Prof. Louis René Beres
Abstract: Despite widely-held presumptions in Israel that US President Donald J. Trump remains a net asset for their country, nothing could be further from the truth. For several clear and compelling reasons, there are no imaginable circumstances wherein Israel could benefit from an American administration so gravely lacking in moral compass, historical understanding and intellectual vision. Moreover, as there exists no reasonable prospect that Donald J. Trump could ever “improve,” that is, inter alia, begin to calculate complex geostrategic options in suitably analytic terms, there is no good reason to assume that corresponding lethal risks for Israel could be reduced. Most significantly, of course, such risks could sometime involve matters of alarmingly existential consequence.
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“I hold despicable, and always have….anyone who puts his own popularity before his country“-Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” Even now, at a precarious moment in history when an American president’s moral and intellectual incapacities lie unhidden and beyond any reasonable doubt, many Israelis remain willing to keep their mistaken faith with Donald J. Trump. In the end, this ironic faithfulness could become more than just a debilitating embarrassment. It could spawn deeply catastrophic consequences for Israel.
But why “ironic?” For one thing, it is difficult to imagine that a principal surviving remnant of the Jewish People – one born literally “out of the ashes” of genocidal murder – could now choose to align itself with such a derelict American president. To wit, Trump stands proudly by several assorted hate groups that vilify universal human rights. Similarly, when this president adopts starkly illegal positions on immigration (e.g., positions that undermine various peremptory legal obligations concerning the legitimate rights of refugees) and separates thousands of young and infant children from their families at US borders the American offenses are even more than inherently illegal.
In once unimaginable cases, these offenses reek of an earlier pattern of grievous harms perpetrated against defenseless European Jews.
The law-violating details are impossible to contest. Under the stunningly indifferent aegis of Donald J. Trump, this pattern still includes the forced deportations of minors and the severely disadvantaged. Prima facie, it is not a pattern that ought ever to be disregarded by an expressly Jewish State. The ironies are simply too great.
There is more. Other serious issues are involved in questioning Israel’s indefensible willingness to betray itself. Most perplexing and worrisome are those issues that center on the always-pertinent realms of war avoidance and peacemaking, and on this US president’s patent lack of an informed or coherent vision of foreign affairs.
In essence, by preferring visceral seat-of-the-pants planning to any conscientiously focused forms of policy preparation, Donald Trump has “rewarded” Israel with a series of marginally significant “victories” – e.g., moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and a Faustian agreement to arm the UAE with F35s in exchange for diplomatic recognition of Israel by Abu Dhabi.
At best, these will represent narrowly Pyrrhic victories. The alleged benefits to Israel wholly ignore the authentically critical security problems at work in the region.
Most obvious here are the expectedly continuous and corollary antipathies of the Palestinians.
To be sure, the many Palestinian elements seeking sovereignty with a determined prise de conscience, with an aroused consciousness, will not only remain fixed on achieving this overriding goal. Now, too, they will more likely prepare for the next round of intercommoned violence, for yet another intifada.
At every level of assessment, the UAE “deal” offered by the American president to Israel is pure parody. Superficially, for Israelis, it may at first seem nice to be reassured that they will likely never be attacked from UAE, but this threat was never a serious safety concern in the first place. To praise the US-UAE agreement for enhancing Israel’s security is a bit like commending US President Ronald Reagan’s Grenada invasion on the grounds that Americans have never since had to face any Grenadian-inflicted aggressions.
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
A “test” question surfaces. Should Americans be grateful for the Reagan action? After all, since that president’s armed intervention on 25 October 1983, there has been no invasion of the United States by Grenada. Undoubtedly, since then, we have had to fear no surprise attack from this Caribbean island nation of 111,000 inhabitants.
We see here, retrospectively and prospectively, the periodic triumph of absurdity in foreign policy making. We see, therefore, that these are not aptly serious queries. Basically, the recent US-UAE agreement represents a demonstrably silly order of policy priorities, a plainly modest “accomplishment.”
Cumulatively, from the standpoint of controlling or blunting any further Iranian nuclearization, the corollary “security benefits” bestowed upon Israel by US President Donald Trump’s UAE deal are either wholly contrived or entirely insignificant. Examined dispassionately, they are merely the transient product of Trump’s overriding obsession with appearance and gloss, with colorful but always-unimportant veneers of any genuine success.
There is more. Even in the best of times, no one could ever reasonably describe the Middle East as an area of prospective stability or security. In the worst of times, this endlessly-volatile region could quickly descend into a substantially more far-reaching condition of chaos. Such lethal descent could have its origins in an impending nuclear confrontation with Iran or in the still-developing interstices of biological plague/viral microbial assault. In a worst case scenario, these causes would intersect, perhaps even synergistically.
By definition, in such a case, the calculable “whole” of tangible injurious effects would be greater than the simple sum of its component “parts.”
At its conceptual heart, the disjointed Trump presidency is detached from any pertinent considerations of history, law or diplomacy. Even now, saddled with such overwhelming and self-inflicted debilities, this president “advances” unashamedly, toward various postures of determined anti-reason and dedicated anti-thought. These postures include vacuous conspiracy theories that would make even the most witting fool blush with embarrassment. And this is to say nothing about Trump’s “medical” recommendations for citizens to take household disinfectants by injection, or his blaming the California wildfires on an insufficient amount of preventive “raking.”
Credo quia absurdum.
Unambiguously, Israel stands warned. In all complex matters of world politics and foreign policy, this president has been operating ad hoc, without any considered plan or doctrine, lurching fitfully, from one inane whim to another, and without sturdy analytic moorings. Whatever the subject, Trump navigates precipitously, jumping from one crisis to crisis, always without an elementary grounding in theory, ideology, or science. Like his appointed and uniformly obsequious subordinates, Trump reads nothing, quite literally, nothing at all.
There is more. For Jerusalem, the cumulative security consequences of any Trump-induced regional disorder could be especially far-reaching and potentially irremediable. By stubbornly assuming that this US President actually has Israel’s best interests in mind, or that he could conceivably figure out what those interests might actually be, the Jewish State could quickly find itself dealing with progressively debilitating regional crises generated by Washington. To wit, it is clear that the President’s earlier April 2018 attack against Syrian chemical warfare facilities had very little impact upon Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal dictatorship, and that it further emboldened various anti-Damascus regime insurgents with jihadist orientations. While these insurgents were eventually crushed by al-Assad’s armed forces – hardly a victory for democratic rule in Syria – matters could reasonably have gone the other way; that is, to what was then a pro-ISIS operation. Also worth bearing in mind in Jerusalem today is that Donald Trump remains beholden to Vladimir Putin, and that he would never do anything concerning Israel and the Middle East that did not first comfort with the expressed preferences of his Russian “counterpart.”
Why would this be the case? Among other things, it’s about time that America’s allies began to ask themselves exactly this vital question. On its face, it is a question that would have been incomprehensible during the administration of any preceding US president.
There is more. Always, history deserves its appropriate pride of place. Since the seventeenth-century, the core structure of world politics has been consistently anarchic or “Westphalian.” But anarchy means “only” the absence of any central government. To unravel still-expected external effects of the rancorous Trump presidency, Israel would soon need to prepare more systematically for relevant “centrifugal” foreign policy developments. Linguistically, any such condition of geo-strategic disorder would then be identifiable as chaos.
For Israel, a true condition of chaos could be substantially more threatening than “mere” anarchy. In virtually any still-expressible form, this condition could play havoc with even the best laid plans of nations. From the critical standpoint of Israel’s military operations, it is a constantly unpredictable, frightful and ever-changing correlation of forces, one that could easily impair all “normal” and potentially indispensable national security preparations. This intolerable impairment could arrive suddenly, as a dissembling “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attack, or less discernibly and much less dramatically, in tangible but de-facto unforeseeable increments.
A prophetic example of the latter would be a series of critical Israel policy missteps generated by the confused US presidential thinking and expectations in Washington.
There is more. This now-impending chaos is meaningfully differentiated from the more “normal”disorder associated with Carl von Clausewitz’s (the nineteenth-century Prussian military strategist) “friction” and the “fog of war.” This Trump-boosted chaos describes a deep and systemic level of unraveling, one that could rapidly create unprecedented and residually primal forms of international conflict. It follows, for Israel, that regional chaos could quickly and conclusively smother any still-simmering hopes for some cumulatively gainful “Trump Effect.”
At best, the US embassy move and the UAE “peace” agreement will prove to be of small tangible consolation to Israel. At worst, these
“rewards” will be responsible for accelerating anti-Israel passions and policies, including new waves of Palestinian terror in Judea. Samaria (West Bank) and Israel proper. Ironically, any such new instances of Palestinian terrorism could hasten rather than hinder the creation of a Palestinian state, an outcome that could generate variously ominous synergies with Iranian nuclear weapons development. Also worrisome, in this regard, is that once such creation had become a fait accompli, Israel would likely experience new incentives to accept certain “anticipatory self-defense” options.
Wittingly, many states in world politics, not just Israel, must now acknowledge the increasing risks from increasingly plausible forms of nuclear conflict. In this connection, Donald Trump’s sorely evident incapacity to suitably manage a nuclear crises, and/or to control any more-or-less related military escalations, is difficult to dispute. Should this US President ever fail to prevent just a single escalation from ongoing crisis to nuclear warfare, the corollary effects would palpably impact several other parts of the world. These effects would arrive in the form of prompt/immediate or latent physical casualties, and less conspicuously, as the evident cause of certain unique (social and economic) misfortunes.
There is more. World politics is not geometry. In world politics, where synergies are often involved, the whole can be even greater than the simple sum of its parts. For Israel, going forward, the most obvious chaos-generated perils could concern (1) escalating violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya and/or Syria; and (2) near-simultaneous deteriorations in the still-ongoing Iranian nuclearization or in the many-sided Palestinian insurgency. Facing these prospectively intersecting or synergistic perils, Jerusalem is already well aware that the Hashemite monarchy in neighboring Jordan remains vulnerable to assorted new forms of Islamic radicalism, and that the continuously authoritarian el-Sisi military regime in Cairo might not be able to control a re-aspiring Muslim Brotherhood indefinitely. In principle, at least, the Brotherhood could seek to get its hands on weaponized pathogens or even nuclear explosives.
These are not policy problems for the analytically or intellectually faint-hearted. How will US President Trump respond to these bewilderingly complex and intersecting threats in the Middle East? Will it be with some thoughtful intellection and geo-strategic planning, or instead, with spasmodic explosions of random, ad hominem bluster? Extrapolating from the past, the plausible answer is distressingly obvious.
Displaying little reassemble doubt, Trump will continue to function with only a skeletal and constantly changing national security establishment – by intention, one lacking any seriousintellectual gravitas or thought. Never will he effectively fill the still-yawning directorial gaps in senior national governance with individuals of any real and commendable intellectual accomplishment. Never.
Apropos of any derivative “Trump effect” upon Israel’s national security, Pakistan reveals another critical site of area disintegration, one that could quite suddenly transform a “merely” volatile region from simple Westphalian anarchy to more genuine chaos. If the already-nuclear regime in Islamabad should sometime fall toJihadists, all other regional sources of chaotic disintegration would promptly pale into comparative insignificance. For Jerusalem, therefore, it is high time to inquire with recognizable conviction: What would US President Trump do in this sort of grave matter, and how would this expected reaction impact Israel’s security and survival?
Again, this will not be an easy question to answer, but it must be considered carefully nonetheless.
In another presumptively worse case scenario for Israel, assorted Jihadists, emboldened by multiple expressions of Trump administration confusion and indecisiveness, would take either singular or “hybrid” control in one or several of the more plainly unstable Arab and/or North African governments. Ultimately, these “martyrdom-driven” leaders could acquire certain game-changing weapons of mass destruction. This prospect, even if the acquired weapons were all to remain non-nuclear, should bring to mind the fearful scenario of a “suicide-bomber in macrocosm.”
Also worth noting here is that a Jihadist “hybrid” could be entirely a terror-group amalgam (no direct state involvement) or an asymmetrical alignment between a particular terror-group/groups and a kindred state.
With the expected advance of expected Trump-enhanced chaos in the Middle East, Israel could sometime 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 Shiite Hezbollahin Lebanonand/or to Palestinian Hamas 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 seventeenth-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 one of genuine chaos), these decentralized relations are nonetheless more tolerable than the condition of individual human beings living in anarchy. This is so, argued Hobbes, because nations lack the capacity of individuals to utterly destroy one another.
This distinction is no longer meaningful. Thomas Hobbes 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 Westphalian anarchy of international relations to an authentically Hobbesianchaosof “nature” that would exist between individuals. Here, as more and more nations came to share what Hobbes had called a “dreadful equality,” a more-or-less symmetrical capacity to inflict mortal destruction, the portent of regional nuclear calamity could become correspondingly more likely.
In “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats wrote of a time in which “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Succinctly, the celebrated Irish poet had then revealed what continues to elude historians, diplomats, statesmen, and scholars:In the not-too-distant future, there could arrive a moment wherein there would be no safety in numbers, treaties, or armaments; no help from “civilizations;” no counsel from public authority; and no last-minute rescues from science.
Such an apocalyptic “moment,” one now being made more likely by America’s manifestly ill-prepared president, might rage for a long while, perhaps until every flower of human culture had been trampled and entire human communities had been ground insidiously into the dust. From this seemingly resurrected medieval darkness, from this foreseeably Trump-facilitated chaos, there would be neither escape nor sanctuary. Rather, like the “America First” or “know nothing” illiteracy that Mr. Trump has been championing within the United States, it could envelop entire regions of our world in a single and suffocating pall.
For Israel, the prime inheritor of Genesis, any Trumpian chaos portends unusual and paradoxical kinds of national fragility. As a relentlessly beleaguered microstate, Israel could sometime become (depending upon the precise extent to which it would have allowed itself to be manipulated and misguided by US President Trump) the principal victim of an even more- rampant regional disorder. 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 hideously triumphant global chaoscould still reveal both sense and form. Generated by reinforcing explosions of mega-war and mega-terror, further Trump-induced disintegrations of world authority would then assume a revealingly discernible shape. But how should this unique shape, this sobering “geometry” of chaos, be suitably deciphered and usefully 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 Donald Trump should make certain profoundly irrational decisions? What would this mean for Israel? Scientifically, there is no reliably analytic way to make any such probabilistic predictions (because scientific probabilities must always be calculated according to the determinable frequency of pertinent past events), but this significant prospect is still altogether conceivable.
The whole world, like the individual nation-states that comprise it, is best understood as a system. By definition, 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 act of unconventional terrorism, the unraveling effects could become immediate and overwhelming.
The State of Israel, a system of interdependent and interpenetrating parts like every other state, exists precariously in our 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 should 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 in Leviathan had earlier called a bellum omnium contra omnes, a “war of all against all,” Israel’s leaders must prudently consider just how they should respond to any future national life in a global “state of nature.”
These would not present reassuring or pleasing forms of analytic consideration.
There is more. Such eleventh-hour considerations could be 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, nuclear attacks against Israel. In these times of biological “plague,” the specific actions of any microbial assault would be largely unpredictable but highly consequential.
Any chaotic disintegration of the regional or wider-world system, whether slow and incremental, or sudden and catastrophic, would impact the Israeli system. Accordingly, during the intellectually and morally unprepared Trump era, Israel will have to more expressly orient its military planning doctrines toward 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 residual and core plans for national security from any purported “breakthroughs” advanced by Donald Trump.
Even if he is defeated at the polls in November, Donald J. Trump will remain president of the United States until January 20, 2021. During this uncertain period, Israel will likely run some of the same security risks that imperil its much larger American patron. Here, just like the United States itself, Israel should bear in mind the astute warning sentiments expressed by Creon, King of Thebes, in Sophocles’ classic play, Antigone. As it remains predictable that Trump will continue to place his own presumed personal interests over those of the United States in toto, any ritualistic Israeli following of the US president on national security matters could prove both legally incorrect and strategically misguided.
In essence, with such intersecting errors, Israel’s unflagging “loyalty” to a willfully incoherent American patron could bring that country a bitterly new version of lamentations.
The rest is silence.
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 Modern Diplomacy