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Starting a war is not a tonsilectomy

Why the term 'surgical strike' can be highly misleading

My kettle is a simple, linear system. Assuming that there is water in it and that it is plugged into current, pushing the button results in boiled water. The variables are few, and the potential outcomes limited. Even if there is failure, the system has a few predictable outcomes like blown fuse, empty kettle or cold water.

Water boiling in a kettle
A linear system: water in a kettle. Photo:

The weather is a complex, nonlinear system. There are so many variables interacting in so many different ways that meteorologists with years of study and experience, equipped with powerful computers, cannot accurately predict the weather except in the short term.

The classic parable about complex nonlinear systems is the Beijing Butterfly: a butterfly fluttering its wings in Beijing can cause a hurricane to strike in Florida. Outputs from a system like this can be far disproportionate to inputs. The outputs can go in any direction regardless of the direction of the inputs. Because of these complexities and nonlinearities I can’t reliably prevent a hurricane in Florida by going to Beijing and swatting butterflies.

Quick, get it before it flaps its wings and thousands die!
Quick, get it before it flaps its wings and thousands die! (butterfly image via Shutterstock)

War is more like the weather than like my kettle. There are so many variables, interacting in so many ways, that it is difficult to predict outcomes.

There is a great deal of concern in Israel right now about Iran and nuclear capability. This concern is understandable: Iran is apparently developing nuclear weapons, and some Iranian leaders have for years spoken openly about making Israel go away.

If there were a button that would make Iranian nuclear capability bubble away to nothing like steam from my kettle, a lot of people would rush to push it, but that button doesn’t exist.

Satellite image of Fordo Mountain
Fordo Mountain. Any attack has to disable everything inside.

One of the harsh lessons we in the West learned (or should have learned) over the first decade of the 21st century has been that the output of war is not directly related to the inputs.

Part of the founding myth of air forces is that they are capable of delivering precise, complete strategic victory at no cost.

Air forces can contribute to victory, and can offer tremendous precision. Air forces enable an advanced economy and technology base to build air platforms that substitute money for lives. Air forces are not, however, exempt from the unpredictability of war.

When modern air forces say “surgical strike,” they don’t mean blood spurting all over the place, and complications and mistakes even when the operation is successful. They use the term “surgical” to imply that with sufficient precision, surgery is innately tidy, bloodless, painless and free of complications and errors.

Donatella Versace, looking very operated-on
The results of a surgical strike are not always what you expected.  Donatella Versace, looking modified.  (Photo credit: Flickr user David Shankbone / CC-BY)

There’s a problem surgeons don’t have that air forces do: an enemy. So next time somebody talks about a surgical strike, imagine that they’re going to perform a tonsilectomy on you. A tonsilectomy that you don’t want. And you’re awake. And you’ve also got a scalpel. Now, things may get messy.

So when people talk about a surgical strike against Iran’s developing nuclear weapons capability, the first thing to ask is what the results will be. If the answer is that Iran will be delayed for a number of years in their quest to attain a deliverable nuclear weapon, the next question has to be “what else?”

Committing an act of war against a large and populous state like Iran is, as Saddam Hussein could tell you if he were alive today, not a straightforward act. When Saddam invaded Iran in 1980, he was surprised that Arabistan held together with the rest of Iran instead of welcoming the Iraqis as liberators. He was surprised that the fractious post-revolutionary Iranian society drew together in the face of an Arab threat. And when he finally withdrew from Iran, he was surprised that the Iranians moved into Iraq.

Dead Iranian with a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini in his top pocket
Nor did Saddam expect this boy to throw himself in front of Iraqi machineguns, a plastic ‘key to heaven’ around his neck.

Saddam Hussein was going to conduct a quick and clean invasion of Iran, modelled on Israel’s operations against Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967, and then a nice, clean negotiated cease-fire. What he got was rapid escalation to a full-scale eight-year war, enormous borrowings from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to keep the war going, and a cease-fire in which he won nothing.

Israel is not Iraq and nobody is Saddam Hussein anymore. A series of air operations is not a land invasion. The IDF is not the Iraqi Army. But make no mistake: War is war, and an attack big enough to destroy Iran’s nuclear program would be war.

Would Syria attack Israel today at Iran’s behest, risking the army that is keeping the Assads and Alawites in power? Would an Israeli spoiling attack against Hezbollah blunt the impact of a rocket barrage against Israel? Would Hezbollah, now the de facto government of South Lebanon, invite massive Israeli retaliation by rocketing Israel? Egypt, in many ways a more important state to Israeli security than even a nuclear-armed Iran, would join other Sunni Muslim states in the region in seeking their own nuclear deterrent; but in the short term, what would they and Hamas do?

Does that sound like surgery?

To me it sounds like predicting the weather, but with bombs.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.