Friday, May 23, 2008

National Suicide and Deterrence

An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post examines the rise of national suicide as a tool of Islamist statecraft.

Another aspect is equally significant and concerns the attitude of Hamas's rulers to the mounting tension: On the one hand, they are negotiating - with Egypt, not with the illegitimate Zionist entity - on a temporary cessation of hostilities. On the other hand, they authorize extending the range of their missile attacks, knowing full well that this will hasten the day in which Israel, under any government, will have to order its army to march into Gaza and strip Hamas of its power.

Such is the Hamas policy: not only an endless blood-letting war against the Zionist entity, but also a readiness to lose their hold over Gaza as part of this war. This signifies a readiness not only to sacrifice the lives of men, women and children, but also a readiness to sacrifice the very regime they established not long ago through a violent coup. In other words, it is a process of political suicide writ large: The shahid is not only the individual, but the regime itself.

THIS MAY sound like an extreme conclusion but, as Ari Bar Yossef, retired lieutenant-colonel and administrator of the Knesset's Security Committee, writes in the army journal Ma'arachot, such cases of Islamist national suicide are not uncommon. He cites three such examples of Arab-Muslim regimes irrationally sacrificing their very existence, overriding their instinct of self-preservation, to fight the perceived enemy to the bitter end.
  • The first case is that of Saddam Hussein, who in 2003 could have avoided war and conquest by allowing UN inspectors to search for (the apparently non-existent) weapons of mass destruction wherever they wanted. Yet Iraq's ruler opted for war, knowing full well that he would have to face the might of the US.

  • The second case is that of Yasser Arafat in 2000, who after the failure of the Camp David and Taba talks had two options: continue talking to Israel - under the leadership of Ehud Barak, this country's most moderate and flexible government ever - or resort to violence. He chose the latter, with the result that all progress toward Palestinian independence was blocked. The ensuing loss of life, on both sides, testified to Arafat's preference for suicide over compromise.

  • The third case is that of the Taliban. Post-9/11, their leadership had two options: to enter into negotiations with the US, with a view to extraditing Osama bin Laden, or to risk war and destruction. The choice they made was obvious: Better to die fighting than to give up an inch.
IN ALL three cases, the conclusion is plain: prolonged war, death, destruction and national suicide are preferable to peaceful solutions of conflicts: Dying is preferable to negotiating with infidels. The same conclusion, of course, is applicable to the Palestinians voting for Hamas and its suicidal path, and to Iran's decision to confront the Security Council in its insistence on acquiring nuclear weapons.
The 64-trillion dollar question is whether Iran would use regime suicide as a tactic for furthering Islamist goals. Iran is certainly an Islamist regime and is willing to endure international opprobrium in order to extend its influence throughout the Middle East. It is also clear that Iran is currently undeterrable in its quest to acquire nuclear weapons. Either Iran will get a few bombs or somebody's going to have to destroy their capability to do so. The odds of the former occurring vastly outweigh those of the latter.

The Jpost op-ed strongly implies that Iran is a state willing to use national suicide to further its aims. I find this a little hard to believe. Even if Iran's leadership is more interested in promoting Islam than it is in promoting Persian nationalism, any rational analysis of the consequences of a nuclear war has to conclude that an intact, powerful Iran is better for the faith than a pile of glassy rubble.

But there a few intermediate outcomes that a rabidly Islamist state might consider acceptable.
  • If Iran were to conclude that Israel couldn't destroy Iran in a retaliatory strike, and that the US would not retaliate if Israel were attacked, it's possible that the Iran might consider such a limited war an acceptable loss to get rid of Israel.

  • Iran might conclude that a nuclear strike against the Saudi oilfields was worth the cost if it left them with intact oil production. After all, they'd be able to cripple the West and still continue to sell all the oil they wanted for the highest price that the market would bear.

  • Iran might strike US or other Western interests using nuclear terrorism. Even if we retaliated, he odds of a massive, nation-ending strike would currently be judged as low. Iran would be perfectly content to lose a city to destroy a US city. The damage inflicted to the West would be at least an order of magnitude greater than that inflicted on Iran if for no other reason than an American city is vastly more economically valuable than an Iranian city.

  • Finally, Iran would have no compunctions about nuking American troops in any military action in the Middle East or Southwest Asia. Again, they'd be counting on a proportional response from the US, something that an Islamist regime might be prepared to accept.
All of these scenarios can be precluded if the US is willing to extend a Cold War-like nuclear umbrella over Southwest Asia and to adopt a policy of massive retaliation. This is exactly what Clinton proposed during the debates and Obama took issue with. To my mind, it is the only policy, short of military action to de-nuclearize Iran, that has a prayer of deterring the Iranians. If presented in the context of aggressive diplomacy, it even has a chance of convincing Iran to abandon their weapons program.

No comments: