“I mean to show you of my strength, yet greater;
As with amaze shall strike all who behold.
This uttered, straining all his nerves he bowed;
As with the force of winds and waters pent
When mountains tremble, these two massy pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro
He tugged, he struck, till down they came and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath.”
John Milton, Samson Agonistes
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By Louis René Beres
In any serious strategic calculus, the “Samson Option” refers not just to a last-resort spasm of pure national vengeance, but to a purposeful set of specific operational threats. When examined together with Israel’s still intentionally ambiguous nuclear strategy (a doctrine most commonly referred to as Israel’s “bomb in the basement”), it becomes evident that these carefully fashioned threat postures are designed to enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence. Indeed, any such enhancement would represent this unique doctrine’s most obvious raison d’être. But are there further steps that would enhance the Samson Option’s effectiveness in this context?
There is more. Because strategic crises in other parts of the world could sometime “spill over” into the ever-unpredictable Middle East, dedicated strategic planners in Tel Aviv should already begin their preparations to “think Samson.” This is especially the case wherever the possible “spill” could concern the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons.
To pull these core concepts together (i.e., distant crisis consequences and Israel’s nuclear deterrence), the world must first be understood as a system, as an organic whole wherein vital strategic intersections and interdependencies can be suitably estimated and taken into proper account. Accordingly, Israel must clearly recognize that a nuclear attack or exchange in any one part of the world could sometime meaningfully impact its own nuclear war planning and related obligations.
Among other things, this means meticulously conceptualizing—or perhaps re-conceptualizing—the prospective role of any calculated Samson Option.
Whatever this option’s more precisely nuanced goals, its key objective must always remain exactly the same. That objective is to help keep Israel “alive.” In this duly considered objective, Israeli policy must very conspicuously deviate from the otherwise useful biblical metaphor—Samson, after all, lost his own life when he tore down the temple on his Philistine captors—drawn illustratively here from the book of Judges.
Ultimately, in relevant military nuclear matters, “Samson” must be about how to best manage certain urgent processes of strategic dissuasion. Here, the primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. For now, at least, Israel’s presumed nuclear strategy, while not yet articulated in any precise or publicly ascertainable fashion, is likely oriented toward nuclear war avoidance, not nuclear war fighting. From all potentially concerning standpoints, including even the well-being of Israel’s pertinent national adversaries, this is the indisputably correct orientation.
At its conceptual analytic core, the Samson Option references a deterrence doctrine based upon certain implicit threats of overwhelming nuclear retaliation or counter-retaliation—responses for more-or-less expected enemy aggressions. Any such doctrine could reasonably enter into force only where the responsible aggressions had first credibly threatened Israel’s physical existence. In other words, considered as a potentially optimal element of dissuasion, it would do Israel little good to proffer “Samson-based threats” in response to “ordinary” or manifestly less than massive forms of anticipated enemy aggression.
There is also a related matter of intra-crisis communications. As a potentially useful element of any ongoing strategic dialogue, the basic message of any Israeli Samson Option should remain uniform and consistent. Always, it should signal an expressly stated or deliberately unstated promise of a “counter-city” nuclear reprisal—also known as “counter-value” targeting. This approach would threaten non-military sites of aggressors in response to possible threats to Israeli cities. It should also avoid signaling to situational adversaries any intentionally sequential gradations of Israeli nuclear deterrence.
The bottom-line reasoning here is as follows: Exercising a Samson Option is not likely to deter any aggressions short of nuclear and/or massively large-scale conventional or biological first strikes.
All things considered, Samson’s overriding rationale must be to bring the following clear message to all identifiably potential attackers: “Israel may sometime have to accept mega-destructive attacks, but it surely won’t allow itself to ‘die with the Philistines’ or become the combatant country to suffer more dire consequences.” By emphasizing some overtly symmetrical exposure prospects to existential harms—”Israel won’t die alone”—the Samson Option could continuously serve Israel as a distinctly meaningful adjunct to nuclear deterrence and also to certain more-or-less corollary preemption options.
Significantly, the Samson Option could never protect Israel as a fully comprehensive nuclear strategy unto itself. This option must also never be confused with Israel’s more generalized, or “broad spectrum,” nuclear strategy, one which must always seek to maximize national deterrence at recognizably less apocalyptic levels of possible military engagement.
At this point in any ongoing strategic dialectic, certain derivative questions would necessarily arise. How can the Samson Option best serve Israel’s more overarching strategic requirements? Although the primary mission of Israel’s still undisclosed nuclear weapons must always be to preserve the Jewish state—not merely to wreak visceral havoc upon specific bitter foes when all else is seemingly lost—any more obvious preparations for a Samson Option could still improve Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption capabilities.
In regard to the latter, such always-conceivable resorts to presumptively conventional defensive first strikes could prove permissible or even law enforcing under authoritative international law. In all such conceivable cases, therefore, the Israeli preemptions would have a jurisprudential counterpart to strategy that is formally identified as “anticipatory self-defense.”
Concerning long-term Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could help to best convince certain designated enemy states that massive aggressions against Israel would never be gainful. This stance could prove especially compelling if Israeli “Samson” weapons were (1) coupled with some level of nuclear disclosure (thereby effectively ending Israel’s longstanding posture of nuclear ambiguity); (2) to appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first strikes; and (3) plainly counter-city/counter-value in their declared mission function. Furthermore, in view of what nuclear strategists sometimes refer to as the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could more generally enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating an apparently tangible Israeli willingness to take various existential risks.
To a manifestly variable and possibly even bewildering extent, the nuclear deterrence benefits of “pretended irrationality” could sometime depend upon a prior enemy state awareness of Israel’s counter-city or counter-value targeting posture. Worth noting here is that such a posture had been expressly recommended more than fifteen years ago by the private “Project Daniel Group,” in its then confidential report to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At present, it would appear plausible that this posture is also actual policy.
Overall, in reference to prospectively needed strategies of preemption, Israeli preparations for a Samson Option, explicitly recognizable and not just sotto voce, could sometime help convince Israel’s own leadership that certain defensive first strikes would be net gainful. These Israeli leaders would then expect that such conventional preemptive strikes could be undertaken with reassuringly reduced expectations of any unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This optimistic expectation would depend upon (a) assorted prior Israeli decisions on nuclear disclosure; (b) Israeli perceptions of the effects of such disclosure on enemy retaliatory intentions; (c) Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability; and (d) presumed enemy awareness of Samson’s counter-city force posture.
In those cases concerning Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence, any recognizable last-resort nuclear preparations could enhance Israel’s preemption options by underscoring a singularly bold national willingness to take presumptively existential risks.
But pretended irrationality, as US President Donald Trump might himself soon discover in any still-upcoming nuclear dealings with North Korea or Russia, could become a double-edged sword. Always, Israeli leaders must remain mindful of this possible “rebound effect.” In essence, brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option, however unwittingly, could sometime encourage enemy preemptions. This serious peril is underscored by expected pressures on each contending state party to achieve “escalation dominance.” Also significant in this unpredictable environment of competitive risk-taking could be either or both side’s visible deployments of active missile defenses.
Here, either side’s efforts to reduce its own nuclear retaliatory force vulnerabilities could simultaneously become an incentive to the other side to more hurriedly strike first, in essence, to “preempt the preemption.”
If left to themselves, neither deterred nor preempted, certain enemies of Israel (especially after any nuclear strike or exchange elsewhere on the planet) could convincingly threaten to bring the Jewish state face-to-face with the familiar torments of Dante’s Inferno, “Into the eternal darkness, into fire, into ice.” Such a portentous scenario has been made even more probable by the latest geostrategic strengthening of Iran in certain parts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. This strengthening is taking place despite the US president’s withdrawal from the July 2015 JCPOA, or perhaps even because of this unilateral American abrogation.
At some point, various ominous intersections between a US-North Korean war and an expanding Iran-Hezbollah offensive could create wholly unprecedented perils for Israel. All such intersections, moreover, would be taking place within the broadly uncertain context of a second Cold War.
In extremis atomicum, these synergistic hazards could sometime become so unique and formidable that employing a Samson Option would seemingly represent the best available strategic option for Israel. In a more carefully structured world order, Israel would have no need to augment or even maintain its arsenal of deterrent threat options—especially the most perilous nuclear components—but this more ideal reconfiguration of world politics is still a long way off. Nonetheless, at some point, Israel, together with other future-oriented states, will somehow have to collaborate toward the incremental replacement of Realpolitik (power-politics) or “Westphalian” dynamics of international interaction, an intellectual collaboration that would largely be based upon a too long-delayed awareness that our earth is best conceptualized as an organic whole.
Ultimately, it will have to be much more widely understood that the states in world politics express an underlying and ineradicable “oneness.” While this may at first sound silly, unreasonable, or fanciful, nothing could be more unrealistic than an stubborn determination to stay with our time-dishonored structure of world politics. This means that it will soon be time to take seriously a generic insight from the Italian film director Federico Fellini: “The visionary is the only realist.”
But that auspicious time has not yet arrived. It follows that until such a desperately needed global transformation can truly be actualized, Jerusalem will need to more visibly prepare for a still-possible Samson Option. The point of this sobering imperative would not be to give preference to any actual execution of such a far-reaching strategic orientation, but to best ensure that Israel can prudentially deter absolutely all conceivable enemy aggressions.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in US Military Academy, West Point