Ira Straus

War Is Non-Linear. Israel Must Make Hard Choices.

One cannot afford to run a war by compromises among different interests, the way one runs welfare politics. Israel must make its choices on Iran by the logic of war, not welfare.

In welfare, the options can be thought of as lying on a smooth curve, defined by interests that are a matter of degree and can be compromised and mixed. In war, the options usually cannot be fudged or combined. The choices are at discrete points, each with its own indivisible logic.

“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” So said Sir Francis Bacon, the great theorist of scientific method. It applies to the war, too. Its laws must be obeyed in order for its decisions to be workable.

War is either/or. On/off. Deter/get attacked. Win/lose. Complete the operation / fail with the operation.

When people make the mistake of treating war as a matter of degree — balancing the competing interests, looking for the “sweet spot” to cut the compromise – the war comes back to hit them harder.

Each choice in war occupies only a small portion of the line of possible choices. Each of these portions is discontinuous from the others. Choosing among them is the opposite of choosing among mutually fungible locations on a smooth continuous spectrum.

Each option in war lies within a discrete segment of the line, a segment where the comprehensive logic of the choice can be realized. This logic has to be faced and dealt with as a whole, and either accepted or rejected as a whole. A country has to make clear choices among the discrete options.

Making these hard choices is not easy politically. It is especially hard in comfortable democracies that have long been safe and secure. In America and Europe, we have settled down into a politics as usual, making it our way of life to split the difference between interests that are always negotiable. In normal conditions, it is fine. But war is never a normal condition.

Frontline democracies know better. They tend to do better with making the choice. They often should just ignore the advice of the safe and comfortable.

Israel has to make a real choice among its options on responding to Iran’s attack. Each option has its own logic. Each has its own unique mix of probable and possible consequences, its own scenario of sequel events and actions. Israel must choose between these package deals. Were it to try instead to make a compromise in-between them, it would mean losing on all of them.

The discrete modes of response to Iran are: null response, pinprick, solid, side-swipe, and disarming. Each has its own highly distinctive logic.

The “null option” gets the benefit of chiming in with the Biden Administration and the other allies that Biden is working on getting to join him in pressuring Israel to do nothing. It might, or might not, lead to a coalition of countries that will join in a limited further degree of active support for Israel, such as more arms to it, and more serious sanctions against Iran. It does not undo the rise in global anti-Semitism and the damage to Israel’s global standing, which is an ideological trend with its own dynamic; it might actually encouraging a worse, triumphalist spirit among the many who buy into this ideological and social movement; but it might avoid further stimulating anti-Israel sentiment in the Western governments. It concedes to Iran the deterrence and escalation dominance that Iran has been claiming.

The “pinprick” retaliation option has the benefit of not angering Biden too much, but has several costs. It fails to restore deterrence. It stimulates Iranian regime nationalism and a probable Iranian further strike on Israel. The regime is seen more as winner than as loser against Israel. The skeptics inside and near to the regime rally around it. Much of the general population feels constrained to chime in. The people may prefer that the regime disappear, but they too face a discrete choice in this situation, which is not a situation of the regime being in rout and ripe for the toppling. Instead they are channeled into the option of expressing nationalist feelings of being offended by the attack.

The more solid “retaliation” option has the benefits of restoring some degree of deterrence, and might restore escalation parity but not the proper escalation dominance of Israel. It has a heavier price with the Biden Administration.

The “side-swipe” option, meaning to hit the proxies for Iran, has fewer negatives. Even President Biden would not be too upset by it. It could be a good temporizing step, while Israel is rightly carefully weighing its larger options.

The “disarm Iran” option is the one that is true to the logic of war. It has genuine military objectives – intrinsically legitimate objectives, not mere retaliatory purposes. Suppose Israel pursues these objectives — with the aim of actually achieving them, or some of them, not just making a statement. Its objectives are very much in the global interest. If they are achieved, large swaths of the Western elites and publics might silently appreciate this, and suspect how wrong the Israel-bashing has been.

There are several targets in Iran for potential disarming –nuclear program, missiles, drones, terrorist entities (Quds/IRGC). Success in mostly-disarming any one of these targets would make the operation a major success. The regime would be seen as loser and on the ropes. It might go into a spiral of disarray and collapse. Or it might not.

The effect on the Iranian regime also has a discrete logic. There are tipping points on Iranian regime survival, and they tip in opposite directions in face of different kinds of Israeli attack. Striking Iran lite tends to stimulate regime nationalism and flag-rallying. Striking it with disarming force tends to stimulate regime collapse. These two policies and their outcomes follow a discontinuous, dialectical logic, not a continuous or welfare logic. It is a logic of either-or, if-then; not “a bit more of this achieves a bit more of that, at a bit more cost to the other thing”.

Israel must choose. It must respect the logic of war in deciding on its response. It must make a clean choice and carry it through consistently.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
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