us national security
BOMBS VS. INTELLECT
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
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).
THE ABSENCE OF WISE COUNSEL
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
there possibly be any more ultimate or persuasive promise?
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."
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."
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