military forms of defensive first-strike, but still remain more or less willing to selectively kill Iranian leaders and/or nuclear scientists. In essence, viewed from the standpoint of an expanded and improved IDF correlation of forces orientation, this would mean the formal inclusion of assassination[5] and sabotage within the country's strategic doctrine.[6]

Third, IDF planning assessments will assuredly need to consider the organization of enemy state units; their training standards; their morale; their reconnaissance capabilities; their battle experience; and their suitability and adaptability to the prospective battlefield. Traditionally, these sorts of assessment are quite ordinary, and not exceedingly difficult to make or innovate on an individual or piecemeal basis. But now, creative IDF planners will be those who are able to conceptualize such ordinarily diverse factors together, in their entirety. Recalling Sun-Tzu's The Art of War, one vital purpose of this new strategic holism should be to avoid protracted warfare. Indeed, the ancient Chinese strategist's observation that "No country has ever profited from protracted warfare..." is always meaningful to Israel.

Fourth, and closely related to number 3 (above), IDF assessments must consider the cumulative capabilities and intentions of Israel's nonstate enemies; that is, the entire configuration of anti-Israel terrorist groups. In the future, such assessments must offer more than a simple group by group consideration. Rather, the groups in question should also be considered in their entirety, collectively, as they may interrelate with one another vis-à-vis Israel. These several hostile groups will also need to be considered in their particularly interactive relationship with core enemy states. This last point might best be characterized as an essential IDF correlation of forces search for vital synergies between its assorted state and sub-state adversaries.

There is nothing really new about the concept of "asymmetric warfare," but today, especially in the Middle East, the really crucial asymmetry lies not in particular force structures or ratios, but rather in determination and strength of will. In a similar vein, Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812), spoke of a genuine need for "audacity." This quality represents yet another crucial variable for IDF planners; it must inevitably elude any kind of precise or tangible measurement.

Fifth, and once again recalling Sun Tzu — this time his spatial injunction that "If there is no place to go, it is fatal terrain" - IDF strategic planning judgments should take suitable note of the still-ongoing metamorphosis of a fragmented nonstate adversary (Fatah/Hamas) into a sovereign state adversary ("Palestine"). As has been well-known since 1967, with such a significantly injurious metamorphosis, Israel's "strategic depth" would shrink to decisively less manageable levels. Further, any expanding enemy momentum to fold Israel itself into the new Arab state would be further energized. After all, the official maps of "Palestine" drawn by both the Palestine Authority, and Hamas, already include all of Israel.

If, perhaps because of new and insistent "peace" pressures now coming from President Obama's Washington, Palestinian statehood cannot be avoided, how should Israel learn to "live with Palestine?" In one respect, any codified institutionalization of disparate Arab enemies into "Palestine" could possibly offer at least some geostrategic benefit to Israel. For example, now certain forms of Israeli reprisal and retaliation would likely be easier and thus more purposeful. Yet, there would also be a corresponding and incontestably serious loss of "strategic depth" through its loss of vital territories. And this is to say nothing of the obvious historical, religious and legal grounds that exist for maintaining a full Israeli possession of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

In the matter of synergies, the IDF will also need to consider and look for critical new "force multipliers." A force multiplier is a collection of related characteristics, other than weapons and force size, that may make any military organization more effective in combat. A force multiplier may be generalship; tactical surprise; tactical mobility; or certain command and control system enhancements. It could include such imaginative and less costly forms of preemption as assassination.[7] and sabotage. It will now also include well-integrated components of cyber-warfare, and a reciprocal capacity to prevent and blunt any incoming cyber-attacks.

Today, this particular force multiplier could even prove to be more decisive than any of the others. Although, of course, nonexistent in the times of Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, "cyber-audacity" could already represent a core component of Israel's necessarily broadened approach to correlation of forces.

The presence of any force multiplier may create synergy. Again, in the matter of Israel, we must acknowledge the antecedent "geometry of chaos." Understanding this more fully, IDF fighting units could conceivably become more effective than the mere sum of their respective parts.

Before this can happen, however, senior planners must ensure that their analyses and consequent recommendations are detached from any sort of false hopes. Here, the ancient advice of Thucydides (416 BCE), writing on the ultimatum of the Athenians to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War, will be instructive:

"But hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined..."

The overriding objective of IDF correlation of forces war planning must be to inform leadership decisions about two always complementary matters: (1) perceived vulnerabilities of Israel; and (2) perceived vulnerabilities of enemy states and non-states. For the IDF Intelligence Branch (Aman) in particular, this means gathering and assessing crucial information; for example, information concerning the expected persuasiveness of the country's still-undisclosed nuclear deterrence posture. To endure well into the uncertain future, such information, and not a series of unfounded hopes, must be at the core of its structured orientation to a regional correlation of forces.

All this information, especially whatever concerns Israel's "opaque" or undeclared nuclear deterrent, must flow reliably and quickly to key "consumers" within the broader IDF sphere, and then to the country's political leadership in Jerusalem. Once it is received and digested by this leadership, including, of course, the other security services, and the General Staff, selected information must also flow as needed to the national warning centers; to operating force commanders; to contingency operations planners; to research directors; to combat/training developers; and to national resource allocators. Above all, IDF planners doing this sensitive work must firmly resist all pressures that might be imposed by divergent political interests in order to support certain preconceived hopes.

Conceptually, in a world of growing international anarchy,[8] this means that IDF correlation of forces planning responsibility should include (1) recognizing enemy force multipliers; (2) challenging and undermining enemy force multipliers; and (3) developing and refining its own force multipliers. Regarding number (3), this means a particularly heavy IDF emphasis on air superiority; communications; intelligence; and surprise. Once again, recalling Moshe Dayan, it may also mean a heightened and calculated awareness of the possible benefits of sometimes appearing less than completely rational to one's enemies.

It is routinely assumed that Israel's security from an enemy missile attack is ensured by nuclear deterrence, however opaque or "ambiguous." But such a strategy of dissuasion depends upon many complex and interpenetrating conditions and perceptions. Taken by itself, Israel's mere possession of nuclear weapons, even if it should be fully or partially disclosed, can never bestow real safety.

By definition, a rational state enemy of Israel will always accept or reject a first-strike option by comparing the costs and benefits of each available alternative. Where the expected costs of striking first are taken to exceed expected gains, this enemy will be deterred. But where these expected costs are believed to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence will fail. Here, Israel would be faced with an enemy attack, whether as a "bolt from the blue," or as an outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation.

In thinking about strategy, therefore, an immediate task for Israel will be to so strengthen its nuclear deterrent such that any enemy state will always calculate that a first-strike would be irrational. This means taking all proper steps to convince these enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this objective, Israel must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with its nuclear weapons.

Should an enemy state considering an attack upon Israel be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might choose to strike first, depending upon the particular value or "utility" that it places on the expected consequences of such an attack. In part, it is precisely to prevent just such an "unconvincing" nuclear deterrence posture that Israel must now consider the expected benefits of ending "deliberate ambiguity."

A major focus of IDF strategic planning will have to be the nuclear posture of deliberate ambiguity or the so-called "bomb in the basement." Prime Minister Netanyahu surely understands that adequate nuclear deterrence of increasingly formidable enemies could soon require less nuclear secrecy. What will soon need to be determined by IDF planners concerned with an improved correlation of forces will be the precise extent and subtlety with which Israel should begin to communicate tangible elements of its nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities to these enemies.

The geo-strategic rationale for such carefully constructed forms of nuclear disclosure would not lie in exposing the obvious - that is, that Israel simply "has" the bomb. Rather, among other things, it would be to persuade prospective attackers that Israel's nuclear weapons are both usable and penetration-capable.

To protect itself against certain enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry intolerable costs, IDF defense planners will need to prepare to exploit every relevant aspect and function of Israel's own nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel's effort here will depend not only upon its particular choice of targeting doctrine ("counterforce" or "counter value"), but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to certain enemy states, and to their sub-state surrogates. Before such enemies can be suitably deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any Israeli preemptions, it may not be enough for them to know only that Israel has the bomb. These enemies may also need to recognize that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks, and that they are pointed directly at high-value population targets.

IDF planners working on an improved strategic paradigm will need to understand the following: Removing the bomb from Israel's "basement" could enhance Israel's nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel's willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. From the standpoint of successful Israeli nuclear deterrence, IDF planners must proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is always just as important as perceived capability. This, again, may bring to mind the counter intuitively presumed advantages for Israel of sometimes appearing less than fully rational.

There are certain circumstances in which a correlation of forces paradigm will necessarily lead IDF planners to consider certain preemption options. This is because there will surely be circumstances in which the existential risks to Israel of continuing to rely upon some combination of nuclear deterrence and active defenses (that is, primarily the "Arrow" system of ballistic missile defense) will simply be too great. In these circumstances, Israeli decision-makers will need to determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of "anticipatory self-defense," would be cost-effective.[9] Here, their judgments would depend upon a number of very critical factors, including: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost (disutility) of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployments; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected United States and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.

IDF planners will no doubt note that Israel's rational inclinations to strike preemptively in certain circumstances will be affected by the particular steps taken by prospective target states (e.g., Iran) to guard against any Israeli preemption. Should Israel refrain too long (for any reason) from striking first defensively, certain enemy states could begin to implement protective measures that would pose substantial additional obstacles and hazards for Israel. These measures could include the attachment of certain automated launch mechanisms to certain nuclear weapons, and/or the adoption of "launch-on-warning" policies.

IDF planners must presume that such policies might call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles upon receipt of warning that an Israeli attack is underway. By requiring launch before the attacking Israeli warheads actually reached their intended targets, any enemy reliance of launch-on-warning could carry very grave risks of error.

The single most important factor in IDF correlation of forces planning judgments on the preemption option will be the expected rationality of certain enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence would cease to work. This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if the enemy leaders fully understood that Israel had "successfully" deployed its own nuclear weapons in completely survivable modes; that Israel's nuclear weapons were believed to be entirely capable of penetrating the enemy's active defenses; and that Israel's leaders were altogether willing to retaliate.

It is time for Israel to go beyond even its already-expanded paradigm of numerical military assessments to certain additional and so-called "softer" considerations. Within this wider and more self-consciously qualitative strategic paradigm, IDF planners should focus, among other areas, upon the cumulative and interpenetrating importance of unconventional weapons, and low-intensity warfare in the region.

In certain circumstances, critical strategies and tactics will be both indispensable and infeasible. For the Jewish State, this will have the apparent makings of an unbearable and irremediable dilemma. Yet, truth can sometimes emerge through paradox, and a suitably improved "correlation of forces" focus could soon uncover unforeseen, but fully purposeful, strategic options

End Notes

[*] The Soviets viewed Correlation of Forces (COF) as roughtly equivalent to balance of power. COF details the mathematical methodology for developing models that arrive at combat potentials for amament. It is an effective force optimizer and takes care of some of the planning scut work, but it is not clear the traditional COF has the ability to handle some battlefield variables important in modern combat.

[1]  Much of this security problem is rooted in the unchanging structure of world politics in general. The Middle East exists, of course, within the still-broader anarchy of "Westphalian" international relations. This jurisprudential/strategic reference is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the still-enduring state system. (See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119.) Together, these two agreements comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[2]  It is widely presumed in senior U.S. military circles that a U.S. Air Force Effects-Based Approach To Operations (EBO) was employed by the Israel Air Force (IAF) during this 2006 conflict.

[3] Oddly, perhaps, one of these variables is the promise of immortality, or the primal power over death. This is always the ultimate form of power, especially in the Islamic Middle East. Here, IDF planners may learn from Lucretius' poem, On the Nature of Things. The core "message" of this ancient Epicurean text could have very serious current and future implications for Israel's security and survival. What the young Virgil, citing Lucretius, called "fear of the doom against which no prayer avails," still leads many to destroy human life. Because the affected individual fails to understand the delicate life balance between destructive and creative forces, he/she is deeply anxious about personal dissolution. This individual, to use the precise mythical categories first set forth by Lucretius himself, will be on the "side of mars," rather than of "Venus," thereby reaching out to the rest of the world aggressively rather than compassionately. Individuals, and therefore also states, have now largely accepted an attitude toward death that turns them toward the presumed and palpable pleasures of violence. (In the Islamic Middle East, we may think here of terrorism, "infidels," and Jihad.) The very last scene of Lucretius poem is a bloody battle that would not even have taken place if individuals had first properly understood, and not feared, death.

[4] See, especially, Louis René Beres, "Facing Iran's Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 22, Issue 3, June 2009, pp. 491-514; Louis René Beres, "Religious Extremism and International Legal Norms: Perfidy, Preemption and Irrationality," Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 39, No. 3., 2007/2008, pp. 709-730; Louis René Beres, "On Assassination, Preemption and Counterterrorism: The View From International Law," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 21. Issue 4., December 2008, pp. 694-725. For earlier writings by this author on anticipatory self-defense under international law, see: Louis René Beres, Chair, The Project Daniel Group, ISRAEL'S STRATEGIC FUTURE: PROJECT DANIEL, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, ACPR (Israel), May 2004, 64pp (this paper was prepared for presentation to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and transmitted by hand on January 16, 2003); Louis René Beres, SECURITY THREATS AND EFFECTIVE REMEDIES: ISRAEL'S STRATEGIC, TACTICAL AND LEGAL OPTIONS, ACPR Policy Paper No. 102, ACPR (Israel), April 2000, 110 pp; Louis René Beres, ISRAEL'S SURVIVAL IMPERATIVES: THE OSLO AGREEMENTS IN INTERNATIONAL LAW AND NATIONAL STRATEGY, ACPR Policy Paper No. 25, ACPR (Israel), April 1998, 74 pp; Louis René Beres, "Assassinating Saddam Hussein: The View From International Law," INDIANA INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW REVIEW, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2003, pp. 847- 869; Louis René Beres, "The Newly Expanded American Doctrine of Preemption: Can It Include Assassination," DENVER JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW AND POLICY, Vol. 31, No. 2., Winter 2002, pp. 157-177; Louis René Beres and (Col/IDF/Ret.), Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, "Reconsidering Israel's Destruction of Iraq's Osiraq Nuclear Reactor," TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 9, No. 2., 1995, pp. 437-449; Louis René Beres, "Striking `First': Israel's Post Gulf War Options Under International Law," LOYOLA OF LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 14, Nov. 1991, pp. 10-24; Louis René Beres, "On Assassination as Anticipatory Self-Defense: Is It Permissible?" 70 U. DET. MERCY L. REV. U., 13 (1992); Louis René Beres, "On Assassination as Self-Defense: The Case of Israel," 20 HOFSTRA L. REV 321 (1991); Louis René Beres, "Preserving the Third Temple: Israel's Right of Anticipatory Self-Defense Under International Law," 26 VAND. J. TRANSNAT'L L. 111 (1993); Louis René Beres, "After the Gulf War: Israel, Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense," 13 HOUS. J. INT'L L. 259 (1991); Louis René Beres, "Israel and Anticipatory Self-Defense," 8 ARIZ J. INT'L & COMP. L. REV. 89 (1991); Louis René Beres, "After the Scud Attacks: Israel, `Palestine,' and Anticipatory Self-Defense," 6 EMORY INT'L L. REV. 71 (1992); and Louis René Beres, "Israel, Force and International Law: Assessing Anticipatory Self-Defense," THE JERUSALEM JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, Vol. 13, No. 2., 1991, pp. 1-14.

[5]   International law is not a suicide pact. Assassination, subject to applicable legal rules of discrimination, proportionality and military necessity (humanitarian international law), may sometimes represent the least injurious form of self-defense. Where genuinely genocidal attacks are still being planned (arguably, the current case of Iran versus Israel), the permissibility of assassination as anticipatory self-defense could even be unassailable. The residual permissibility of assassination derives from the persistently Westphalian logic of international law. Our world legal order is obligated to protect us all from clear and terrible infringements on our physical safety, yet this fundamentally anarchic system still lacks an independent centralized mechanism to fulfill this indispensable obligation. Perhaps, in the best of all possible worlds, assassination would have absolutely no defensible place in law and policy. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the manifestly negative aspects of assassination cannot be properly evaluated apart from all other available options. Rather, such aspects must always be compared to what would be expected of these other options. If the expected costs of assassination should appear lower than the expected costs of alternative resorts to military force, assassination may well emerge as the distinctly rational and moral choice. However odious it might appear in isolation, assassination in certain circumstances may still represent the best overall option. Assassination will always elicit indignation, even by those who would find large-scale warfare appropriate. But the civilizational promise of genuine worldwide security is far from being realized, and existentially imperiled states will inevitably need to confront critical choices between employing assassination in very limited circumstances, or renouncing such tactics at the expense of survival. In facing such choices, these states, especially Israel, will discover that all viable alternatives to the assassination option could include very large-scale violence, and these these alternatives are apt to exact a substantially larger toll in human life and suffering.

[6]  From the standpoint of international law, it could also be reasonable to examine assassination as a possible and permissible form of ordinary self-defense; that is, as a forceful measure of self-help short of war that is undertaken after an armed attack occurs. Tactically, however, from a correlation of forces perspective, there are at least two serious problems with such a position: (1) In view of the ongoing proliferation of extraordinarily destructive weapons technologies, waiting to resort to post-attack self-defense could be unacceptably dangerous or even fatal; and (2) assassination, while it may prove to be helpful in preventing an attack in the first place, is substantially less likely to be useful in mitigating further harms once an enemy attack has already been launched.

[7] In his Utopia, published in 1516, Thomas More offered a curious but clarifying juxtaposition of foreign policy stratagems and objectives. Although the Utopians are expected to be generous toward other states, they also offer rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders (Book II). This is not because More wished to be gratuitously barbarous, but rather because he was a realistic utopian. Sharing with St. Augustine (whose City of God had been the subject of his 1501 lectures), a fundamentally dark assessment of human political arrangements, More constructed a "lesser evil" philosophy that favored a distinctly pragmatic kind of morality. Sir Thomas More understood that the truly tragic element of politics is necessarily constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. With regard to this investigation of Israel's security and correlation of forces, this suggests that assassination must always be disagreeable in the "best of all possible worlds"(for example, the Leibnizian world satirized by Voltaire in Candide), but that it may be an indispensable expedient in a world that remains distressingly imperfect - a world where a "geometry of chaos" still prevails.

[8] This actual condition of anarchy stands in stark contrast to the jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between all states in the presumably common struggle against aggression and terrorism. Such a peremptory expectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption), is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925)(1690); Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit Des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[9]  An antecedent or corollary concern must also be the ethical or humanitarian calculus in these particular circumstances. Although an ideal world order would contain "neither victims nor executioners," such an optimal arrangement of global power and authority is assuredly not yet on the horizon. (This phrase is taken from Albert Camus, Neither Victims Nor Executioners (Dwight Mc Donald., ed., 1968)). Confronting what he called "our century of fear," Camus asked his readers to be "neither victims nor executioners," living not in a world in which killing has disappeared ("we are not so crazy as that"), but one wherein killing has become illegitimate. This is a fine expectation of the philosopher, but certainly not one that can be purposefully harmonized with strategic or even jurisprudential realism. Deprived of the capacity to act as lawful executioners, both states and individuals within states facing aggression, terrorism and/or genocide would be forced by Camus' reasoning to become victims. The core problem with Camus' argument, therefore, is that the will to kill remains unimpressed by others' commitments to "goodness." This means that both within states, and also between them, executioners must still have their rightful place, and that without these executioners, there would only be more victims.

Louis René Beres is Professor of International Law, Department of Political Science, Purdue University, West Lafayette IN 47907. Contact him at he is the author of ten books and several hundred journal articles and monographs on Israeli security issues.

This article was submitted September 6, 2010.


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