Si vis pacem, para bellum [he who desires peace, prepare for war] – Vegetius
Anyone older than about 30 remembers the “balance of terror,” or in academic terms, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This meant that the US and the Soviet Union each had enough deliverable nuclear weapons to utterly destroy the other, and systems in place to respond after an attack was launched but before it struck, or weapons that could survive a first strike (“second-strike capability”).
MAD proponents reasoned that as long as both sides knew this, it would be illogical to attack first. And if neither side attacked first, then there would be no nuclear war.
There were some interesting implications. For example, if one side had an effective antimissile system, then it might assume that it could survive an attack by the other side, and might be tempted to make a preemptive strike. Another paradox was the moral dilemma of the man with his finger on the button after it was determined that the other side had already launched its ICBMs. Should he retaliate? His country was already doomed, so why increase the suffering by destroying his enemy?
Many things can destabilize a MAD standoff. I mentioned antimissile systems, but shelters for population and hardening of infrastructure could also have that effect. There are also political factors, as we shall see.
Regardless of the logic or illogic of MAD, it seems to have worked for several decades, from the 1960s until after the breakup of the Soviet Union (it’s not clear if it still applies between the US and Russia or China).
A form of MAD appears to be in place today between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah, although nuclear weapons are (as far as I know) not involved yet. Hezbollah has more than 100,000 short, medium and long-range missiles, and probably attack tunnels under the border. These weapons pose a serious threat to Israel. Israel, in turn, has the ability to completely destroy the infrastructure of Lebanon as well as to turn the southern part of the country – where most of Hezbollah’s missiles are embedded in civilian neighborhoods – into a wasteland, using conventional weapons.
The damage to both countries in the event of a full-scale exchange of fire would be great, although it would not approach the devastation that a nuclear war between the US and the USSR would have wrought. But the logic is similar in that mutual deterrence will be maintained as long as the expected damage would be unacceptable to both sides.
Both sides are working to prevent the other side from unbalancing the equation. So Israel is deploying antimissile systems and (at least talking about) hardening infrastructure, while Hezbollah is trying to improve the accuracy of its missiles so that they will be a threat not only to civilians but to Israel’s airfields, command and control systems and critical infrastructure; and to obtain surface-to-air missiles, and other weapons. And then there are the political and psychological factors that can affect deterrence.
This is where it gets devilishly complicated.
Hezbollah is a non-state actor. It isn’t clear to what extent it acts independently and to what extent it takes orders from Iran. Naturally, the Iranian regime doesn’t care as much about the consequences of war to Lebanon as it would care about its own population and infrastructure. Put another way, Iran is willing to accept a lot more damage to Lebanon than the Lebanese themselves would – but nobody is asking them.
This has a very important implication for Israel’s doctrine of deterrence. In order for it to be effective, Israel needs to hold Iran responsible for Hezbollah’s behavior, and this must be conveyed to Iranian leaders unambiguously. In the event that Hezbollah launches missiles at Israel, of course the first priority for the IDF will be to destroy the launchers in South Lebanon. But at the same time, a massive retaliatory attack must be made against Iran. If this is not clear to the Iranian regime then the possibility of a first strike from Hezbollah is much greater.
If Hezbollah attacks Israel, the US/UN/EU will certainly try to impose a cease-fire as quickly as possible. Since Hezbollah’s launchers are embedded in civilian neighborhoods, there will be many casualties and great pressure on Israel. Iran and Hezbollah understand this well, which is why they put them there.
Our position has to be that locating these weapons among noncombatants is a war crime, and that Hezbollah and Iran are responsible for the collateral damage. This is painful psychologically, but morally and legally we have the right to defend ourselves. Israel must not give in to American pressure (which could even include threats of intervention) until Hezbollah’s teeth are pulled – and until retaliation against Iran is carried out.
This would probably result in Iran retaliating in turn, and might lead to an open-ended conflict.
What about a first (preemptive) strike against Hezbollah by Israel? Because of the unavoidable loss of life around the missile launchers and other Hezbollah installations, it would place us at an immediate diplomatic disadvantage. On the other hand, it might be possible to deter Iran from taking part. In this case the war would be contained to southern Lebanon. We would have the advantage of surprise, and probably the number of Israel’s civilian and military casualties would be much smaller.
Another possible scenario is a preemptive strike against Iran, or “cutting the head off the snake,” as the former king of Saudi Arabia once put it. The problem is that this would probably be immediately followed by the launch of Hezbollah rockets. This makes it the worst option, with all the diplomatic problems of a preemptive attack and the military ones of letting Hezbollah strike first.
We must take into account the fact that as a result of the nuclear deal, Iran’s offensive and defensive capabilities – as well as its diplomatic clout – will soon be greatly improved, making it more difficult for Israel to deter it from launching an attack via Hezbollah or by itself, and making any conflict with it more damaging for us. Doing nothing and depending on MAD thus works against us.
Is MAD a reasonable alternative to war? Maybe, for a time. It worked for the US and the USSR. The Middle East is a lot more complicated, though. There are more actors and some of them are irrational. Are the Iranians irrational enough to attack Israel, via Hezbollah or even with a nuclear weapon, knowing that Israel has a well-developed second-strike capability? We can’t be sure. What would Russia do?
Can Hezbollah be disarmed without war? In a perfect world, that would have happened in 2006, as a consequence of a better UN Security Council resolution. We don’t live in that kind of world.
What Israel seems to be doing is depending on MAD for now and hoping for an opportunity to change the situation. One thing that is certain is that we must continue to build up both offensive and defensive capabilities against both Iran and Hezbollah, both for deterrence and for possible war.
Si vis pacem, para bellum.