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Prospects for Israel’s Descent into Regional Chaos and War: The Trump Effect

Netanyahu and Trump GPO


“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war and such a war as is of every man against every other man.” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan)

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Even in the best of times, no one could ever reasonably describe the Middle East as an area of stability or security. In the worst of times, moreover, this always-volatile region could quickly descend into a more genuine and far-reaching condition of chaos, an insufferable condition that the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have cheerlessly characterized as a “state of nature.” It plainly follows from any such imaginable declension into chaos that there would then prevail “a continual fear, and danger of violent death… And the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Such are the manifestly “Hobbesian” conditions that US President Donald Trump’s incoherent policies could plausibly bring to Israel and also certain country “neighbors.” This is because the starkly disjointed Trump presidency is, at its very heart, markedly incapable and firmly detached from any pertinent considerations of history, law, or diplomacy. Even now, saddled with such overwhelming and self-inflicted debilities, this presidency advances unashamedly toward various multiple postures of determined anti-reason and dedicated anti-thought. Even now, any alleged benefits to Israel of a still-expected shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem would be outweighed by the foreseeably monumental costs that accrue from much more consequential Trump misunderstandings.

In essence, especially in complex matters of US foreign policy, this president has been operating ad hoc, lacking any plan, lurching fitfully by the seat-of-his-pants without any sturdy analytic mooring, navigating insecurely from one crisis to crisis, and without even an elementary grounding in necessary theory, ideology, or science.

For Israel, a cautionary message, already overdue, is in order.

To begin, for Jerusalem, the cumulative security consequences of any Trump-induced regional disorder could be especially far-reaching, substantial, and potentially irremediable. By foolishly assuming that US President Trump has Israel’s best interests in mind, or even that he could conceivably figure out what those interests might actually be, the Jewish State could quickly find itself dealing with assorted and progressively debilitating regional crises generated by Washington. For example, it is clear that the President’s very limited April 2018 attack against Syrian chemical warfare facilities will have little or no enduring impact upon Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal dictatorship, and that it will further embolden various anti-Damascus regime insurgents with jihadist orientations.

History deserves its appropriate pride of place. Since the 17th century, the core structure of world politics has been consistently anarchic. But anarchy means “only” the absence of any central government. Now, looking ahead to the expected external effects of the Trump presidency, Israel could soon need to prepare systematically for recognizably more centrifugal and increasingly indecipherable developments. This geo-strategic condition of self-reinforcing disorder would then be correctly identifiable as chaos.

For Israel, any true chaos would be much more threatening than “mere” anarchy. In virtually any expressible form, chaos can play havoc with the best-laid plans of nations. By definition, and particularly from the critical standpoint of national military operations, it is a constantly unpredictable, frightful and ever-changing condition, one that can easily impair all “normal” and possibly indispensable national security preparations. Further, this impairment could arrive suddenly, as a markedly dissembling “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attack, or less discernibly and dramatically, intangible but effectively unforeseeable increments.

A prophetic example of the latter would be a series of critical policy missteps in Jerusalem generated by confused thinking and expectations in Washington.

This now impending chaos is meaningfully differentiated from the more “normal” disorder associated with Carl von Clausewitz’s (the nineteenth-century Prussian military strategist) “fog of war.” This Trump-assisted chaos describes a deep and systemic level of unraveling, one that could rapidly create unprecedented and even residually primal forms of international conflict. It follows, for Israel, that regional chaos could quickly and conclusively smother any still-simmering hopes for a beneficial “Trump Effect.”

The promised US embassy move will prove to be a very small consolation to Israel if the more generalized effect were to include much broader area antagonism and conflict.

However reluctantly, many states, not just Israel, must promptly acknowledge increasing risks from certain plausible forms of nuclear conflict. In this connection, Donald Trump’s evident incapacity to ever suitably manage any actual nuclear crises, or to control any more-or-less related military escalations, is difficult to dispute. Moreover, should this US President ever fail to prevent even a single escalation from any particular crisis to nuclear warfare, the corollary effects would impact various other parts of the world, palpably, in the form of immediate or latent physical casualties, or less conspicuously, as the cause of certain utterly unique social and economic misfortunes.

World politics is not geometry. In world politics, the whole can sometimes be greater than the simple sum of its parts. For Israel, going forward, the most obvious chaos-generated perils would likely concern (1) escalating violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, and Syria; and (2) near-simultaneous deteriorations in the still-ongoing Iranian nuclearization and in the Palestinian insurgency. Facing these prospectively intersecting or even synergistic perils, Jerusalem is well aware, inter ali, that the Hashemite monarchy in neighboring Jordan is increasingly vulnerable to assorted new forms of Islamic radicalism, and that the bitterly authoritarian el-Sisi military regime in Cairo might not be able to control an endlessly re-aspiring Muslim Brotherhood indefinitely.

How will US President Trump respond to all these bewilderingly complex threats in the Middle East? Will it be with some thoughtful intellection and geo-strategic planning, or instead with various spasmodic explosions of random bluster, ill-advised ad hominem attacks, and a stridently concocted bravado? Will the American president continue to function with only a skeletal and constantly changing national security establishment – one that still lacks altogether any serious intellectual gravitas – or will he effectively fill the yawning directorial gaps in senior national governance with people of some real intellectual accomplishment?

The lamentable answer, which should already be disturbingly obvious, could affect Israel’s overall security posture and position in potentially unprecedented ways. In principle, at least, these ways could sometime include national survival.

Apropos of any foreseeable “Trump effect,” Pakistan reveals yet another critical source of wider area disintegration, one that could quite suddenly transform a “merely” volatile region from simple anarchy to genuine chaos. In this regard, if the already nuclear regime in Islamabad should sometime fall to Jihadists, all other regional sources of chaotic disintegration could promptly pale into comparative insignificance. For Jerusalem, therefore, it is high time to inquire: What would President Trump do in this grave matter, and how precisely would this expected reaction impact Israel?

This will not be an easy question to answer, but it must be considered carefully nonetheless.

In a presumptively worse case scenario for Israel, Jihadists, emboldened by multiple expressions of Trump administration confusion and indecisiveness, would take either singular or “hybrid” control in several of the more plainly unstable Arab and/or North African governments. Ultimately, these “martyrdom-driven” leaders might get their hands on certain game-changing weapons of mass destruction. This altogether imaginable prospect, even if the acquired weapons were all to remain completely non-nuclear, should bring to mind the particularly fearful scenario of a “suicide-bomber in macrocosm.”

Also worth noting here is that a Jihadist hybrid could be an entirely terror-group amalgam (no direct state involvement) or an asymmetrical alignment between a particular terror-group and a kindred state.

With the expected advance of expected Trump-enhanced chaos in the Middle East, Israel might then have to face certain nuclear and ideologically Islamist enemies on both the Iranian and Arab fronts. Even in the absence of old enemies with new atomic arms, nuclear and biological materials could still find their way to Hezbollah in Lebanonand/or to Hamas, which had already done battle with ISIS forces in Gaza. Along the way, Jerusalem – following Washington’s now predictably uncertain and disjointed policies – could find itself in the position of having to take sides with one or another set of traditionally mortal enemies.

Back in the 17th century, the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, already recognized that although international relations must exist indefinitely in a “state of nature,” a condition of anarchy (not of genuine chaos), these decentralized relations are nonetheless more tolerable than the condition of any individual human beings living in anarchy. This is so, argued Hobbes, because nations lack the capacity of individuals to utterly destroy one another.

But this distinction is no longer the case. Thomas Hobbes, of course, was not able to conceptualize a world with nuclear weapons. Now, proliferation of these weapons, especially in the Middle East, could quickly reduce the orthodox and relatively tolerable anarchy of international relations to the authentically Hobbesian chaos of “nature” that would ordinarily exist exclusively between individuals. Here, as more and more nations came to share what Hobbes himself had called a “dreadful equality,” a more-or-less symmetrical capacity to inflict mortal destruction, the dreadful portent of regional nuclear calamity could become correspondingly more likely.

William Butler Yeats wrote prophetically of a time in which “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The celebrated Irish poet succinctly revealed what still eludes historians, diplomats, statesmen, and scholars: In the not-too-distant future, there could finally come a moment wherein there will be no safety in numbers, treaties, or armaments; no help from “civilizations;” no counsel from public authority; and no last-minute rescues from science.

This apocalyptic “moment,” one now made more likely by America’s ill-prepared president, may rage for a long while, perhaps even until every flower of human culture had been trampled, and until entire human communities had been ground insidiously into dust. From this seemingly resurrected medieval darkness, from this foreseeably Trump-facilitated chaos, there would be neither escape nor sanctuary. Rather, like the generalized “America First” or “know nothing” illiteracy that Mr. Trump has already championed within the United States, it could envelop entire regions in a single and suffocating pall.

For Israel, the prime inheritor of Genesis, a Trumpian chaos portends very unusual, and even paradoxical, kinds of national fragility. As a relentlessly beleaguered microstate, Israel could become (depending upon the precise extent to which it would allow itself to be manipulated and misguided by President Trump) the principal victim of an even more rampant regional disorder. Indeed, in view of the exceptionally far-reaching interrelatedness of all world politics, this could become the case even if the actual precipitating events of war and terror would occur elsewhere, that is, in some other distant region of our fragile and imperiled planet.

Oddly, perhaps, a triumphant global chaos could still reveal both sense and form. Generated by explosions of mega-war and mega-terror, certain further Trump-induced disintegrations of world authority could assume a revealingly discernible shape. How, precisely, should this unique shape, this sobering “geometry” of chaos, best be deciphered and understood by Israel? As a corollary and similarly vital question, Israel’s leaders would then also need to inquire: “How, exactly, should we deal with potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, foes operating within both state and terrorist groups?”

What if US President Trump should himself make profoundly irrational decisions? What would this likely mean for Israel? Scientifically, there is no reliably analytic way to make any such predictions (after all, probabilities must always be calculated according to the determinable frequency of pertinent past events), but this notably distressing prospect is by no means inconceivable.

The whole world, like the individual nation-states that comprise it, is always best understood as a system.  By definition, therefore, what happens in any one part of this world, always affects what happens in some or all of the other parts. When, for example, global deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one country to another, the effects could undermine international stability in general. When deterioration is sudden and catastrophic, as it would be following the onset of any unconventional war, and/or unconventional terrorism, the unraveling effects could become harshly immediate and overwhelming.

The State of Israel, a system of interdependent and interpenetrating parts like every other state, exists precariously in a much larger world system. Aware that any Trump-inspired collapse of regional authority structures (most plausibly, in increments) would, in one way or another, impact its few friends as well as its many enemies, leaders of the Jewish State must now advance informed expectations or scenarios of collapse in order to prepare suitable forms of response. Ultimately, recognizing that any rapid and far-reaching global collapse could spawn a more or less complete return to “everyone for himself” in world politics, or what philosopher Thomas Hobbes had called a bellum omnium contra omnes, a “war of all against all,” Israel’s leaders must prudently consider how they should respond to any future national life in a global “state of nature.”

Such eleventh-hour considerations will be all the more critical to the extent that the triggering mechanism of collapse would originate within the Middle East itself, from massive chemical, biological and, in the future, even nuclear attacks, against Israel.

Any chaotic disintegration of the regional or wider-world system, whether slow and incremental, or sudden and catastrophic, would dramatically impact the Israeli system. Accordingly, during the unprepared and vastly misdirected Trump era, Israel, in one clear manifestation of this era, will have to more expressly orient its military planning doctrines toward a broader variety of worst-case possibilities. In the final analysis, to best avoid any further declensions into an intolerably Hobbesian “state of nature” in the Middle East, the prime minister and his principal counselors will have to detach Israel’s core plans for security from virtually any purported “breakthroughs” advanced by Donald Trump.

In any protracted struggle for national survival that is ultimately based upon “mind over mind” victories, there can be no good argument for following the purely visceral inclinations of a demonstrably unmindful American president.

Louis René Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres is the author of twelve books including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. His lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law.

This article first published in Israel Defence



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