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Vol. 16, No. 4, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
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us national security



Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law (Purdue University). He is author of many books and articles dealing with international politics. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog (Oxford University Press).


US President Donald Trump's expressed preferences notwithstanding, core military problems in the Middle East and North Korea are not about ordnance. In essence, these problems do not center on the absence or non-use of increasingly heavy explosives. They can't ever be solved by more frequent or enhanced use of Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapons, or of any other "mother of all bombs" type-firepower.

Critically, Mr. Trump desperately needs to appreciate that matters of ordnance should always occupy a secondary strategic focus. Accordingly, America's primary "war-winning" focus should concern remediating apparent deficiencies along three particular dimensions of defense policy: (1) historical understanding; (2) conceptual guidance; and (3) strategic doctrine. Moreover, because these dimensions are interpenetrating, and sometimes even "synergistic," US strategists should prepare to cope with unprecedented levels of analytic complexity.

An improved knowledge of history could usefully inform President Donald Trump's projected security policies. The ancient Greeks and Macedonians were correctly intent upon describing war as contests of "mind over mind," and not as narrowly tactical struggles of "mind over matter." Not only were these early military strategists right back in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the readily calculable truth of their basic premises remains valid today.

In sum, Mr. Trump will need to inquire as follows: "How shall US forces best apply pertinent considerations of 'mind' in all present and still-impending conflicts?"

Such a serious conceptual question is simultaneously difficult and perplexing. Until current presidential leadership can begin to fathom and acknowledge certain key aspects of enemy thinking, the US could become increasingly imperiled as a nation. Indeed, unable to decipher such relentlessly "opaque" conditions, America could prove unable to manage its national security by relying too heavily upon bigger and bigger bombs. It follows unambiguously that the consequences of any such US strategic misunderstandings would impact some of Washington's principal allies, including Israel.

At its most rudimentary or "molecular" level, what we have witnessed in assorted theaters of military engagement is the malignant tribalism of a rapidly disintegrating world order. The 19th-century German philosopher, Georg Friedrich Hegel, had commented insightfully: "The State is the march of God in the world." Today, both Washington and Jerusalem are threatened by foes who identify their political and religious affiliations with acquiring personal immortality.

This also applies to certain sub-state, especially Jihadist, terrorist groups, and to various state-sub-state "hybrids." Where, exactly, is evidence of the Trump administration's proper awareness of "hybridized" adversaries? Significantly, at least for the moment, it is nowhere to be found.

Faced with enemy states and sub-state proxies that extend promises of inclusion and immortality in exchange for "martyrdom," the United States and its Israeli ally could stand little chance of achieving any protracted levels of stability. What, then, should be done by US President Trump to escape from a conspicuously limiting mindset, one that narrowly identifies American military prowess with accumulating enemy corpses? Inevitably, the only correct answer must lie in substantially higher levels of "wise counsel," especially among suitably gifted strategists, thinkers, and university professors.

Fashioning national nuclear strategy is not primarily a military vocation. To wit, there exists not a single general officer who has had even a single experience with nuclear conflict or nuclear war. Because any such war would necessarily be sui generis, there is every good reason to shape forward-looking US strategic doctrine with the more widespread assistance of mathematicians, physicists, historians, and political scientists.

Recall, it was in the esoteric groves of academe, and not on the conventional battlefield, that America's original Cold War nuclear strategy was forged. There is a vital message here, originally for Washington, but also for Jerusalem: Seek "wise counsel" where authentic wisdom still remains the indisputable guiding standard of judgment.

There is more. An unprecedented fusion will need to be examined in both capitals. This portentous merger would link atomic capability with enemy leadership irrationality. Presently, such a daunting combination is most plainly worrisome in North Korea, Iran, and perhaps even a post-coup Pakistan – again, for Israel as well as the United States. In the past, even North Korea has acted directly against the security interests of Israel, most blatantly by initiating construction of the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed pre-emptively by Israel's Operation Orchard on September 6, 2007.

In Pyongyang, relevant risks do not include a regime inspired by any deeply religious expectations of power over death. Here, regarding Kim Jong-un, US President Trump and his counselors must bear in mind that North Korea is very different from Syria and Afghanistan. While, in the latter two cases, Mr. Trump's worst case scenario would likely be an evident lack of operational progress, in the case of North Korea, an American failure could include an authentic nuclear exchange. American operational failures in Syria, however, could have far more serious security implications for Israel.

What about probabilities? Although it is scientifically meaningless to assign any specific likelihood to unique events (after all, mathematical probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of past events), such an exchange cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. This is because Washington and Pyongyang could easily find themselves in the midst of competitive risk-taking for "escalation dominance" that quickly spins out of control.

To most prudently wrest "escalation dominance" from his seemingly intransigent North Korean adversary, Mr. Trump would first need to decide whether Kim Jong-un is rational, irrational, or merely pretending irrationality.

Less calculable, of course, in any such inherently unstable scenario, is (a) whether the American president would himself be rational, irrational, or preparing to feign irrationality; and (b) whether certain precise interactions or synergies could emerge from all plausible dispositional combinations.

In the best interest of supporting US national power, this president can never hope to "fix" or dampen particular conflicts before he has better understood the underlying psychological orientations of relevant national adversaries. In this vast and fractionated "arena" (President Trump's own expressly preferred metaphor), passion could sometime trump both reason and rationality. It follows that there might be more to learn about "mind over mind" disputations from philosophers Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jung, and Freud, than from contemporary military science.

President Trump's security task is not a narrowly operational problem for ritualistic presentation to the generals, but rather a broadly conceptual responsibility for assignment to America's most thoughtful scientists and philosophers.

Soon, President Trump and his counselors must learn to look far more seriously behind the news. The grinding chaos of our pertinent war zones could then be more productively identified as a revealing symptom of wider pathology, than as a discrete or isolated disease unto itself. Even more explanatory than any recognizable issues of war, insurgency, and physical survival would be the manifestly felt consequences of individual human death fear, and of any expected "tribal" exclusion.

Global violence and disorder are largely epiphenomenal. These symptoms have their most determinative roots in the more-or-less indecipherable disorders of private individuals. However inconspicuous, such a primal malady of pain and anarchy reflects the ubiquitous incapacity of our enemies to discover meaning and purpose within themselves – that is, outside the hideously false comforts proffered by some form or other of "tribal" victory.

On June 4, 2017, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster wrote in the Wall Street Journal that President Trump "has a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a 'global community,' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage." In a note of specifically intended "realism," McMaster added: "Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it." Still, there is nothing pragmatic or promising in this casual dismissal of both human and national interdependence. On the contrary, such doctrine starkly reinforces the evident error of Mr. Trump's over-emphasis on weapons and manpower per se, and could correspondingly undermine Israel's corollary security requirements.

No Trump Doctrine of "everyone for himself" can hope to compensate for the conspicuous absence of a US presidential commitment to "mind." Among other things, President Trump must promptly understand that there exists a latent inner meaning to global disorder and enemy calculation. Uncovering this crucial inner meaning on issues of rationality and irrationality will require the following trait: A steady and systematic willingness to examine specific preference hierarchies of our immediate enemies.

"Just wars," argued Hugo Grotius back in the 17th century, can have a markedly necessary place in the world. They must, however, be fought to protect the innocent, and not to slaughter certain anonymous "others" in uselessly visceral calculations of "tribal" military advantage.

Although still unrecognized in the Trump White House, there is no greater power in world affairs than power over death. From the beginning, violence in world politics has been driven by more-or-less well-orchestrated tribal conflicts, both between and within nations. Always, in one form or another, the danse macabre extends a "sacred" promise to reward the "faithful" with reassuringly complete freedom from any earth-bound mortality.

Could there possibly be any more ultimate or persuasive promise?

The lethal and irresistible exchange of violence for sacredness is not unique to our present historical moment. It was already evident in the seemingly interminable wars of ancient Greece and Rome, during the Crusades, and much later in the Third Reich. Now it can be detected not only among various Islamist enemies, but even in religion-free North Korea, where tens of thousands of troops enthusiastically pledge their very lives to protect the "Great Leader."

Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with statistics, charts and numerical calculations, President Trump and his advisors may still misunderstand the most genuinely animating rhythms of enemy war-planning. America's relentless foes can never be reliably influenced by neatly "rational" proposals for peace, or by the prospectively annihilatory threats posed by any "mother of all bombs."

In the final analysis, only when this American president can fully understand that every troublesome source of global or regional instability must be countered by a comprehensively focused intellect, by genuinely "wise counsel," will the United States (and derivatively, Israel) be able to draw upon a truly viable "Trump Doctrine."


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